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The View from White Oaks

Lauren R. Stevens: Looking back at summers on Long Island Sound, the issues of the day then are still with us

When I was young, my family stayed summers in a cottage on Long Island Sound in Clinton, Conn. Although I of course was oblivious, all about us were the issues of the time that are still with us today.

Toward the end of the 19th century, my grandfather, an insurance broker, drove his horse and buggy south from Meriden to find a shore place. He chose Clinton over Madison as the better investment because it had a harbor — although Madison turned out to be tonier.

sand inspection

Columnist Lauren Stevens inspects the deposition of sand below the family cottage.

Photos of our house before the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, which arrived just four months after my arrival, show ample sand and a grassy bank on which the house sat. Sand protected the bank, provided a resting place for the rowboat and a soft footing for swimmers.

After the storm, jetties were built to collect whatever sand they could, and the bank was armored by a stone and cement seawall.

During World War II, fighter planes flew over us low, heading for a target area off shore. Oil tankers passed by. Dad, who had a noncombat injury in World War I, worked weekdays in Philadelphia and came up by train on weekends. Just as we had to save our rationed gasoline in the winter to be able to drive to the shore, so in the summer we had to save up in order to be able to drive home. That’s why my mother once wheeled her wheelbarrow two miles into town to replenish the kerosene necessary for our space heater.

What my grandfather couldn’t have known — and I didn’t figure out until I was older — was that our cottage was perched on a portion of the barrier beach that lines the Atlantic coast from southern Maine to Florida. That’s why we had to cross a bridge to get there. The barrier, which protects the mainland, is supposed to move around, which is what we were trying to prevent after ‘38.

So, as successive storms rolled across New England, we had to continue to reinforce and enlarge the seawall. Added energy from warming water increased the force of the ‘38 storm and later storms; and, as the water heated and ice caps melted, the water level continued to rise. In other words, climate change was already happening.

At the same time the sandy beach was disappearing under rising water, and rearranged by the whims of winter storms, mud flats were building up below the low tide mark. They had at least one functional use. Before a race, my older brother could bring our wooden, keeled sailboat onto one of them as the tide went out, in order to scrape off the barnacles from the boat’s bottom before the tide rose again.

The mud flats were the result of erosion and the loss of agricultural soil in the Connecticut Valley from Coos County, N.H., to Saybrook, where the river enters the sound. Currents swirled it around and deposited some of it before our house. Then, the flats were alive with clams, crabs and other creatures, but pollution ended that long before we sold the cottage. As a matter of fact, when I was growing up, lobstermen set their traps in the protected waters between our house and Duck Island; pollution and rising sea temperatures ended that before I got out of high school. Oh, and the warming waters brought red-centered, stinging jelly fish to make swimming a touch hazardous.

My memories of summers at the shore are full of sunshine, salt spray, laughter and corn on the cob. Loss of agricultural soil, the climate crisis, pollution of the ocean and the exigencies of war — in retrospect, they were also part of the story of spending summers by the sound. I wonder if we are willing to wheelbarrow for any of those causes now.

At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

Writer and environmentalist Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.

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