Thursday, January 10, 2013

Settlers' Rock

This is where it began. On a stone placed between a parking lot and a pile of rocks thrown toward the land by the Atlantic Ocean. There are names on a bronze plaque screwed into the rock, blue-green with patina, salt-scoured. Tiny, almost invisible insects dive bomb me as I stand before it, trying to read the names with my dim vision. I keep my mouth closed so I don't swallow one. They throw themselves at my face as if I'm a threat to their existence.

According to the plaque, these people were the first settlers on Block Island. They bought the land from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who had bought it from the Dutch I think, or maybe from a trader who was massacred by the Indians, I’m not sure, or if it really matters. The point is, before that there were no deeds of ownership and squabbles over property lines. All the names on the rock belong to men—righteously Biblical Simons and Samuels. Of course, there were men on the island before them--women and children, too. The indigenous people called themselves Manisees and were connected to the Narragansett tribe on the mainland. Within a hundred years most of them would be gone, wiped out by disease, slavery, and loss of spirit at the death of their culture. This was only 450 years ago. Not long at all when you compare it to the life of a stone, millions of years old. I still feel their presence when I walk the island. I don’t know if the sadness is mine or theirs. I wish I could ask them about the “great dreaming,” as the Gaelic seanchai called it, of this island--what the land itself dreams, passed down through stories over generations in a way that links humans to the hoop of life beyond ourselves.

We do have stories from the settlers. Someone wrote them down at one point, and now we tell each other, or tourists visiting the island, about what happened when to whom as best we know. As the story goes, these settlers listed on the rock, threw their cows overboard to see if they would make it to shore when they reached this northern tip of the island. They did, and their owners followed, hauling their possessions ashore. I’ve heard some people laugh at this story, but I don’t find any humor in it, just the cruelty of a people deluding themselves they had dominion over all creatures on earth in order to take what they wanted without consequences.

There is a dead gull, greasy and ragged in the rocks where I sit, next to Settlers' Rock. I lean around to get a look at the back side of The Rock. It is rough, uncarved. Invisible insects leap at my throat. I put my ear up to it and ask, silently, stone, tell me your story. I feel a pulse against my face, as if the ore inside the rock’s veins swelled like blood vessels, but I’m not sure it’s not the beating of my own heart.

Two old people get out of a white van, stiff-kneed, walk toward The Rock to read it. The man's eyes take me in then move quickly away. A pair of miniature glasses hangs around his belt loop. "These are the original settlers," he says to his wife. "Yup," she says. I want to hand them a magnifying glass so they could see the grains of the stone up close. His wife mutters "1661," gruff and ominous. I notice there is bird shit on the stone's back. I see wild, white streaks of paint, primitive graffiti, thank the vandal gulls,wonder if the town crew cleans the shit off the front for the tourists.

Finally, I see the expected cigarette butts, crammed between rocks close to the ocean. I wonder if they were all smoked by one person. A dozen at least, or if they blew into a crack after being discarded somewhere else. A patch of deflated sea purslane, succulent in summer, has caught the butts, starting to die now that the nights are cold, though the ocean keeps its heat much longer. I used to swim all the way through October, even at night, and some days in November. What happened to make me think the water is too cold?

A Jeep pulls up next to me, circles. Someone says hello to me, then drives away before I have to answer. I look toward the North Light and see the clouds have shifted to let the sun through. Gulls wheel around the tower and disappear on the far side of the dunes. The stories I've been told aren't enough for me anymore.

I want the earth's stories. What hums beneath the pavement and car motors. The old people have reappeared to my right, sitting together on a boulder. Her chin is in her hand, looking down at the ocean. He shifts and says something to her I can't hear. Their white hair glows in the gray light. If I am quiet enough, maybe I'll be able to hear them. Feet toward the ocean, rocks rumble as one as a wave breaks and fills spaces between the rocks I can’t see, shaking the ground, that I realize then, isn’t solid at all.


  1. Thank you! Especially for reading it so quickly! I just posted it!