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Our old island goes solar

We have always been able to hear the birdtalk on the island, even when the generators down at the store are thumping, keeping the ice cream frozen and the cuts of meat fresh. About dusk, some nights, a sketch of wind blowing over us from the sea softens all distant sound. At last, when the trees are gently shimmering, we catch the tiny peeps and jostlings of families settling down on hidden limbs of the maple in front of the porch. A few small engines may be puttering on propane fuel 500 yards away for the television to work, and the big gasoline generators at the store and the restaurant may run all night, but in the darkness of our protected spot between a great stand of lilacs and a ridge of granite the noise is thickly muted. Island sounds rise and shift according to atmospheric conditions anyway, and at night one may hear the bells of channel markers beyond the harbor that were missed during the day, or not notice rackets that seemed overwhelming at noon.

But when we arrived this season on the mailboat we found a pervasive stillness new to us. We soon learned the reason, or at least we think we are not imagining things are quieter: The island is going solar. Angled to fetch in the sunlight, important-looking panels, supported on short metal legs, store up power in banks of batteries stacked under the stairs or down in the basement. Roofs sparkle with them while the songs of birds ripple from hedges and the rosa rogosa. Mourning doves coo from invisible green shelters along the trails. Migrating species seem to take longer resting on our island outpost. They have probably always done so, and we don't attribute our deepened awareness of the presence of birds simply to the turning off of a few generators. But still, solar power joins contemporary ingenuity with ancient sources, returns us to our deepest origins and the awareness of cyclic patterns in the universe. We can easily believe that the sun really does roll around a fixed world. On a long summer evening when the sunset richly enters west-facing windows, light seems to have originated out of silence. But when we walk an across-island trail, before it concludes at a rocky bluff we hear a muffled prelude of surf pouring into the crowded tops of the evergreen forest, a voice bearing the grandly powerful tone of a great organ, a totality of sound born of primal elements.

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So we return to the natural flow of time, using the harvest gathered by day and stored in batteries to be measured out in the evening, for it's a finite supply, not to be squandered. Our quiet hours result from the willingness of others to rely on an energy source requiring frugality. Watching orioles sip from orange halves hanging from a feeder in a sunny yard, we can imagine that such tranquil visitations reflect this muted atmosphere. Doubtless, to year-rounders experienced with too many breakfasts eaten hours before sunrise in the middle of winter, accompanied by the noise of the protesting generator, the solar collecting panels installed on walls and roofs are small cause to philosophize. The basic rhythms of domestic island life proceed undisturbed for anyone who has been used to dissolving the shadows by starting up a machine in the utility shed.

Now, a question yet to be answered is whether oil lamps will remain the perennially favorite illumination for the summer people who have long spurned even generators. Come autumn, they can return to power furnished by the public utilities. Kerosene, five times as expensive as it used to be, is still affordable for lamps, and wicks are trimmed with a little practice. Cracking lobster claws by candlelight makes a marvelous ritual to talk about in January when you're dining in a city restaurant under concealed lighting to embellish the fluttering centerpiece. And walking home after dinner with a borrowed flashlight, the lighthouse beaming once-a-minute scythe strokes of chalky light across the path, one may pass windows that glow more brightly than they did last year. The soft, Christmas card picture of lamplight may be giving way to pragmatic choices. On this button of land stationed in a restless firmament, the household has the time and inner stillness to consider whether a lamp is enough, a candle a satisfactory friend to take down a hallway, or whether, after all, the rights and privileges of modern society enjoin one to watch the world on a screen at midnight.

More light, and silenter, seems to be in our future. At our house we will likely be among those who will have skipped the noisy transition from lamps to television. Our invitation will be sent to the solar genius who comes to adjust and service equipment and visit prospective customers to include our roofs for analysis the next time he comes over on the mailboat.

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