No Woods

st. regis treeThis essay was originally published in Place, a Sunday Commentary section of The Hartford Courant: Tearing Down Our Connections to the Past. No Woods

by Luanne Rice

There's a place I know well and love so much that it's inspired many of my novels. The beach is embraced by two rocky points of land jutting into Long Island Sound, glacial moraine studded with tall pines, scrub oaks, and black walnuts. Small cottages, most built during the first half of the last century, nestle into the landscape. They have a simple, rustic grace and have withstood many storms, including the epic hurricane of 1938. Surrounding trees give shade, and a constant breeze blows, even on summer's hottest days.

My parents met there. My grandfathers—one a Harford Police officer and the other a New Britain ice cream man—built their cottages. Neither family had money; the structures are modest. Nature and the beach took center stage.

Not everyone feels the same sentimental attachment I do, but it's impossible to drive down the road and not see the beauty. There's a symbiosis between nature and the man-made, a way the cottages settle into contours of ledge, among stands of native trees and bushes. Unlike any other place in Connecticut; it has the feeling of coastal Maine, truly a place that time forgot, and even as I write this, I find what just happened to be unbelievable.

Last month there was another tear-down. The oldest cottage, built in 1901, is now gone, the tall trees that filled the property cut down. The barn up by the road was leveled. The sloping land is being graded. Soon, in place of the cottage, there will be a large house with a two-car garage.

Welcome to the suburbs.

The area is called Point O' Woods, but now it might as well be called Point O' No Woods. The new houses have air-conditioning—who needs the sea breeze, and who needs shade? Instead of the rustle of leaves overhead, walk down the road and hear the low, constant hum of a big air-conditioning unit.

The torn-down cottage originally belonged to Helen Hubbard. Her surname gave the name to my fictional beach town. Helen was an opera singer, and the head of the voice department at Hartt School of Music. One of my favorite memories was waking early to the sound of her singing scales down the hill, across the street. The notes would rise and fall and mingle with sounds of nature—gulls, migratory birds, the breeze, waves breaking on the rocks.

Helen would hold concerts in her house, inviting neighbors to listen and share their own talents. My mother would show her paintings, others would read poetry, a cellist from Hartford would play. Helen taught some great people, and they would come to her house, and we'd hear them sing: Lee Venora was one, Dionne Warwick another.

The cottage itself was a jewel. Shingled, with a high-ceilinged living room and a great stone fireplace, snugly fit right at the edge of the moraine, looking straight across the Sound. Helen had planted a thick, bright row of yellow and orange day lilies along the seaward side of the house. Those lilies lasted for decades; passing by in boats, they were lovely against the blue-grey shingles, pretty as a painting, something by Childe Hassam. That's my memory. It's personal. Maybe it has nothing to do, in the larger sense, with what just happened—the house is gone, a new house will be built. The trees have been cut. Time moves on. A place changes. It's a violent change, one of destruction. And with it go the lilies, and the trees, and the cottage itself, and with it goes the character that gave the landscape such singular, magical grace. I feel very sad about it.