By Adele O’Grady Botticelli
It was a matter of gravity. Once the bluff eroded, the grey shingled summer house, crowned with climbing New Dawn roses, would fall into the Atlantic Ocean. There was no question about it. The next nor’easter, the next winter winds pummeling the sandy shores of the little island, could tumble the Grande Dame Cottage of New England summer into the surf along with the others.
The only rational solution would be to move the house. Others had done so, finding empty lots, raising the sturdy wooden structures from the sandy soil onto truck beds and obtaining permits to haul them through the narrow roads to new, safe spots. Some even had a lot across the street for just that purpose. Those who had sold their companion lots for profit had a more difficult task to find a suitable replacement, but it was possible to find an inland lot big enough to accommodate the splendid Cottage. But not the Hedges. They were not going to give up their spectacular ocean view to Mother Nature’s persistent attacks.
Outside, the gardens were spectacular. Tom, the gardener, stood surveying his work. His hands were as gnarled as the roots of the bushes he had planted along the perimeter of the property. The newly planted hydrangea bushes, their full blooms bursting with blues of every hue, bounced happily in the summer breeze, braced by the salty sea air. The lawn was a startling green, bright beneath the stark sunny blue sky. Lavender perfumed the air and swayed to the tunes of August.
There was really nothing to be concerned about in such surroundings of beauty and wealth. Tom shook his head. He knew the island like a familiar well-worn book. Eventually, his work would disappear with the bluff as he stated clearly to his client every time he was asked to re-plant, but his employer had other ideas.
Mr. Hedge had called the first meeting of his neighbours to save the homes on the top of the bluff. There had to be a way to stop the sea and the whipping winds from tearing the bluff out from under them all. The captains of industry had met and put their minds to solving the problem. They were wealthy men with unlimited means. They would put a stop to this outrageous natural erosion threatening their summer retreats, no matter the cost.
So, they formed a tax-free entity, filled it with contributions of millions of dollars and found experts in environmental science who would agree with them. Then they would pay them to save their residences, the places that showcased their spectacular success. The sea and wind were no match for their well-honed minds.
The Society for the Preservation of the Sandy Bluff was thus established. Mr. Hedge and his neighbours had already raised millions to execute the strategic plan they had created to fight nature at its worst. So far, the bluff had eroded within thirty feet of the house. There was just enough room to get the moving equipment behind the house. But Mr. Hedge would stand strong in the face of annihilation.
On the beach below, caterpillar ploughs were digging channels. Engineers had convinced the homeowners that placing tubes in the sand would buttress the beach and prevent the dreaded erosion from eating away at the last strips of land protecting the bluff. Over the years, the beach had come and gone, stretching out and shrinking back, depending on the wicked whims of the weather.
The geo tubes were made in India from compounds designed to resist tons of pressure similar to that generated by the ocean waves. The theory was that the buttressed beach would resist the undertow of the ocean and remain partially intact. The theory had worked to a point. There was still erosion, so a second phase was launched to protect the rows of geo tubes. Sand would be imported to replace the sand that had washed out to sea.
As there was a lack of beach, calculations were made to nourish the eroded strand. The environmentalists had long ago tied up the island in regulations, ones that stood in the path of the well thought out plans of ‘The Society for the Preservation of the Sandy Bluff.’ No sand could be taken from adjoining beaches as it would just move the problem down the shore to yet another area. So, there was nothing to do but import the material from the mainland, from far away states with pits which would provide the tons of sand needed to replace what the sea had taken. At last calculation, it would take twenty-seven trucks, once a month, fully loaded with the precious commodity, to be ferried on island and dumped over the cliff to the beach below.
The particular folly of this thinking had not even occurred to Mr. Hedge. It never occurred to him that the plans he and his neighbours had spent millions of dollars to execute wouldn’t be successful. He was after all, the epitome of success, a man who could impress his will on the very landscape around him. Why should the sea be any different?
The dinner party that night was designed to celebrate the progress made to date on the plan to buttress the bluff. Outside, a bright white linen cloth draped over a table rippled in the summer breeze. Here the caterers had set up the bar for the evening. There was every kind of the best branded liquor, lined up like soldiers on the table, ready to be served. Beneath the white clothed table were large basins of ice, with chilled bottles of local artisan beers, the finest rose wines from the Provence and, of course, the best champagne.
Scattered across the lawn between the summer house and the vast expanse of ocean, were round tables adorned with pink tablecloths, wearing their centerpieces of green hydrangea, white lilies and blush roses, delicately accented with baby’s breath. As the guests arrived, the soft air of the summer evening greeted them, its perfume seeming to embrace them. August was the height of the summer season and it filled the bluff with an intoxicating concoction of hot sun and salt water – the very bluff that might one day plunge into the voracious ocean below.
