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Reading the Lake: After 30 Years, a Sanctuary is Threatened

By Roberta Israeloff

We didn’t meet our new neighbors at the lake until Labor Day weekend. Standing next to a blazing bonfire he’d built in a steel drum, Walter beckoned us over and introduced himself. His large belly, constantly moving eyes, and untrimmed, iron-gray goatee gave him a grizzled look—a little like a retired fire chief, and a little like a wild bear. He chewed on a toothpick as he tossed pieces of cardboard into the fire.

“I’ve waited my whole life for this view,” he said, indicating not just his shoreline but his yard, much larger than ours and studded with century-old pine trees, which we’d come to love over the years. Liz and Martin, who’d owned the cottage previously for 40 years, had let us use their dock and beach. Because they spent so little time there, we’d mentally annexed the property, turning our small sliver of land into a compound.

“You have a nice little yard, too,” he added, surveying our property, his toothpick migrating to the other side of his mouth. “But you gotta get rid of that tire swing.”
My husband David explained that our boys, now men, had spent hours leaning over that cheap plastic donut, now mended with duct tape and attached by a fraying rope to a tree just outside the kitchen window.

“My grandkids are gonna be swarming all over the place around here,” Walter said. “And we’ll be here year round. I’m adding a foundation, raising the house. When you come back next year, it’ll all be different. Them trees, they’ll be gone.”

David picked up his guitar and went out on the deck to play, his way of digesting the conversation with Walter. I went down to the dock where I simply sat by the water, as I often did, hoping the scenery would indelibly imprint itself inside me so that later, when I undergo some kind of medical procedure, or one of my sons calls to say he lost his job, or my elderly mother falls and breaks a hip and some well-meaning person says, “Calm down and think peaceful thoughts,” I can think of this landscape: the forested hillside across the lake, the lake as it flows past the dock, gurgling and lapping against the pebbles and mossy boulders, the kayak’s creak—and the pine trees.

For 30 years, those trees protected our little cove, screening out the sight and sounds of the larger, bulbous part of the lake where people took out their jet skis—those mechanized, screeching rodents, spewing gasoline into the lake, disrupting everyone’s quiet. This had long been our sanctuary, and now it’d all be gone.

Were those trees really Walter’s to fell? Does forking over some money entitle a person to chop down century-old trees? Didn’t they belong, according to some natural law that transcended real estate statutes, not to Walter, but to all of us, to the lake? Or was I simply being selfish?

Embrace the change, I thought to myself, my mantra since turning 60. Maybe we should consider selling the house, especially since our children and aging mothers had lost interest in the place. I’d long fantasized about spending summers here with grandchildren, taking them for walks at the shore, pointing out the moss on the rocks, calling their attention to the lap of the water, teaching them how to kayak. But no grandchildren were imminent; my sons appeared resolutely single. Not everyone has grandchildren, I reminded myself. Property changes hands. Strangers sign papers and become neighbors. You have to know when to move on.

Bugs nipped at me as the moon rose over the far hillside. David had gone inside. Walter’s bonfire, I noted as I stood, glowed strange neon colors, blues and greens. What the hell is he burning? I wondered, giving the tire swing a poke. I’d spent hours pushing the kids on it, and eyesore though it was, I couldn’t bear to take it down.


No one was around when we pulled into our driveway. David and I hadn’t been at the lake midwinter in years. But since we were on our way to visit friends in Vermont, I convinced him to stop by. If we were really going to sell the house, I wanted to see it, however briefly, in every season one more time.

Walter’s house looked like a construction site with Tyvek lining, nails, tools, and sawhorses strewn about in the snow. Somehow, a concrete foundation had been poured into the shallow hillside raising the house, just as he’d described. But the trees, I noticed, were still standing.

Together, David and I walked down to the lake, its currents flash frozen into countless ridges. “When the water flows to the right, it means fair weather,” the former owner of our house had told us when my in-laws bought it from her, “and the other way means rain.” I couldn’t tell in which direction these icy ridges were pointing. Over the years, this meteorological method had proven basically accurate, and reading
the lake was the first thing I did each morning.

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