"The Wrecking Ground, pt. 2" by Lee Huttner
Updated: Jun 25, 2018
"The Wrecking Ground" is an essay told in parts by Lee Huttner. We will be publishing a new part each week on our blog. Stay tuned!
Possibly, the island’s name was inspired by its sunsets, unfurling from the distant horizon into a proud canopy of flame before ceding to purple twilight. Or (more likely) it may have resulted from an Englishman’s misreading of the Dutch word vier, meaning “four,” on colonial maps of New York. Barricading the Great South Bay from the open ocean, Fire Island is one of several thin leavings of erosion, separated by narrow inlets, scrawled along the southern underside of Long Island—hence the possibility that “Fire Island” is merely a bungling of Vier Eilanden,or “Four Islands.” A 1779 English map labels the barrier islands only as “South Beach of Sand and Stones,” deserted rocky traps about which sailors must keep their wits, slipping through the treacherous straits as they enter the Great South Bay, as though navigating between Scylla and Charybdis.
Another theory holds that the name is to be taken quite literally. The waters around New York and New Jersey were fertile whaling grounds during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and crews likely stoked fires along the inlets at night to guide their vessels into the shelter of the bay. Whalers used the stony island as a kitchen of sorts to boil down whale blubber, great iron try-pots set atop gargantuan cooking fires, rendering the animal’s fat into precious oil as noxious clouds of greasy smoke choked the salt air.
A man by the name of Jeremiah Smith was the island’s first permanent resident, and built a house near what is now Cherry Grove in 1795. Smith was a wrecker, a popular, if criminal, profession. Wreckers used fires to lure ships to shore in the night, like the phosphorescent bait of the anglerfish, false lights leading not to the safety of the inlets and the bay beyond, but to the cragged teeth of the rocky shoals. The wreckers then rowed out and plundered the floundering ships, often killing those remaining crewmembers who had not yet jumped overboard.
In 1825, a lighthouse was finally erected on the far western edge of Fire Island, a signal-torch stretching tall above the cordgrass, its whale-oil flame shining miles out to sea, both a warning to and guide for vessels seeking harbor from the pitch dark dead of night.
Fire has its place in the wild. It might be thought of as dangerous, deadly, even unnatural, preying on dry grass and papery bark, a threat to delicate habitats. The scorch marks and blackened scars fire leaves in its wake mar the verdant luster of field and forest. The scorch marks and blackened scars it leaves behind a blight on the verdant luster of field and forest. Yet fire serves an integral part in the biotic harmony of things, evicting invasive species and infusing the earth’s rich loam with vital nutrients.
We humans, too, have learned to exploit fire to our benefit. To steal into the night, set the shore ablaze and wait for the wreck, the plunder, the drowning that must follow.