Consider the following as an open letter to Larry Penny, The Star’s longtime nature columnist, my good friend, and an indispensable member of the East End community.
Larry, I’m writing this to encourage you to read “H Is for Hawk,” a memoir by Helen Macdonald. Just came out. It’s a beautifully written meditation on one person’s relationship to the wild, and what “wild” means in our time.
This year we decided on lobsters for Easter dinner instead of lamb. It seemed the right thing after the hard winter, although I’m not sure why. More celebratory perhaps, or because Duryea’s has a great price on a package deal that includes lobsters, New England clam chowder, and either a bag of mussels or Little Necks.
I’m embarrassed for my freezer. It’s pathetic, or it was. So much in and around the house that needs attention after the harsh winter just past. Where do I start? Then I opened the freezer compartment of the refrigerator and it screamed.
A frozen wasteland. A scene from “Dr. Zhivago.” The coldest, most uncomfortable day of the winter, heavy clothes strewn about the house, wet boots, the rattle of the furnace, an old, leaky window — all of it was before me when I opened the freezer door, a diorama of the winter of 2015. I closed it.
I’ve been working on a book. Slow going at first. But, as most writers will attest, once the narrative ball gets rolling, even if it seems at times to be rolling uphill, the work becomes an oasis of sorts, a place to repair to in your mind.
It’s a bit like having the ability to summon a dream, or a semi-obedient genie whose job it is to gather kindling to feed fantasy’s fire, or at least provide food for thought.
It’s 1820, the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Two sperm whales have been harpooned from the small boats launched from the whaler Essex out of Nantucket. A bull sperm whale does not like what’s going on. Enraged, it charges the Essex, ramming her bow twice. The ship fills with water, capsizes, and leaves her crew of 20 to head for the coast of South America a couple of thousand miles away in three boats with nothing but a limited supply of hardtack and very little water. Half die en route, the others barely survive by cannibalizing their fellow whalemen.
We had the opportunity to head for the hills and early Sunday morning we took it: the South Ferry to a sleeping Shelter Island, then we stemmed the tide and a few car-size icebergs over to Greenport on the North Ferry where we bought scones and coffee for the ride to meet the 9 a.m. Cross Sound Ferry to New London, bound for Stowe, Vt.
The winter of 2015 refused to loosen its grip. As a result, cold-weather passions that have lain dormant in recent years returned with a vengeance in the Northeast.
Ski resorts upstate and in New England have not seen so much snow in years. Iceboats have been dragged out of storage and onto Long Island lakes and ponds. One of the more intense winter passions is the otherworldly sport of ice fishing.
Consider ice: It can be a bulldozer that lifts a few thousand pounds of buoy off the bottom and carries it to new location a half mile away. It can be millions of tiny crystalline blades that scalp the terra firma from the face of a bluff. Ice can suck a piling from deep in a harbor’s clay as easily as pulling a toothpick from an olive in an ice-cold martini.
“Cabin fever” does not do justice to our frozen state of mind. True, the Arctic temperatures that have descended on us in recent days have kept us in looking out while the oil burner adds to our carbon footprint and subtracts from our bank accounts. But “fever” is not the right word. I think “numbness” or “ennui” comes closer.