The greatest thing about the Vineyard for the Rev. Alden Besse is not the natural beauty - as much as he appreciates it - but the intimacy of the Island community.
As a longtime minister at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven, and someone who is involved in numerous nonprofit organizations, he believes that people on the Vineyard have always taken care of one another.
Which is why he is so troubled by the growing disparity of wealth that is dividing this country, and particularly the Island. The Reverend Mr. Besse, 82, does not deny that class differences existed on the Vineyard during his childhood summers in Chilmark. But where he and his siblings once slept in small coops, the wealth today has become much more conspicuous, as seasonal residents choose to build bigger and bigger homes.
It is a trend, he said, that is driven largely by selfishness and greed.
"There are those who feel - especially on the Island - that they have to have so much to be satisfied. And this leaves others with so little," Reverend Besse said last week, only a few days before Thanksgiving. "People should have no right, in my opinion, to build trophy houses and starter castles when the help has no money for the basic necessities of life."
Such inequality leads to instability, he noted, citing the often-quoted W.B. Yeats poem that things fall apart when the center cannot hold. The Vineyard already has more than its fair share of contentious land use disputes, and Reverend Besse said history has shown that once the social fabric begins to tear, the poor will eventually rise up in revolt.
"We think it can never happen here, but it has happened in most places," said Reverend Besse, who is also co-chairman of the Martha's Vineyard Peace Council and secretary of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger. "The Island must create the compassion and will to meet the many needy, so they can enjoy and discover a viable life. We need to discover and build and celebrate our community, because otherwise it will be lost."
Defining and protecting that community will be a goal of the Martha's Vineyard Commission in its comprehensive Island Plan, an ambitious two-year effort that will attempt to draft a blueprint for the future of the Vineyard based on feedback from the public. With an eye toward the larger community, Island Plan officials are hosting a forum next week on ways to improve the local economy. The meeting will be held on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.
Reverend Besse said that by relying so heavily on the construction industry, the Island in recent years has placed itself in a self-defeating predicament.
"If the Vineyard is not growing, and not building new homes and businesses, then the Island is in a recession. But when the Island is building at the rate it is now, it is unsustainable in terms of the environment and infrastructure," he said, noting that the year-round Vineyard population has roughly tripled in his time here.
"So how do we keep what is unique and not be exclusive about it?" Reverend Besse asked. "That's a great piece of unfinished business, and one we need to work on."
Sitting in the second-floor office of his Vineyard Haven home, with stacks of papers covering his desk and rows of books spilling off the shelves, Reverend Besse acknowledged that he does not have all the answers, even though it seems as though he might. And the Harvard University graduate quickly turns the criticisms and questions upon himself, with characteristic humor and humility.
"Whenever I point a wicked finger at someone else, I point three at myself," he said, illustrating the point with his right hand. "I'm speaking as if I am the oracle of Delphi, which I assure you I'm not."
He strives to live a more simple life himself, but graded his overall effort as somewhere between a C-minus and D-plus. At one point during the interview, he excused himself to turn off a light he had left on in the hallway.
"I'm just beginning to become aware of the trespass I have on Island, and trying to change accordingly," Reverend Besse said. "But I have to admit that I struggle with it."
He said that people on the Island, and across the country, are living beyond their means both economically and ecologically. National and personal debt is rising, and it is unrealistic to think that every family on the Vineyard should have its own home.
"I like a freestanding house - I think it's ideal - but it's extravagant," he said, looking out his window at a steady rain falling on Lagoon Pond. "If everyone in the world had a house like this, man, we'd use up the world's resources so quick."
It is imperative to plan ahead for future generations, he said, repeating the old saying that if you give a man a fish, he will go hungry the next day, but if you teach him how to fish, he will feed his family for a year.
"And I add to that - his grandchildren will starve," Reverend Besse said. "The more fish we take out of the sea this year, the fewer will be taken out of it in the next ten."
Born in Scarsdale, N.Y., Reverend Besse first came to the Vineyard in August 1924, when he was only five weeks old, and states with pride that he visited the Island every summer but two, until he and his wife Barbara retired year-round in 1990.
Though now in his eighth decade, Reverend Besse does not seem to have missed a beat, bounding up the stairs to his office on Friday two steps at a time. "My parents never taught me to walk up stairs," he explained.
At the age of 20 he was baptized at Grace Church, and has now served more than 55 years as an ordained minister, both on the Vineyard and elsewhere in the Northeast. He said the Island has long benefited from a strong and diverse religious community, and noted that the Martha's Vineyard Neighborhood Convention is one of the earliest interfaith organizations in the country, at more than a century old.
Also president of the Island Clergy Association, Revered Besse listed a few of the 30 places of worship on the Vineyard today, all of which he said work together and offer warm and caring fellowships. These religious organizations help spread good will and faith into the rest of the Vineyard community, he said.
"They might seem to accomplish little," Reverend Besse said, wearing his dark jacket and distinctive white collar. "But I think without these places of worship, our Island would be much deprived."
He is thankful to be part of some secular organizations on the Vineyard as well, and spends much of his time at the Windemere Rehabilitation and Nursing Facility in Oak Bluffs, among other places. Midway through the interview last week, he received a call from a woman on the Island asking him to help say goodbye to her father, who was in his last days of life.
These supportive community organizations give hope to Reverend Besse, who praised the Island school system and the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. He would also like to see the completion of the YMCA of Martha's Vineyard, which he believes will add another dimension to the life and health of the Island.
"We have a lot of positives on the Island, and I hope and pray these will be built on," he said.
In particular, he is grateful for the work of the Vineyard conservation organizations, which have preserved large tracts of land for the future. A public supporter of the Nantucket Sound wind farm, Reverend Besse described environmental stewardship as a religious concern, and said he is heartened by the large number of Island residents who seem to appreciate the natural world as much as he.
Recalling the beauty of spring bursting forth on the Island and the loveliness of summer, Reverend Besse said the Vineyard shines in all seasons of the year.
"I think of the glory of fall, which also has a touch of sadness in it, and winter, which is not bitterly cold, but at times turns the Island into a wonderland of snow," he said.
"What strikes me about the Island is the wonderful beauty of nature here," Reverend Besse said. "Of the earth, the changing sea, and the sky - which I hope will be preserved, but is not guaranteed."
The Martha's Vineyard Commission is soliciting comment from the public for its Island Plan, a two-year project to develop a 10, 20 and 50-year comprehensive plan for the Vineyard. For more information, visit Islandplan.org or call the commission at 508-693-3453.