Foghorns Instead of Car Horns
FOR a 10-day period my locale shifted from the island of Manhattan, where I have lived most of my life, to Whitehead Island off the coast of Maine. What a different world. Soft grass paths in place of concrete pavements. Kerosene lamps, not electricity. Wood stoves instead of radiators. Water, not from faucets, but from a well. (How I enjoyed pumping the cool, clear water into pails while gazing out to sea.) The sounds of city life - sirens, trucks grinding garbage, traffic - gave way to the cries of herring gulls, buoy bells, the hoots of an owl, and foghorns. (Before the invention of the foghorn, bells were rung by hand next to the gray, granite Whitehead lighthouse to warn passing ships of the dangerous reefs.)
The 72-acre island is a place of seascapes, fields, bog, and forest. Wildflowers and bushes grow in profusion. Aster, white and pink roses, sea lavender, bayberry, juniper, sheep laurel, meadowsweet, goldenrod, steeplebush. In the bog are found mosses with wonderful names, such as reindeer (you can see the antlers) and pin cushion. Spruce trees dominate the forest. Even deep in the forest can be heard the roar of the ocean.
For me, there were other unfamiliar sights to observe. Monarch butterflies who soon would be migrating south. Lobstermen in their boats pulling traps from the sea. Harbor and gray seals. Cormorants. Eider ducks. A nesting osprey.
In the morning I awakened to the sight of magnificent spruce trees set against the blue sky, instead of towering apartment buildings. My desk was a picnic table covered by a checkerboard oilcloth. At the window I looked out on fields and the sea.
The island provided a portion of what we ate. From the mussel beds exposed at low tide came lunch. Apples from the trees were transformed into a delicious apple crisp dinner dessert. Rose hips from the wild rose bushes became the next morning's breakfast jam.
In the evening we talked and read aloud to each other. The distractions of the city cannot compete with these simple joys of friendship. The kerosene lamps cast a glow of warmth and peace in the room.
In cities, human beings have the upper hand over nature. We are surrounded by human-built structures: buildings, streets, bridges. Nature appears to present no threat.
On Whitehead, the pounding waves can drive large ships against the rocks. Storms and fog bring human activity to a standstill. Tides dictate the times of arrival and departure.
There is, however, one similarity: that universal constant, change. Looking out of the kitchen window toward the forest, my host spoke of the forever-changing landscape. In the city, human change - demographic, economic, social - proceeds apace.
My devotion to the city has not diminished as a result of this visit to Whitehead Island, but the experience left an impact. Upon my return to New York City, standing at 73rd Street and Lexington Avenue, I saw the same full moon above the buildings that I had seen rising over the spruce trees on Whitehead, and reflected on the sea. A sense of loss overcame me. No longer was I stumbling happily along the rock-strewn shore at night with head thrown back and face upturned to the sky.