I am no longer on Shelter Island. Instead I am writing this from home in Connecticut. But physical distance sometimes provides greater clarity when reflecting on a geographic place, and I am not done thinking about Sylvester Manor.
During my last week on Shelter Island high summer arrived thick and sagging over the northeastern US, and the moderating effects of the Atlantic were not enough to spare Long Island’s East End from the wet dog pall. It is important to realize that working in the sun on a farm is not like being at the beach, even if said farm is within striking distance of the Hamptons. Out in the field, with your neck and back to the sky for eight hours a day, anything over 78 degrees in the afternoon and 66 degrees at night is hot, sticky, and uncomfortable. During my final week at Sylvester Manor, high temperatures ranged between 84 and 90 and never dropped below 70 at night. For the first time in my life I found myself slowing down my speech and bodily movements so as to conserve energy; not just while working in the Windmilll Field, but also when climbing the Manor staircase to my bedroom, where I only had an electric fan for cooling off. Come night I remembered my aunt telling how when she was a girl in the late 1950s her family visited relatives in Missouri in August, where whole neighborhoods would gather at nightfall to munch on watermelon and drink lemonade until it became cool enough to fall asleep (usually sometime past midnight). Lying in bed on the second floor of the Manor with my top sheet flung away and sliding to the floor, I understood why watermelon was my aunt’s favorite food.
Even walking through the boxwood garden between the house and the detached kitchen became a somnambulant chore. On those walks, which most often took place in the late afternoon, I was nudged by breezes that felt as though they had arrived direct from Pamlico Sound or Gullah country. These subtropical drafts were more than just warm; they carried a scent I can only describe as “decadent bloom,” with special emphasis on the Latin origins of ‘decadent.’ Decadere: to fall, sink, to decay. That is, these late day breezes that slipped north across Sylvester Manor were laced with summer’s floral exuberance just as much as they bore the traces of moldering springtime biomass. Any denizen of or traveller to those parts of the American South that have not been sterilized by urban sprawl will know exactly the dioecious musk I am trying to describe.
A green shoot ascending from the previous month’s rot, death begetting life; these are common pastoral tropes because they are the natural ordering of things, and spirit resides in a landscape where the dualities of growth and decay harmonize. But the light of my last evenings at Sylvester Manor is what I really want to tell you about. “My god, the light!” I’d wager good money that sighs and exclamations of that sort have been uttered on countless occasions at Sylvester Manor since the plantation days of Nathaniel and Grizell. Early evenings between the end of June and the first half of August – when the sun reposes at a slant which turns the air to an amber syrup that slicks every surface with grandeur – has probably drawn out the greatest share of wistfulness from the Manor’s residents and visitors. An environmental historian might caution against ascribing aesthetic tastes like an appreciation of the quality of sunlight to different eras. But when I stood rapt on the lanes of the Manor as that deep, deep syrup seeped through overgrown yews and drooping lindens, I could feel the presence of the generations before me who possessed an innate human reverence for beauty. That I beheld the same Georgian dormers from which Julia Dyd Havens Johnson and Isaac Pharaoh once witnessed the waning day, or the same boxwoods that Cornelia Horsford and Alice Fiske spent long afternoons fussing over, made the imprint of those past lives all the more poignant. They said “this light was ours.”
But then the glow wanes in intensity and depth throughout the growing season before fading with the harvest moon. For Joan Didion the dwindling of summer and the ends of things is presaged by the long blue twilights of the northern mid-latitudes. For me the annual decline is signaled by the thick, bright early evenings of high summer, and I could not articulate why until I smelled the breezes of Sylvester Manor. Life on these continents and islands of ours is fecund beyond comprehension. Yet all fecundity returns to humus or oceanic muck, and the amber hours of the warmest months serve as a reminder of that law. The sighed message of, “this light was ours as well” was also a warning: “It won’t be yours forever.”
In retrospect, I’d say that amber light was pregnant with melancholy, with a human forlornness towards the unalterable ways of the world. Because no matter what the last wills and testaments might say, the land upon which we make our living is not ours to claim, not really. Cornelia Horsford must have known that one day her garden would go to seed. Even Nathaniel Sylvester, who parceled out Shelter Island in his will to his sons and sons-in-law so as to establish a cloistered Sylvester colony, must have sat alone in old age one summer late afternoon, possibly with the tidal shush of Gardiners Creek lulling his thoughts , and realized how frail a piece of paper is compared to the stone and water of creation.
All life falls, and we the living borrow our sustenance from the departed beneath us.