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Arctic Visitors

Posted on: January 10th, 2014 by sheriffsmeadow

Arctic Visitors

The blizzard began on a day that dawned a leaden gray. Soon the snow began to fall, and the wind blew, and throughout the day, the clouds gathered and the storm grew.

The island prepared. School was dismissed early, and school buses made the rounds on roads that were now covered with snow. Cars crowded the parking lot of the Stop & Shop, and inside the store, friends and neighbors jostled shopping carts through the aisles, and queued in long lines at those registers that were open. I returned home in the afternoon to join my family, stacked firewood on the front porch, and lit a fire in the wood stove. Darkness fell as the winds howled. I took a final look toward the northeast, at the belly of the storm, which the distant lights of the airport had caused to glow. Then I turned back, and closed the door, and shut out the storm.

A house exists to provide shelter. At no time is this fundamental purpose more clear than during a blizzard. Though outside a battering northeaster raged, inside, the house was warm, and a fire blazed in the woodstove, and the lights of the Christmas tree cast a warm glow. The children slept that night in the living room, snug in sleeping bags between the Christmas tree and the wood stove. I settled myself in a rocking chair, and the children drifted off to sleep to Longfellow’s “The Building of the Ship:”

Build me Straight, O Worthy Master.
Staunch and strong, a goodly vessel,
That shall laugh at all disaster,
And with wave and whirlwind wrestle.

By morning, whirlwinds of snow spun across the plains of Quansoo, and the blizzard tearing across the island had whipped waves out of the still-unfrozen waters of Black Point Pond. Crested drifts rose on the lee sides of the tall bunches of switchgrass, and wells formed around the trunks of open-grown trees. The snow itself was light, and dry, and could not be packed, even if the winds would allow it. In snow-covered cedar boughs, a male cardinal and two female cardinals perched on the branches. A black-capped chickadee darted from one cedar branch to another, and a couple of doves stood in the wind-scoured well around the tree, out of the snow.

In the open, the frigid gale scoured the fields. The wind stung the face, and froze the hands, and demanded that the skin was covered. Yet by mid-morning, off to the south, above the bare branches of the oaks and hickories, the sun had begun to glow, appearing as a bright gray spot among the darker gray clouds. By noon, the snow had stopped, and the sun had emerged, shining in a sky of brilliant blue color and freezing cold air.

The new-fallen snow makes everyone an explorer. Anyone setting out can be the first to break a trail, and to discover a landscape that has been transformed. We bundled up in scarves and coats and layers of wool, and then set forth. In the shorn fields, a stubble of straw protruded from the snow, as wind had swept some areas of open ground nearly bare. At times one would stand upon firm, frozen ground, while at other times, one would plunge up to the knees in the snow.

The woods, however, offered shelter from the wind, and here some eight inches of snow had piled beneath the bristle brush layer of huckleberry shrubs. Limber viburnum stems arched over backward, while snow, sometimes four inches deep, perched on the bent branches and stems. The northern sides of oak trees bore a layer of white, seeming as if the storm had smeared the snow on each tree like plaster on lath. In late afternoon, the setting sun first illuminated the woods with a gentle golden light, and then set in a violet blaze.

While the sun was setting, I took off my gloves for a few minutes. I was testing a small stove that burns pine cones and twigs, and uses the heat from this little fire to charge a phone. I learned that the stove works, but I also learned that, in this weather, just a few minutes sans gloves was all it took to make my fingers completely numb.

It soon became evident that the snowy owl was not the only Arctic visitor to Martha’s Vineyard this winter. The other visitor has been the Arctic weather, whose cold is just as piercing as the owl’s talons. By the following morning, the air was so cold that a sea mist rose off the beach, just as a mist rises from a pond on the cool summer morning.

When one thinks of Martha’s Vineyard, summer is the season that typically comes to mind. We think of days on the beach, and surfcasting, and clambakes. Yet is summer the island season, or is it winter? Geologically, much of the island is a relic of the massive, Laurentide glacier, a heap of jumbled rocks, scraped off New England bedrock, and crushed beneath a thousand feet of ice.

On January days when the thermometer at Mermaid Farm reads minus four degrees Fahrenheit, and when snowy owls in white plumage hunt at Big Bridge, when docks wear skirts of icicles and when the Chappy Ferry captains wear survival suits, thoughts of summer are hard to conjure. The island seems much nearer to its ice age origin. On these days, it is winter, winter alone, that comes to mind.

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