Monday, November 21, 2011

A Last Great Place

I promised one more post about Block Island (also known as New Shoreham, Rhode Island), included on a list The Nature Conservancy started in the early '90s called "The Last Great Places." The single reason this island remains special is that over 40% of it is preserved as open space in perpetuity by the Block Island Conservancy, the oldest environmental protection group on the island. The BI Conservancy, which works to preserve the unique characteristics of the island, also oversees a conservation easement program, which according to its website is a "legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values." This allows landowners to continue to own and use their land as well as sell it or pass it on to family heirs. Mitchell Farm, featured in Robin Langsdorf's Polaroid transfer in my previous post, was a conservation easement purchase of 22 acres in 2007.

Nantucket has a beautiful, cobblestoned Main Street and a whaling history that made many islanders rich. Martha's Vineyard has lovely Edgartown, the Black Dog bakery, and the bluffs. BI's history does not mirror the history of its neighboring islands, and is far less fashionable than either of them. Dutch explorer Adrian Block charted the island in 1614 and the Old Harbor area was named a National Register historic district in 1974. Just a few of the island's other distinctive features are 17 miles of gorgeous beaches -- each different, with its own character, and all free -- and the Greenway trail network -- which includes more than 30 miles of connecting hiking trails -- and the very cool sacred labyrinth (pictured above), off Corn Neck Road with picturesque views over Sachem Pond toward North Light. This labyrinth is one of my favorite places on the island and is little visited, at least in my experience. As you can see from the photo, the labyrinth is a single, circular path that leads to a center bench and then back out again. It is not a maze, which has several dead ends. It is one of BI's quirky little spots, and as a browser on noted, "make sure your stupid, demonic and twice accursed cell phone is off. The labyrinth is a very special and unique place and deserves respect." I applaud this sentiment.

The photo of the staircase and the sea was taken at Mohegan Bluffs, a family favorite, and the other two photos are of the Rodman's Hollow plaque and a view over it. "It" refers to a 230-acre parcel of land that is considered the birthplace of conservation on Block Island. There is a wonderful hike through here and the preserve has the largest population of the state-endangered bushy rockrose in Rhode Island. Additionally, the also-threatened northern harrier feeds and nests here, and the only natural population of federally-endangered American burying beetle east of the Mississippi lives in the hollow.

For an island where there is supposedly not a lot to do, it surprises me that we always leave with a long list of things we didn't get to. This year, because of the hurricane, we didn't get to enjoy tapas on the great lawn of the Atlantic Inn. Or drinks on the fabulous porch of the National Hotel. Or sandwiches at Three Sisters. But at least we had an outdoor, candlelit dinner at the wonderful Manisses Hotel and we had the opportunity to see the new animals at the Abrams family farm (behind the hotel) and pet a baby alpaca. Then there was dinner at The Oar, games of bocce at the house we rented, Blocks of Fudge, Mansion Beach, feeding the ducks at the duck pond...the sparkling, late days of summer are over for the year on Block Island but they are still fresh in my memory. And one of these years I'll visit in the fall, which I'm told is an equally beautiful season.

Friday, November 11, 2011

'Littlefield Farm with Ferry,' Polaroid Transfer by Robin Langsdorf (Robin B. Langsdorf Photography,

I never would have imagined that it would take over eight weeks before I posted again, but then again, I also couldn't imagine that Hurricane Irene would cut my summer vacation on Block Island short (and leave us without power for five days) or that my daughter would need to have her appendix out (she also became a bat mitzvah in the middle of all this!) or that we would have a freak snow storm in October (that again left us without power). Anyway, we're all busy, but rather than continue to list reasons why it has taken me so long to return to my blog, I'll just get started again. I have so many wonderful things to share!

