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The Pink House
Catherine Person

Around the Black Rocks, on their left,
The marsh lay broad and green;
And on their right, with dwarf shrubs crowned,
Plum Island’s hills were seen.
John Greenleaf Whittier, 1841

It is 1925.

Out of the Great Marsh has arisen a house. A house as pink as the blush hued paint of dawn as it spreads like watercolor over the Plum Island sky. Looming lonely over the wide tidal flats, it is a solitary thing, disconcertedly compelling in its very presence. It dwells among the grasses and the reeds, the only taint of human development on the far side of the road which traces the sole path from city to ocean, winding its way through desolate marshland. But this is only a house, not a home: it was never meant to be inhabited or to impose human life on the natural world. It was made to be abandoned, consigned even in its construction to eventually return to the very marshes it was built upon.

This is a house born of spite. It is the legacy of a vindictive ex-husband, contracted during divorce proceedings to construct for his ex-wife a replica of their shared home (Bolick). He built it so it sat on the only feasible dry patch in a sprawling ecosystem of estuary, marshland, and tidal flat. An isolated dwelling wired so salt water runs through its veins, it exists in passive hostility to any person tempted to move in (Coffey). The Pink House never fully disentangled itself from the marshes which it rises only a few feet above. An overgrown gravel pathway leading from its door, easily overlooked, provides the only point of access from the road.

A singular sort of estate moored in the midst of an ecological sanctuary, it remains empty for many years following its construction. Occasionally, some idealistic family moves in, captivated by the romantic allure of the pale pink cupola towering over the Great Marsh below. They fetch freshwater to drink from the old firehouse miles away, the house’s own brackish supply being suitable for nothing save washing up (Coffey). Especially high tides are an unlucky occurrence; they flood the marshland and leave the Pink House stranded from the road. Storms and Nor’easters have the same effect. Still, it is an idyllic life, a nostalgic picture of a bygone era when the untamed wilderness beckoned from the backdoor. Countless artists, poets, and photographers over the years are drawn to the striking building, struck by its haunting beauty and unique story.

The house has sat unoccupied since it was purchased in 2012 by the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, the same organization which has worked tirelessly since 1941 to protect nearly 5,000 acres of Plum Island’s ecologically diverse landscape (Bolick). As the years pass, the Pink House grows dilapidated in its abandonment. Its nominal rose hued paint, imbued with lead, slowly fades and chips, leaving behind only a pale tinge of color. Asbestos and radon lurk malignantly indoors (Bolick). Whipping winds and torrential rains batter the house’s ossature with each storm strike. The new owners make plans for demolition.

It is 2016, and the house still stands. In response to Parker River’s intentions, a movement is organized: Support the Pink House. Hundreds of people campaign for the cause. They rally and cry, Save the Pink House! They design a logo, sell it on t-shirts and stickers. They wield petitions and passion as weapons in their fight to preserve the beloved local landmark. It works: the demolition is stayed, for the time being. The group turns its efforts to finding a new owner for the property, one who would maintain the house in its picturesque seclusion (STPH). The Pink House lives on.

Barely a mile away, the beach houses lining Plum Island’s shore crumble into the ocean. The piers that raise them above the water snap and collapse as wounded soldiers fall to a knee with the force of being hit. Ocean waters lay a long siege to the shoreline, ruthlessly eroding at the sand dunes, wearing down the foundations of the houses who dare too close to the edge. Homeowners pile boulders along the boundary, an action both illegal and necessary, in a desperate effort to protect their property (Gellerman). This is the evidence of climate change that they tell you about, the visible manifestation of a world altered for the worse by human actions. The defeated houses lie half buried in the sand, waiting on a demolition crew to clean up their splintered remains. No petition could have stopped this.

A salt marsh is a wonderful, durable thing. It persists. As sea levels rise, the salt marsh follows suit, climbing its way to a higher elevation. It does so by compiling sediment and organic matter to increase its height in a process called accretion (PIE LTER). The area of the Great Marsh which intersects with Plum Island is composed predominantly of high marsh, ideal for the growth of salt marsh hay, interspersed with sections of low marsh, upon which smooth cordgrass thrives (PIE LTER). It takes a storm or tide of utmost severity to flood these higher areas, which does well for the salt marsh hay, a plant ill equipped to survive in a constant state of submersion. The waters have been rising over the past decades, it is true, but the salt marsh is not bothered: in fact, studies have shown that primary production is nearly twice as great during times of high sea level. The Great Marsh appears to be thriving: plant life is vibrant and flourishing, rare birds swoop and dive over the swaying marsh grass, the tides flow fully in and out as predicted. It is a picture of a perfectly functioning ecosystem.

