When I was little, my family and I used to come fishing in the waters around Block Island. We had a sixteen foot Boston Whaler and the six of us children and my parents would trailer that whaler from Moosup, CT, to Point Judith. We could get to Block Island in no time. There were bluefish of course, and also in those years, there was an abundance of cod, in the waters off of Southeast Light. We’d also go clamming in Great Salt Pond. There were so many clams at that time that we could get as many as we ever could use by digging our feet through the sand.
We’d look at the people in the big boats, sipping their cocktails, and watching TV as if they were on another planet. We had no way to even imagine their lives. We’d look up at the big houses. We’d say, “Who needs big houses? We have everything we need right here.” Once in a while, we’d go to Payne’s Dock and get those amazing donuts. And other than that, we didn’t set foot on the island. We knew very little about it. We barely knew what was there.
So years went by and I met Bill and we decided to get married. There was only one problem. We didn't know where to live. We were both still working in Hartford, Connecticut, but there simply wasn't any place we could agree to buy a house. Bill had grown up in the city. I had grown up in a tiny town. I felt best and safest in nature. That was wilderness to him. But we both did love the ocean. The best times of his childhood had been spent on the ocean too. We had started coming to Block Island on our sailboat. Several years before, almost on a whim, Bill had gotten on the mooring list. Bill discovered that if we bought property on Block Island, we'd move to the property owners' list. That's how it worked at the time. Well, as it happened, we'd be next on the list. That was all Bill needed to know.
That’s how we came to Block Island. First to built a house, and then, much sooner than we had planned, to live here all the time. It was the realization of a dream for both of us. Well that’s not true, it was more than a dream, because we had never imagined it was possible. But it was made possible by the people who came and rented our house in the summer. That made a way for me to leave my corporate job where I was working about a million hours a week and take up teaching at the university where Bill was teaching. I loved that job. It also enabled me to become a photographer. I love that too.
I want to tell you about the debt we owe to the generation just before us. They moved the Southeast Lighthouse so it wouldn’t fall into the ocean. They built the school, the library, the airport and the medical center. They made sure all the beaches were open to everyone, night or day, with no parking fees and no special places where only certain people could go. They established a network of hiking trails so you can go all over the island, with beautiful views of the land and water. They preserved for public use, over 40% of the island.
I can work my way around the Island and name a score of beaches and coves. Baby Beach, Fred Benson Town Beach, Scotch Beach, Andy’s Way, Dinghy Beach, Pots and Kettles, Mansion Beach, Clay Head Beach, Cow Cove, West Beach, Charlestown Beach, Grace’s Cove, Dorey’s Cove, Cooneymus Cove, Black Rock, Vaill Beach, Mohegan Beach, Ballard's Beach. You can pick big waves or little waves, sunrise or sunset, sand or rocks or in between, places to swim or places to gaze a the water, beaches with lots of people or beaches with few people or none at all. I can also name so many public lands. Rodman’s Hollow, Snake Hole Road, Clay Head Trail, North Light, the Hodge Property, The Maze, The Turnip Farm. There are more, but here’s what I’m saying. Wherever you go on the island, there will be public land and public beaches, places you can go.
I wish you could have seen my father’s face when he sat in our front yard in his wheelchair because you know that house we said that we didn’t need? We had one. He could sit by the window and see the ocean. He could study the people walking up the hill to Southeast Light. And every day we would drive all over the island I would take pictures of everything we loved. At night I’d put them into the computer and we’d go through them quickly. He’d dismiss each one with a regal wave of his hand. I'd show him a picture. He’d say “Nothing." I'd show him another one. "Nothing." That's how it went. Very quickly. "Nothing." "Nothing." "Nothing." And then there would be something he liked, a blurry wave or the back end of a deer. And then he’d say, “Oooooooh.” And we’d stop and look at it this way and that way. Crop it a little. That was the beginning of my learning about photography.
And when my Dad got sick, people on the island knew about it. These were people who had been through a fair amount themselves, and they knew how to be strong for someone who was having a difficult time. They knew how to stand with a person, and they stood with me like iron. That’s the thing about Block Island, the people, and how important we are to each other. People get to know you, and except for a prodigious amount of gossip and speculation, they know you for who you are. They are not particularly impressed by power or fame. In fact, the worst thing you can say on Block Island is, “Do you know who I am?” That will spread around the island like a rash.
The people make Block Island. People choose to live here or choose to come because the chance to be here matters to them. The chance to be together in such a beautiful place is worth dealing with the crowded ferries in summer, the cold open ocean in winter. The chance to be part of a real community is worth it. You have to want it more than you want convenience, because it’s not convenient at all.
But it’s worth it to me and to a lot of people. The nights are dark and silent. In spring, the air smells like roses. The Southeast Light shines in our bedroom window.
Bill and I have been here for 20 years now. I found work I loved to do here. I became who I most wanted to be here. I was accepted here. I was safe here. I've lived in beauty here. We built a wonderful life here.
If you want a life that’s filled with peace and silence and beauty than this is a place for you. If you want your children to think that the most fun they ever had was splashing in the ocean and then collecting lots of stones and shells to smell up the back of your car all the way to New Jersey, then this is a place for you. If you want to make memories that your children and grandchildren will have for the rest of their lives, then this is the place for you. If you want the chance to go all over the island on all the trails and beaches, to be perfectly free and welcomed to do that at any time of the day or night, if you want to see all the colors that the cleanest ocean and the sky can make together, if you want to be part of a community that takes people as they are, if you want come again and again and if you love and care for it the way that we do, then this island is here for you too.