Driving with the visor down

The winter solstice is near. The need to lower the visor even when driving mid day is a sure sign. Today the sun at its noon is 26.5 degrees above the horizon. By the solstice, it will be down to 24.8 degrees. Then both visors will be down. Only the mild temperature is incongruent with the season.

I thought about the earth’s orbit yesterday afternoon while inspecting the Matunuck beach. Even as a measure of time, that’s not what has done the houses in. The South County Independent reported that owners of two of the five Browning beach houses have applied to the town and the Coastal Resources Management Council for permits to tear down their houses, which the paper notes, have withstood the Hurricane of ’38, Carol, Gloria, Bob, and I’d add, more than a century of watching the sun rise and fall with respect to the horizon.

Some years ago, the houses were moved back on their shrinking spit of land away from a rising ocean but closer to the pond. Now there is nowhere to go but away. The blue-trimmed house, its roof sagging from its center line, is already gone. The teal-trimmed houses, ignominiously tied up in yellow police tape, stand precariously on their cracked foundations.

Blue-trimmed gone

Blue-trimmed house, now gone

Harris houses

Teal-trimmed houses, the next to go

Much as I loved those “iconic” houses — as the paper called them, they were/are an anachronism. The recent occupants seemed not to know how to inhabit them appropriately. They behaved more like squatters than like early 20th century beach going families. The miscellaneous plywood sheathing and mountains of sand bags, aptly named “burritos” for their appearance and, accidentally, the cuisine of the laborers who filled them with sand, gave the houses a look of desperation. Squeezed by the tides and the salt marsh, the houses seemed to call out for rescue.


Blue-trimmed house with burritos and plywood in the fall of 2011

The denuded beach is going to be beautiful. And while what’s left of the property may still be privately owned, the newly exposed beach will be a more public treasure.

On the walk back to the car, I passed other private beaches, each with a different character. The Browning beach houses’ immediate neighbor is the Roy Carpenter beach with its tiny cottages tightly aligned in formerly neat rows all facing the ocean. Then my beach club with its open air changing rooms and a central shaded deck. And finally, the town beach structures, more elaborate than my simple club with such features as handicapped access ramps, many damaged in the storm. Is there a way to build temporary structures, tents perhaps, that can be dropped in storms but that provide shade and changing places? What is the minimum that one needs to enjoy the beach?

I was still thinking about that when I read the OpEd pages of the Times in the evening. Andrew W. Kahrl took a different look at private beaches. He wasn’t designing changing structures. His piece called “The People’s Beach” addresses a related problem: the “biggest threat to America’s coasts is not an overabundance of public spaces but its absence.” He favors “dedicating beaches to the states for use by the public…declaring an end to the destructive — and futile — attempts by private property owners to hold back the sea.” Well, yes, those efforts do seem to be futile, and detrimental to the coast.

By the summer solstice when I can drive to the beach without needing to lower a visor, winter may have further reshaped the beach and rearranged the structures we’ve built. I like the idea of a more open beach with fewer structures. I’d also like more public access. I would like a ban on boom boxes, however.

  1. Roy said:

    Well, you “waded” into a hot national topic Susan. Your comment about the Browning cottages being an anachronism is apt. When I was walking after Sandy on “my” beach at Weekapaug (to your west here in Rhode Island) I observed the dune face had been moved about 60 feet to the north, creating a whole new beach area. Closer inspection of what I thought were roots sticking in the air in this new beach revealed they were old water pipes that had served summer
    cottages before they were demolished by the 1938 hurricane. The area had been covered by the dune ever since, thereby creating a look of permanence. The look of permanence for a present-day resident like me only worked because local residents decided never to allow that area to be built on again and so purchased the land for preservation. I found these archeological features very interesting because they were a reminder that so much of the New England landscape we enjoy (or don’t enjoy as the case may be) today bears little, if any, resemblance to past uses – especially agriculture and the early mill and associated villages. For many, I suspect, historical land use is of no concern, which is very unfortunate. But I digress. Regarding our beaches, I am optimistic for the near term here in Rhode Island as I see a fairly clear public recognition that our coastal areas are and will change over the next 50 years. I believe this to be true because most Rhode Islander’s feel pretty much able to equally gain access to the water – the 1% going to Watch Hill, those from Cranston to Scarborough Beach, the middle class to Misquamicut, etc. Because of this relatively “equitable access” feeling I believe “Roe Dylanders” are more willing to address public policy efforts to resolve conflicts between humans and the sea.

  2. Dorie Stolley said:

    Thanks for the update. I am for public beaches, not private. And, I like your idea about the tents.

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