But even the endurance of a salt marsh has its limits. The rising waters and furious winds pummeling the houses a mile down the road will eventually make their presence known on the Great Marsh. Storms are occurring more frequently and with more force than ever before, contributing to massive erosion and habitat destruction (Gellerman). Sea levels are rising at a rate of four millimeters per year, and the salt marshes simply cannot accrete fast enough. Sediment is washing away just as ocean waters are washing up higher than ever before. Studies have shown that the increase in primary production during high sea levels is misleading: there is a tipping point, and as seas continue to rise, it will soon be reached (PIE LTER). The marshlands, even the high marsh, will be flooded. They will shrink and they will drown, after cannibalizing their own sediment in a futile attempt to rise above the waters rushing in (PIE LTER). The Great Marsh will no longer be a marsh. It will become a long stretch of open water, and it will never be able to return to what it once was.

The year is now 2125. The Pink House has stood for two centuries, but it stands now with seven feet of water rising over the front door (McLeish). A layer of thick mud has settled over the interior floor, and the walls warp outwards, swelling with the water that gently laps at their base. Mold teems along the surfaces of the remnants of ruined furniture. The Pink House is no longer an enchanting portal into a lost time, a glimpse into a past full of passion and glamour. The Pink House is no longer even pink. Instead, it has become yet another fossil of a fossil fueled society, a society too dependent on its own ambition and comfort to think outside of itself. We mournfully add its name to the list of the fallen, a list already populated by all of the Plum Island beach houses, the last of which toppled conclusively into the water years ago.

A lone snowy owl is perched on the cupola, which is now slightly dipped, a portent of imminent collapse. The owl keeps an eerie watch on the still night. At one point, nearly 400 species of birds frequented the Great Marsh (Carson 12). Now, the landscape is silent, absent of the caws and chirps that filled the air in previous decades. The saltmarsh sparrow, one of four native species of birds to breed exclusively in the salt marsh, died out long ago, unable to protect their nests and their young from the swelling waters (McLeish). Other species flew elsewhere, in search of a shrinking selection of habitats hospitable to their needs. Black ducks, blue-winged teals, curlews, and bitterns no longer roam the flats; there are no flats left to roam (Carson 8-13).

All of the flora unable to tolerate a waterlogged existence have died off. The deep purple blossoms of the salt marsh hay that brightened the monotone landscape in early spring have disappeared, drowned under the rising sea. It is no longer there to feed the birds, at last able to rest from their long migration, or to be harvested by local farmers (Carson 11). An unremarkable stretch of uninterrupted water idles where once lay the great marshlands, bustling with life.

As of 2018, the Support the Pink House website proudly proclaims, “The roof has no leaks, there are no cracks in the fountain, her full basement does not flood, even when all of the PI Pike may be covered in water during Nor’ Easters” (STPH). This may be so, but it will not last. As sea levels rise, violent storms increase in frequency, birds leave, and plant species drown, it cannot last. It may take decades, perhaps centuries, but there will come a point when no petition can save us from the consequences of our own actions. The fallen beach houses a little ways away can attest to that.

Works Cited

Bolick, Kate. “Plum Island’s Pink House Inspires a Real Estate Fantasy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/fashion/plum-islands-pink-house-inspires-a-real-estate-fantasy.html. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

Carson, Rachel L. Parker River: A National Wildlife Refuge. United States Department of the Interior, 1947.

Coffey, Jeanne O’Brien. “Saving Plum Island’s Pink House.” Northshore Magazine, 5 Mar. 2016, https://www.nshoremag.com/northshore-home/saving-plum-islands-pink-house/ . Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

McLeish, Todd. “Rising Seas Are Drowning the Salt Marshes.” Audubon 2017 Report Series on Climate Change: Part II, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, 5 June 2017, https://asri.org/about/audubon-report-stories.html/article/2017/06/05/rising-seas-are-drowning-the-salt-marshes. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

Plum Island Ecosystems LTER. Marine Biological Laboratory. http://pie-lter.ecosystems.mbl.edu/ . Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

Support the Pink House. Support the Pink House. https://www.supportthepinkhouse.com/ . Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. “The Exiles.” The Macy Colby House. Macy Colby Househttp://www.macycolbyhouse.org/whittier-poem/ . Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

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