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Wise Women of Nantucket

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

I sat at our kitchen table on Nantucket Island recently with my 94 year old mother, Jano Bell Sutherland Fairservis, on the right, and my 90 year old, Auntie Barbara Sutherland. A recent portrait painted by my mother of my 16 year old son, sits on an easel behind them. These two women have lived long and beautiful lives, and have spent many summers out here on Nantucket, deeply loving the land and the sea. They shared stories with me about the history of our little kit house, Toad Hall, that has barely changed in more than 100 years. As storms blew hard and real estate boomed our little house has stood intact and cozy through it all. This place and these women are full of stories and the wisdom that comes from living a long life. Even as the changes of time have transformed them on the outside, the vitality of life is clearly pulsing within them.

We talked in particular about Polpis Harbor that is not far from Toad Hall. The harbor looks the same as ever with an expanse of big blue water, sand, and boats, but the life in the water has diminished to just a few of the wondrous creatures that used to live there. Within their lifetime these women have witnessed the vital abundance of this precious estuary slowly disappear, and I have too. We shared about all the wondrous life that used to teem from the clear frothy waves. Shells from clams and scallops used to make walking barefoot at Polpis impossible, so we had a bucket of old sneakers in the garage to wear into the water, for our clamming, fishing and crabbing adventures. Nighttime walks with a flashlight revealed thousands of squid. Horseshoe crabs and conch would crawl in and out of the water with the tides, and millions of hermit crabs and minnows danced in the ever present sway of sea grasses and sea weeds along the shore. The boats that harbored there were mostly sailboats, their ropes clinking sweetly in the wind. Now there is just mud and sand that smells like sewage, and big motor boats silently leaking fossil fuels into these once pristine waters.

A sadness passed through all of us at the table as we reflected on the shocking contrast. A kind of bewilderment rose up in trying to imagine how people could not care about life to this extent. That having a big green lawn, outdated sewage systems, and fossil fuel driven vehicles, is more important than the precious life of billions of creatures in the sea? Not to mention the creatures and plants of the land, and the ways of the old fishermen and the first peoples, who knew how to relate to the sea and land sustainably. Perhaps it is because the people who come to the island now never knew how abundant it was, so they do not feel the shock. Only those who have been here more than 50 years know in their bones what has been lost.

My mother and Aunt know that change is inevitable, as with the seasons, tides, and birth and death. But life on Earth needs a home, an estuary that is safe and nurturing of the transformation of eggs and seeds into creatures and plants that live out their ancient ways; going out to sea and back again, migrating or standing stead fast on the shore leaning into the wind. These women are like estuaries, creating their children in the salty waters of their wombs and nurturing us all to return to this amazing place and to take special care of it.

My son and his generation now must face the horrific costs of fool hardy decisions not made by them. My mother and aunt offer seeds of hope in their remembering the abundance that comes from protecting the estuaries where life begins. When we make clean spaces for life to thrive we can create the paradise that was once our birthright. Nantucket is certainly one of those places that we all call paradise, where true wealth arises from living in harmony with the ways of nature and her infinitely beautiful offerings. Perhaps it is time to set clear parameters based on the rights of nature? Nature must come first for us to survive into the future.

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