I came to the Vineyard as a six year old whose idea of bliss was reading Archie comics and baseball box scores. Except for changing storefronts and the absence of GTOs, the Island towns still seem to me much the same. Sure, changes have happened. But this is the secret of summer — it doesn’t really change. Summer on the Vineyard is a mythic season whose best quality is timelessness.
The Vineyard is a place that is both mythic and real for a vast cross section of people, both summer and year-round. Arguably, the Vineyard surpasses other East Coast islands and seaside towns because it has greater diversity and acceptance. Where else can you find such a variety of landscapes and lifestyles and social communities?
Sometimes people declare the end of the real Vineyard. Clinton ruined it. Obama ruined it more. The one per cent are ruining it. McDonalds would have ruined it. Cape Wind will surely ruin it. The longer you’ve been here, the worse the Island seems to have gotten. The introduction to a recent book proclaimed the arrival of Joni Mitchell’s paved paradise: “Our Island way of life, relatively unchanged for centuries, is gone.”
We can lament the disappearance of nature and freedom and blame progress for destroying a way of life. Or we can acknowledge that the Vineyard works because it occupies a prominent role in many lives and minds, and inspires people to stay and keep coming back. When people say “the Vineyard,” they’re often referring to their collective experiences here, not simply a location. My Vineyard is not your Vineyard or his or hers. Thousands of Vineyards exist side by side. For many, the Island’s significance is not just in its natural, quaint and diverse geographical landscapes and variety of lifestyles and communities, but also in the special spot it occupies in the senses and the heart.
The Vineyard’s powerful lure comes in part from its history of open-mindedness, its accepting and egalitarian nature and its diversity. The Island was never dominated by a uniform landscape, industry or homogeneous group of people. Various religious, racial, cultural, economic and seasonal communities existed side by side for generations. Towns developed their own distinct characters. Families worked the land and raised livestock, while others went whaling and were gone at sea. Methodist revivalists formed a summer colony in Oak Bluffs, middle class Black families were prominent in the early tourist trade, and Portuguese immigrants joined the fishing trade. A deaf community thrived in Chilmark at one time. Islanders lived divergent, separate lives that led to conflicting views. But greater than any differences was their common identity: an us-against-all-else mentality often found on islands, a unique blend of individualism and collectivism.
Other tangible qualities improve the Vineyard for summer and winter people, such as the strong tradition of participatory democracy and high degree of activism and community involvement that stem from a heritage of Yankee self-rule and true grit. In a world increasingly defined by excess at the expense of others, the Vineyard is a breakwater. Dogs on beaches generate passionate town meetings. Controversial proposals like Cape Wind are aggressively debated. Historical traditions are fiercely defended. Agencies like the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and Martha’s Vineyard Community Services look out for Islandwide interests. A high level of community-wide giving reflects a genuine desire to help others.
The desire to protect and preserve the natural Vineyard is perhaps the most significant ongoing issue. However, nature means different things to different groups. Certain Island businesses depend on natural resources and animals, fishing and farming being the obvious ones. People cherish the unkempt nature, solitude and isolation of more rural areas. And for many, the Vineyard landscape, an interplay of natural settings and historical places, is its most evocative quality.
In a recent essay in a national magazine, journalist Devin Friedman observed that the Vineyard is “a facsimile of something that is also the authentic version.” He got that right. No place does quaint like the Vineyard. Like a postcard come to life, the Island is abundant with picturesque places so vivid they could be exhibits at the Old Sturbridge Village living museum. Yet they are as genuine as the corn at Morning Glory or the lobsters at Larsen’s and the jobs and income these businesses generate.
What binds people to the Vineyard and helps drive the tourist industry is the overall landscape and the favorite places people return to time and time again. People expect these places to remain quaint and unchanging, symbols of a simple life. And the Vineyard responds, folding into itself and seamlessly shifting from one symbolic landscape to another.
These symbols include real homes, stores, roads, beaches, harbors, barns, churches, fields and stone walls that are part of daily life. The mythic Vineyard is the real Vineyard and the Island maintains itself in a state of functioning history.
Of course a quaint Vineyard was certainly not a thought of early Islanders. It just happened, was recognized at some point and is now an important commodity. Even quaint takes on different shades, though they exist side by side. Island quaint is the Allen Farm and a fieldstone fence missing its top courses. Summer people quaint is the Grey Barn and a new stone wall built by an artisan stonemason using off-Island stones.
Preserving the Vineyard means maintaining a fragile balance between the mythic and the real. Without the mythic Vineyard, the real Vineyard suffers. There is no formula. It’s more of a tipping point. For summer people and Islanders alike, looking out for the other group’s needs may actually be supporting your own.
The same way there are many Vineyards, no one group has a sole claim on determining the Island way of life. If at any point, a particular version wins, then everyone loses. The real Vineyard is the middle road — neither too authentic nor too quaint.
The Island needs more stewards: wealthy individuals, community leaders, summer and winter people who can coalesce and guide growth rather than prevent it. It requires looking to the future while protecting the past.
Prolific changes brought by the digital era and the global economy are not going away. The Island can avoid being changed by off-Island forces it cannot control, but this requires the wisdom to select and integrate beneficial aspects of a new way of life while safeguarding critical elements of the historic past.
John Rosenmiller lives in New York city and West Tisbury.