But tonight, all was right with the rich and powerful, perched above the laughing ocean waves, crashing in rhythm below them. The danger only added to the excitement of the evening. As the illustrious guests waltzed onto the perfectly manicured lawn, they filled the evening with their beauty and grace. Men, in pressed navy blazers with crisp white shirts and patterned silk ties, accompanied by women dressed in elegant sherbet-colored linen dresses gradually filled the space between the grey shingled house and the edge of the crumbling bluff.
At the edge of the lawn, Mr. Hedge beckoned others over. Gesturing, he said, “Look, the beach is installed with the geo tubes. You see where they’re uncovered here and there by the last storm? That’s what we will cover with the imported sand.” The men peered down.
One said, “Right. More sand will fix that problem.” He took a sip of the finest whiskey money could buy and sighed with satisfaction, “Great round of golf today. Shot the lights out of the course.”
Another neighbor peered down over the edge of the bluff, straightened up and concurred, “Yes, the course was in great condition. Making progress down there I see. Good to know we’re being protected. I’ve just embarked on a quarter of a million-dollar renovation of my three thousand square foot cottage. Need more bathrooms for the grandchildren. Locals think I’m crazy, but they’re swarming my place for the work.” He took a thoughtful sip of his vodka tonic. “It’s just too complicated for them to understand the plan.”
Another piped up, chuckling, “There’s a reason you’re the owner and they’re the workers.”
They all laughed, short machine gun bursts of sound.
“Well once the beach is saved, they’ll be grateful, I suppose. Look, there’s a whale breeching.”
In the distance, the mythical mammal broke the surface of the swells, his black skin glinting in the fading sunlight. Torrents of the sea poured from his torso as the behemoth of the ocean deliberately turned the magnificent length of his body in mid-air, then dove, slapping the surface of the undulating ocean with a splendid splash. The men fell silent.
Suddenly, Mrs. Hedge trilled, “Dinner is served, gentlemen. Tomatoes just in from the local farm and lobster caught today. Pick up your plates over by the buffet and sit where you like. We’re dining al fresco tonight.” As she waltzed away, the summery blue silk of her dress fluttered in the breeze.
Soon a crowd had gathered at the buffet in the dining room of the house. Candlelight flirted with the dusk, illuminating the abundance of the table. Here were the jewels of summer: plump juicy tomatoes, iridescent golden ears of corn, hot blue-red whole lobsters with claws raised in surrender over the edge of the platter – a summer feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.
“Save room for dessert,” sang out Mrs. Hedge, merrily, as her guests filled their plates with the luscious offerings of ‘Farm to Table’ foods. “Mr. Hedge went into town and got handmade ice cream! And, of course, we have summer berries.”
There were murmurs of appreciation. Tonight, everything on the summer island paradise was paraded before them, the elite, for their delight and pleasure.
The guests walked through the wide, open terrace doors, onto the cooling stone slate, to the awaiting tables, glinting with silver and crystal. The sun was beginning to lower in the vast arc of sky overhead, so torches were lit, and lights suddenly came alive in the centerpieces.
“Look,” a woman called, “just like fireflies!”
The eroded lawn had been turned into a fairytale land of glimmering beauty. Upon the bluff, they were the gods and goddesses of the island, heedless of nature. Yet the mischief of the natural world was there, just beneath their well-heeled feet.
The fog came silently and suddenly, enveloping the landscape with a familiar dampness. The party-goers laughed as the misty tendrils teased them with the reminder, that often, usually without warning, fog ruled the island’s life. The women wrapped their pashminas about their shoulders and shivered. The light in the sky was vanishing and the beams from the nearby lighthouse swept across the foggy sky. Mr. Hedge stood up and invited his guests into the enormous elegant Cottage.
Inside, the guests gravitated to the library. Here many lucrative deals had been concluded by phone and fax. The white aproned island caterers started replenishing drinks inside and offered demitasses of coffee. The library was decorated with exquisite taste, by an interior designer of some renown, who had been flown back and forth for many months from New York City, until the work was complete. She had commissioned a local artisan to make a hand-loomed rug depicting the Hedges’ Cottage on the bluff, especially for the library. The fabrics were soft conservative neutrals and placed around the room were scrimshaw pieces of whale ivory, woven baskets and a sailor’s valentine fashioned with shells from a long voyage at sea. On the shelves were beautifully matched books, bought to fill the shelves with the island’s history.
No expense had been spared to create the appropriate environment for making and managing the money that seemed to accumulate faster than the blades of the green grass on Mr. Hedges lawn. More money than he knew what to do with.
Mr. Hedge tapped his crystal glass to get his peers’ attention. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m happy to tell you that ‘The Society for the Preservation of the Sandy Bluff’ has now raised more than twenty million dollars toward saving the beach below us. In so doing, we are continuing to protect our homes by preventing the natural erosion of our bluff.” A wave of applause filled the impeccably tailored library. “So, let’s toast. To us!” He raised his glass.
