On Thursday, July 24, the Island was presented with the opportunity to discuss bringing back the heath hen at a community meeting at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. The idea that sparked that event came from the simple mention of the iconic bird at a picnic about a year ago, almost to the day. Since then the community of Martha’s Vineyard has taken me on an eye-opening journey, talking to so many Islanders I had not previously met.
My goal in this project has been to engage the community in a conversation. Until the Ag Hall event, my position on this subject was genuinely neutral within the contextual guideline of do no harm to the Vineyard. Whether or not a heath hen ever sets foot on the Vineyard again, I championed the idea because there were so many benefits to be gained in just attempting to undertake this huge project. Most of those benefits I learned about over the course of a four-day visit to the Island in late March with Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan, the creators of Revive & Restore, a conservation-based project of The Long Now Foundation that is dedicated to long-term thinking and problem solving. The highlight of our visit was an informal, creative brainstorming roundtable at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum with many of the Island leaders and stakeholders. The question was posed: How could the Vineyard benefit from bringing back the heath hen? The list was long and varied with benefits ranging from dialing down the predators to opening view corridors, to building new affordable housing, to the potential of creating a regional bio-tech institute on the Vineyard, to bringing back the bobwhite quail. But perhaps the greatest benefit of all is that the discussion around this extinct bird provided an invitation to the Island people and conservation groups to come together and ask themselves, what do they want their Island to be in the future, 10 years from now, 20, 50, or 100? And how can we work together to get there?
We had a couple of working titles for the Agricultural Hall heath hen event over the course of the past year that clearly reflected our changing position. Heath Hen Homecoming, our first attempt, we soon realized was too presumptuous. The heath hen would never come back unless the Vineyard wanted to create a homecoming of its own. That was something we hoped the Agricultural Hall community meeting would help determine. Next came Save the Heath Hen, which I championed as I worked with the library, museum and schools on both the exhibit of the history of the heath hen and on the curricula outline for a high school examination of the sociological, biological, ecological and historical perspectives of this question. Elliott Bennet, chairman of the science department at the high school, shared the curricula I wrote with all her high school science teachers. Then this past spring each teacher and student either selected a section for critical study or was inspired to create their own angle. I interpreted saving the heath hen to mean the memory as well as potentially the species. But eventually we settled on The Heath Hen Could Come Back, proposed by Stewart Brand. I came to agree that it voices our intention best. It expresses an opportunity to be developed or not by the community, to become the first community on earth to re-introduce an extinct species.
Despite a lot of hard work over the past year, and a lot of support from many enthusiastic Islanders, I remained neutral on the subject. Even bringing back a virtual heath hen would have its benefits, I thought. But as the lights began to dim that Thursday evening at the Ag Hall and the room began to fill with 175 residents from around the Island, an image from the event poster filled the screen and I sat there in silence for a few moments just looking at this majestic pair of beautifully-arrayed heath hens. For the first time in a year, I became really present with this bird whose large image now loomed over us. And though I had asked myself and many others, this moment was the first time I silently asked the bird, what do you think? Is this a good thing? Do you want to come back? Sounds a little nutty, but I have always trusted my intuition in business and life. So I can confidently tell you, I strongly sensed that yes, this species wants to come back.
I sincerely hope someone steps up from the Island to become the steward and leader of this project. The Island and the heath hens are lucky to have the attention of Mr. Brand and Ms. Phelan, pioneers at the frontier of cultural re-imagination, who have access to the scientific resources to work with you on this cutting edge proposition.
While hanging the event posters around the Island, I had many conversations with shopkeepers, gas station attendants, fishermen, artists, educators, churchgoers, farmers, chefs and religious leaders. With deep gratitude I thank them for their support and open mindedness. And here’s an extra shout out to the Islanders, whatever position they may hold on this subject. I am filled with gratitude that they listened to what first sounded like a crazy idea. Thank you for offering your counsel, your time, your encouragement, your courage, your address book, your enthusiasm, your ideas, and your criticism. Critical thinking will bring us to the best place. Special thanks to the many Island people who welcomed us, showed enthusiasm for our thinking and helped make the event happen, a list too long for this space.
And many thanks to all those Islanders who attended the Chilmark library seminar of Wednesday night and the Agricultural Hall event on Thursday to learn about this unique concept. I am proud to have held a long-term relationship with an Island that must have one of the highest concentrations of thoughtful and creative people in the world. If this will happen anywhere, which eventually it will, I think it has its best shot with our community.
Susan Johnson Banta is community development consultant on the heath hen project for Revive & Restore. She lives in Chilmark and Stinson Beach, Calif.