It was a beautiful afternoon. The sky was an unblemished blue and Rockland Harbor was as flat as an ironed sheet, a perfect afternoon for a walk on the breakwater. After all, I had waited in line for some time to cast my vote that Tuesday. With a sense of a job well done I decided to set out on the nearly mile-long walk to the Rockland lighthouse.

Midafternoon in November means the sun is low in the sky, many degrees south of its northern highpoint in June. Its angle causes deep shadows to stretch out across the granite blocks that comprise the Rockland breakwater. The stones were brought there over a stretch of 20 years back in the late 19th century. Rockland’s commercial interests at the time all revolved around shipping. The city shipped quicklime, drawn from the limestone quarries that circle Rockland and burnt in the 80-plus kilns that ringed the harbor. It also shipped granite quarried on nearby islands and the mainland, firewood needed by the residents of bigger cities, canned fish — whatever the industrious citizens could put their hands on to make a living. 

But to do so in all seasons of the year, particularly in fall and winter when fierce storms blew out of the northeast, required a safe harbor. Rockland’s harbor, while large and generally well-protected, is open to the northeast. After several devastating storms in the mid-1800s, the city began lobbying the federal government for construction of a breakwater to protect their vessels. 

In 1880, Congress appropriated $20,000 for the building of a “rubble-stone breakwater for the protection of the harbor against the easterly storms to which it is much exposed.” During the next two decades, the breakwater received eight additional appropriations ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 each. Then in 1897, Congress appropriated up to $760,000 to complete the project, which did the trick; the breakwater was officially finished in 1900. The lighthouse began operating in 1902. According to Rockland’s 2002 application to the National Register of Historic Places, the top of the breakwater was laid with three sets of smooth granite blocks. In earlier times cars could drive out to the lighthouse. 

That day, however, I walked, not drove, to the lighthouse. At first it’s hard to get the rhythm of the breakwater. The capping stones are of different sizes and shapes, laid together with smaller rocks between them. The eastern side of the breakwater has larger, irregular blocks set at a more gradual angle than the western side to better withstand oncoming waves. It takes a few minutes of hopscotch striding to avoid the spaces between the stones, but eventually one’s mind begins to quiet and the body takes over. I did not have to think about where to place my feet, I just walked. 

I am not a geologist but I like rocks. Granite comes in different colors and densities and those differences are very evident on the breakwater. Pink, grey-blue, beige, yellow-white, the rocks beneath my feet twinkled in the low sunlight. I slowly took notice of their individuality. 

The people on the breakwater that afternoon also stood out. An extremely large white-haired man sat facing the setting sun, pulling small fish after fish in with his fishing pole. Just to the north of him an extremely small Asian woman did the same, although not nearly with the speed of her companion. They spoke aloud to each other, one in a baritone, the other with a flute-like voice, but never glanced away from their poles. Walking ahead of me, a bearded man strode purposefully toward the lighthouse. He neither looked to the left nor the right, just walked, head down, at a rapid pace. When I reached the lighthouse he had perched facing east and, as far as I could tell at a distance, was having a one-sided conversation with himself. A flock of children ran behind me across the stones, laughing and calling out to each other, as steady on the rocks as miniature mountain goats, their parents far behind.

Three lobster boats were returning to the harbor. The largest swept around the breakwater with the authoritative roar of a new fiberglass boat. The second was loaded with empty traps and gave a low and steady murmur as it moved through the water. The third was a tired-looking wooden vessel. It too was bringing traps in for the winter, rolling a bit as it passed slowly through the wake of the departing Vinalhaven ferry. I stood at the end of the breakwater and watched all three complete their transit through the harbor. 

The intent of the Rockland breakwater was to protect the business interests of the people of Rockland. It was not paid for by Rockland residents but by all the people of the United States. It is made of that which will never erode, unyielding in its substance and its purpose. It serves all of us, depending on our needs — as a shelter from storm, as a place for solitude and beauty, as a simple fishing spot. It does not change, although it is made of up individual rocks that move in response to the ocean’s constant pressure. The people for whom it was constructed also may shift as a result of fierce pressures that cannot be seen, only felt at home and at the ballot box. I suspect, however, that even they will remain constant in certain immutable ways. Or so I hope.