My parents' camp, a peninsula surrounded by acres and acres of protected marsh, is a quiet peaceful spot that has not changed much in the many years we have camped there. When my father and I take a sail, we leave this shallow sheltered bay and sail out to the river, which is deep and huge and busy, filled with motorboats of tourists, islands and islands of summer cottages, and ships moving through the channel, carrying cargo.
In the early morning, even the busy river is quiet as my father and I glide past islands, looking to see what changes have happened since the year before. Winter storms will sometimes send trees crashing down through cottage roofs. The ice can turn the most level dock into some kind of twisted surface that looks like it should be part of a fun house. Memorial Day weekend is when we begin to see the first signs of activity when ownership of an island has changed over the winter.
It's a pattern. The first thing a new owner does after buying an island is to put up No Trespassing signs. Yes, that seems to be the whole crux of private ownership of land: you get the right to keep people off. Next, barges full of materials arrive: cinder blocks, lumber, even truckloads of fill. That summer, the island will be filled with furious activity: all kinds of hammering, drilling, building. Each time we sail past, the structure will be take shape a little more. The roof this week, the windows next week. By the end of the summer, the island will have a new cottage, complete with fancy deck, sturdy dock, new Adirondack chairs. Maybe even a slide into the water.
The second summer, we will see people enjoying the new place: kids playing in the water, a woman reading a book in one of the chairs, a man sunning himself on the deck of a boat. But very quickly, the island will get that deserted look: the house locked tight, the boat covered, no one home. By the third or fourth year, the dock will be empty, the place deserted. The No Trespassing signs will fade and fall away, giving local and summer people the idea that they can swim or fish there with impunity. Eventually, too, the building will take on that abandoned look, the padlocks broken, the place looted. Sometimes the building will disappear altogether, and the island will become one of the uninhabited islands where people like us go for a swim in the deep river water.
But then one spring, a bunch of new No Trespassing signs will go up, and the whole process begins again. Each time, of course, the place that gets built is a little bigger, a little more ambitious, until you have these ridiculously huge buildings on tiny rocks, porches hanging right over the edge of the island.
It's a peculiar phenomena. It almost seems that the more money people spend on a summer cottage, the less they use it. Sometimes we do hear from local people what happened: the couple who owned that island got divorced. The man who built that fishing camp relocated to California. My father, who has been coming to this river for over 70 years, says that people seem to have less leisure time than they used to, that people who work high pressure corporate jobs have the money to build bigger and bigger summer places, but no time to use them. Many come only once a year.
I've got another theory too. It's the snow fort theory.
When I was a kid, I loved building snow forts. After a good storm, we could build pretty impressive structures with tunnels, cave-like rooms, castle turrets edged with sharp icicles, maybe a lookout tower. Playing in the fort meant building it, adding rooms, scooping out tunnels. The fun part was building and creating. We never actually use the fort for anything, just kept making it bigger. With each new snow fall, we got greedier, building the fort bigger and higher, until a thaw would humble us by collapsing the whole thing.
Sometimes I wonder if our culture is based on the snow fort mentality. Always, we keep building bigger, newer houses, buying more stuff, adding on rooms, making new shopping malls -- bigger, better shopping malls -- always growing. Our economy is based on the idea of constant growth, as if our resources were not finite. It's as if we Americans are stuck forever in childhood, always just building and buying new stuff, without any thaw to bring us back to the bare ground.
This is what my father and I talk about as we sail past big stone piers, huge boathouses, and mansion-like summer cottages. But often, too, we sail in silence, each of us shifting our weight in the boat as the wind shifts or we try a new tack. We watch the osprey make an amazing dive to get a fish, we listen to the water gurgle against the hull, and we smile at each other as a gust of wind sends the boat forward, heeling us until the rail is nearly under the water. And soon the thought of breakfast calls us to leave the river to sail back into our own quiet marsh, where the rest of the family are stumbling sleepily out of tents and gathering to eat.