The Island is wrapped in the quiet of December. Shortened days are cast in mild drizzle with fleeting breaks of sun through a low ceiling of gray clouds. Long nights are inky and blustery beneath starry skies splashed with meteor showers. Is the sky higher overhead at night? It seems so. Main streets twinkle and smile with hundreds of tiny white lights, while the more rural reaches of the Vineyard are marked by an occasional burst of cheer in the form of a lone tree, mailbox or fenceline decorated for the holiday.
Christmas is Tuesday; the winter solstice is tonight.
There has been no hard freeze yet, a welcome boon to bay scallopers, deer hunters and Chappaquiddick Ferry captains who steer their little car-carrying barge across chilly, wind-roughened waters in the Edgartown harbor. Their customers are mostly the hardy year-round residents of that small island who often duck into the ferry captain’s wheelhouse to talk about the news of the day for a minute during the brief crossing.
There is plenty to talk about, too, with elaborate preparations underway to move a large house back several hundred feet from the edge of a rapidly eroding cliff at Wasque, as the Norton Point breach continues to carve out new land forms at the extreme southeastern corner of Chappy. Farther inland, preparations of a different kind have begun as a young farmer begins to work the soil for a vegetable-growing operation at the old Marshall farm. Ruth and Bob Marshall would no doubt be pleased if they were alive today. The Marshalls loved to teach young people the ways of Island living, and as Lily Walter embarks in earnest on her venture at Slip Away Farm, she is the symbol of something that is at once old and new: small agriculture, self-reliance and living simply and close to the land.
It’s not all idyllic, of course. In a report released this week, the Bureau of Labor and Workforce found that the Cape and Islands region has been slow to recover from the economic recession. We don’t need a federal report to tell us that beyond the holiday cheer there are many signs of problems that reinforce the notion of the Island as a microcosm for America: affordable housing remains stubbornly scarce, the middle class is shrinking, the overall population aging. More Lily Walters are needed, and not just in farming, for the Vineyard to sustain itself as a living, working year-round community that looks out for its own and resists the trappings and social mores of the mainland.
But first there is Christmas. At the Gazette office in Edgartown the loyal staff has been hard at work preparing another weekly edition, both digital and in print, fortified by endless plates of homemade cookies that appear in the newsroom every day as if sent by special delivery from the North Pole. Someone found a folder containing old programs for the children’s Christmas pageant in West Tisbury, the blue-green paper hand-stamped with little trees and familiar Island names like Fischer, Cottle, Alley. And suddenly it seems, the young children of yesterday are the grandparents of today.
A pall has been cast over the holiday this year by the unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, which hit home even harder on the Island this week with the news that one of the victims, a seven-year-old girl, had summered in Edgartown. Grace Audrey McDonnell, a budding young artist, dreamed of some day living on Martha’s Vineyard as a painter.
The late Hal Borland wrote:
“We call them the holidays, too seldom remembering that they are holy days, days of reverence for life and the spiritual meanings implicit in it . . . .There was mystery and there was reverence for the whole of life, healthy mystery and holy reverence, before man began saying he knew all the answers. The basic mystery prevails, and on occasion man can even admit that he neither made the earth nor set the stars in their courses. The holidays we now celebrate are such an occasion, holy days for reverence and humility.”
The Gazette sends out warmest holiday greetings to all its readers near and far. Merry Christmas!