First, back to Block Island: we (my husband, daughter, brother-and-sister-in-law, and nieces)returned to BI for our seventh visit in late August, after not going for two summers in a row, and were reminded of how much we love this island. I've sometimes contemplated beginning a love letter to BI with that somewhat common phrase, "At the risk of ruining a good thing,...."; but I don't believe I have to do that because I don't think Block Island is on the brink of being ruined or is about to receive thousands of new visitors. The islanders have a very strong sense of what they want their island to be, which is decidedly not to be another Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket, which is refreshing. I have been to Nantucket three times in my life and once to the Vineyard, and they are both lovely; but I vastly prefer BI. to me, it reminds me of another one of my most favorite places on earth, Corsica. That may seem incongruous -- a mountainous, Mediterranean island and a relatively flat New England one -- but Corsicans, too, know what they don't want their island to be (the Cote d'Azur, the Italian Riviera) and they are fiercely protective of it.

One of the joys of Block Island is its twice-weekly farmer's market, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. When we first visited, in 2001, the market only had about a dozen vendors, but today there are about twenty-five. There is some island produce, smoked fish, and baked goods for sale at the market, as well as island specialties like Littlefield Bee Farm honey products and Island Mist bath and body products, but there are also local artisans and it is this combination of vendors that makes the market so fun. It's rather remarkable how much time you can spend here after you stop to talk to everyone! Plus, as at other markets around the world, you can learn an awful lot about a place and pick up some great tips.

This year I discovered a photographer, Robin Langsdorf, who displayed her collection of unique Polaroid transfers, like the one featured above. These transfer works are only one project of Langsdorf's -- she's a terrific portrait photographer as well, and her travel work is impressive, too -- but she devotes her booth at the farmer's market to the transfers, which all feature Block Island scenes. (You can see the full range of her work at her own website, above, as well as at the Spring Street Gallery, across the street from the lovely Hotel Manisses and the longest running gallery on the island.) Langsdorf majored in journalism in college and was always very enthusiastic about taking photos, but it wasn't until she was traveling around Nepal and Varanasi, India twenty years ago that she was inspired to "get more serious" about developing her passion for visual storytelling.

I immediately fell in love with the Polaroid transfers, and Langsdorf, too, told me that when she learned the Polaroid transfer process she "began a love affair with this beautiful, painterly, impressionistic photographic art form. Sadly, Polaroid is no longer making this film." I knew I wanted to buy one or two of her images, but was having difficulty making up my mind which ones to choose. So I did something I always, always advise my readers to avoid: I didn't buy anything, figuring I would go to the Saturday farmer's market and decide then. Naturally, there was a hurricane, and naturally, I had to leave the island empty-handed. [Note to travelers: do not repeat my mistake, and adopt my (mostly observed) motto of "When in doubt, buy it now!" The likelihood of being able to retrace your steps to a particular merchant when it is open is slim, and, well, there's always the possibility of a natural disaster. One has regrets only for the roads not taken -- or the object not purchased!]

Before I had to evacuate the island (I didn't really have to evacuate, but it sounds much more dramatic) I did stop by the Spring Street Gallery to pick up one of Langsdorf's business cards, so I was able to get in touch with her later via e-mail, and I'm now the happy owner of the Littlefield Farm transfer above as well as another one of Mitchell Farm, which is, according to the Block Island Conservancy website, "one of the island's most cherished vistas, over 1,000 feet of road frontage with open field landscape." The Mitchell Farm Campaign raised the funds needed to complete an easement acquisition, and again to quote from the website, "those 1,000 feet are as important to Block Island's sense of community as is the overlook at Rodman's Hollow" (more about Rodman's Hollow in my next post). Family member Adrian Mitchell noted that "my values about what is important in life were shaped right here on Mitchell Farm in view of the sea and these green pastures. I want future generations to see this place as I have and be nurtured by it." My transfer prints are in appropriately rustic, wooden frames, and they are daily reminders of my many visits to this special island.

As for Langsdorf, she recently left for Brazil, where she has family members, and she is working on a series of Polaroid transfer prints collaged with photos of her family taken during the early part of the 20th century in Prague. It's set to debut in 2012, and I, for one, can't wait to see it!