“To us!” the neighbors exclaimed.
Somewhere in the distance a rumbling began, causing the swallows, nestled in the shiny thick privet bordering the property, to take flight.
“Now,” stated Mr. Hedge, “I’d like to take the opportunity to address a new concern.” The room quietened. “It seems some damn environmental activist group has decided to sue ‘The Society for the Preservation of the Sandy Bluff’’.
Murmurs of dismissal filled the room. The men winced as if mosquitoes had landed on their faces. Mr. Hedge continued, “The executive committee met earlier today, and we are recommending hiring counsel to counter sue. Our project is being interpreted as disturbing the natural order of the elements which, of course, those upstart environmentalists want to allow.” His words were greeted with laughter. “As you know, these nuisance suits can be costly to defend, so each of the homeowners on the bluff have given one hundred thousand dollars apiece to start. We will retain the best counsel available and keep you all posted. Further, once we have proved that this method of installing geo tubes is effective and will stop the ocean’s progress, we are formulating plans to invest in installing them anywhere. We think there is a global opportunity here, potentially worth billions of dollars.”
The library erupted in applause. Again, there was a distant sound of thunder. The golden retrievers, growling, raised their heads from the hearth.
“So, please be assured that the fight goes on and we intend to win. Thank you.” As Mr. Hedge completed his speech, Mrs. Hedge gave him a peck on the cheek and squeezed his hand. Another rumble sounded a bit closer this time. A finely waxed maple table trembled.
The atmosphere in the library changed. Another slight tremor shifted an elaborately scrimshawed ivory whale’s tooth on the oak desk, ever so slightly. No-one would have noticed the change, but the thunder repeated this time, followed with a bang.
A guest looked out the window.
“What fool is settling off fireworks in the fog?”
Over the fireplace, another bang set the painting of the patrician Mrs. Hedge askew. One of the men set his glass firmly on the table. Other guests started toward the wide-open terrace doors to investigate.
Outside, the fog was drifting away in wisps. A light wind stirred. The caterers had cleared the lawn of all evidence of a party. By the front door, the coquettish centerpieces waited to be escorted home.
Now the tremors could be felt beneath the surface of the groomed lawn. The blades of grass, standing at attention, started to tremble with the movement of the ground. The sprinkler system went off, sending a well-dressed woman, clad in summer sandals, running across the lawn, clutching her fashionable woven straw purse to her chest, to leave by the garden gate.
The golden retrievers were barking loudly now. The grey shingled house began to tremble, the round window pane under the eave cracked, looking like a burst blood vessel in an eye. The house swayed as people ran across the lawn, dispersing into the foggy night through the garden gate, through the privet, back through the house, anywhere they could find an egress.
Mr. Hedge advanced to the edge of the cliff. He saw the glimmer of light from a faraway plane. The fog over the vast ocean was lifting. Before him stretched the seeming infinity of the ocean’s horizon. He turned his back on the enemy and watched his house shiver and shake. All the care and pride he had lavished on the grey shingled Cottage seemed for naught in this one moment, as it was in danger of crashing to the beach below at any second. It was impossible to believe. He strode toward his summer home, but was stopped by a fissure, opening in the ground beneath his feet. He fell. No one was left in the yard. He stumbled to his feet and advanced. A few cedar roof shingles shot from the roof, glancing loudly off the slate terrace. Another cracking sound came from a picture window, ready to shatter as its frame began to compress. The edge of the bluff was moving now, closer and closer, chunks of earth bouncing heavily down the cliff face, followed by more and more pieces of the sandy bluff.
Turning, Mr. Hedge watched in disbelief as the edge of the cliff moved closer to him. His golden retriever pulled at the leg of his master’s khaki pants. Mr. Hedge started to run toward the gate, the edge of the cliff seeming to chase after him. The gate slammed behind him as the edge of the bluff reached the hydrangea border, uprooting the bushes and carelessly tossing them aside to reach the Cottage itself. The terrace of slate buckled from the pressure, the house leaned to peak over the newly torn edge.
Then as the Cottage leaned toward the ocean, the tremors suddenly stopped. One brilliant white shutter swung haphazardly from a nail. The lights were still on. The night was clear and the sound of the ocean waves crashing below punctuated the silence. Outside the house on the lane, Mr. Hedge and his guests stood in shock.
Then, suddenly a cheer went up.
“It worked!” they cried. Some shook Mr. Hedges hand clapping him on the back. “Good man!”
As they dispersed into the night, the Cottage creaked and settled once again. Mr. Hedge went in. He turned out the downstairs light. He’d have Tom order more sand tomorrow. He’d have to deal with the Chief of the Town Fire Department, who would want to cordon off the area. He looked out at the ocean under the rising moon, its silvery beams painting an imaginary path of light on the surface of the water. Below the bluff, the ocean’s relentless waves crashed on the beach.
The Cottage beams groaned.