Violating Its Charter
Editors, Vineyard Gazette:
My family and I are at a loss to understand the reasons why the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation board of directors permitted the strip-mining of trees, plants, and grasses from Foundation properties, as described and photographed in the Vineyard Gazette of May 16. The properties involved, furthermore, are also designated as priority habitats by the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Therefore, any restoring of these properties should be done only if in accord with the Endangered Species Act.
The Foundation’s mission statement in its charter, dated Dec. 8, 1958, reads as follows: “To preserve, administer, and maintain natural habitats for wildlife on Martha’s Vineyard for educational purposes and in the interests of conservation; to acquire, receive and protect such natural areas so that they may serve as living museums and as a means of assuring to the future generations a knowledge of the natural endowment of the Island of Martha’s Vineyard and of similar terrain in New England; and to cooperate with other agencies in the field of education and conservation to further their aims as much as possible in the public interest.”
There is clearly no proviso in this charter that would include the practices of stripping its properties of mature trees and shrubs for the benefit of Vineyard landowners, wealthy or otherwise, nor for the purported “greater good” of “restoring” native meadowland by clearing existing meadows as if they were sod farms. Let us ask the foundation’s board of directors, therefore, to explain how a private arrangement with Island landscapers that permits the bartering of strip-mining privileges at two of its properties — in exchange for those landscapers’ services — could possibly be in the public interest. And would the foundation also assure, if it can, the many donors of money to the purchase of foundation properties that such properties are being maintained according to its own charter?
It is very clear that Henry Hough did not envision strip-mining practices when he wrote the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation Charter in 1958!
John T. Daggett Jr.
Editors, Vineyard Gazette:
Making lemonade from a lemon isn’t always easy, but worth a try. I’m referring to the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation-Ziff-Hoff-et. al. debacle. Bear with me as I attempt to make lemonade.
Transplanting reasonable amounts of sandplain grassland plants, within state regulations, from areas of relative abundance in an attempt to create new habitats for rare and endangered species will not bring on another ice age or other catastrophe. The emphasis is on reasonable amounts.
However, yielding to pressure, financial or otherwise, to create instant sandplain habitat for those who can afford it does not serve the land from whence it comes and surely does not serve the earth-loving Vineyard community we seek to strengthen as we enter a very uncertain period of global and local climate, food and energy crises.
The ray of hope in the Gazette story was the revelation that two Island farmers resisted offers to strip-mine sandplain plants from their fields. On our refrigerator door, amid joyful photos of children, grandchildren, and friends is a somber but hopeful prophesy of the Cree Nation. It reads: “When the earth has been ravaged and the animals are dying, a tribe of people from all races, creeds and colors will put their faith in deeds, not words, to make the land green again. They will be called Warriors of the Rainbow, protectors of the environment.”
The Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior takes its name from this prophecy. Standing firm against the temptation to cash in on a newly discovered cash crop, these two Vineyard farmers are indeed Warriors of the Rainbow, protectors of the environment. We can only hope others will follow them.
The Polly Hill Arboretum and The Nature Conservancy each have sandplain nurseries, albeit not on a commercial scale. They have reached out to Island landscapers, nurseries, and the public with their knowledge and experience. If Mr. Ziff and like-minded landowners in his financial bracket want to do something really significant for the Island environment and the Island sense of community, they might want to consider endowing substantially the nursery programs of the arboretum and The Nature Conservancy. Or infusing capital into Island nurseries to get real sizable production of locally grown genetic stock, with volumes sufficient to satisfy the needs of people such as Mr. Ziff who yearn to go native.
Then there is the matter of the Martha’s Vineyard State Forest program to restore sandplain grassland habitat in much of the forest’s 5,000 acres. Chronically underfunded, this program could benefit hugely from private donation to the state’s Conservation Trust which permits donors to earmark their donation for specific projects on specific properties. In an attempt to publicize the existence of this fund, I made a small donation (large for me) to the trust, specifically for sandplain restoration in the forest. I would encourage anyone who wants to make an impact on sandplain restoration on the Island to make a tax-deductible gift to the trust.
The Island is changing fast and not always in ways that benefit its environment and community as we have just seen. Our great ponds and estuaries are threatened by nitrogen pollution and there will be a need for private philanthropy here as well, if the ponds are to be saved.
People of extraordinary means have always been generous in helping the Island community in myriad ways, and we are enormously indebted to them. As the Island population grows and environmental and social needs increase in scale and cost, the need for more people of good will and great resources will become more critical. The Island has set very high conservation goals, many of which have been achieved. Let’s keep our eye on the goal, avoid making lemons, and enjoy the lemonade.
Editors, Vineyard Gazette:
Often, I will read or learn of current happenings and trends on the Vineyard and immediately the old bumper sticker Poor Martha leaps to mind. The latest news flash of apparently well-intended individuals attempting to craft their own niche and personal affinity with the Island leaves me believing that the tears still flow freely down poor Martha’s cheeks as she watches her precious, fragile Island in the sea. Reading this latest article in the May 16 online edition of the Gazette, we were left with these quotes from Tim Simmons: “It’s unfortunate because routine management would have resulted in very similar conditions in a few years. My way would have taken four or five years and this was sort of instant gratification.”
Ah, instant gratification — now there is a concept I can wrap my head around, having enough personal experience to have my portrait hanging in the Betty Ford Clinic as a devoted lifelong contributor and patron to the art of instant gratification. I love the Vineyard, as most of us do, and I daresay I love it passionately and I love many of the people living on the Island, but sometimes even the way we love can be misguided and off-kilter.
Of all the happenings in the world, none strikes me with more oomph than those story lines built on irony. And boy does the story of strip mining on the Vineyard ever fit that bill. An anonymous, wealthy landowner, seeking to embellish his place in the sun choreographs an elaborate (and quite expensive) approach to preservation.
Somewhere on a Google Earth image of the Island there lies a small paved road where best intentions lead, but you have to zoom in maximally to see it.
Poor Martha. The tears are flowing more freely than ever down her beautiful cheeks.
Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Letter from Paul’s Point
Editors, Vineyard Gazette:
Pop was a name that in some ways didn’t fit the man at all. Pops are warm, fuzzy grandfathers who teach grandchildren how to flyfish, are tolerant of tears and insecurities, and are in some ways nurturing. They are a little chubby and comfortable. My grandfather was none of these things. He was powerfully charismatic, strong, brilliant, intolerant and dismissively stiff upper lip. By the time I really knew him, he was a leathery old man, like some kind of uber-WASP beef jerky, a carved mahogany of a man. He was a rigid constant in our lives. And in the areas that he thought important, unremittingly moral. Regarding his grandchildren and his life at Paul’s Point, he was the best of benevolent tyrants — consistent, instructive, demanding — and at the same time, hugely giving.
The thing we all knew about the Point was, there were rules. Ask any of the kids of my generation — myself, my sisters and cousins or any of the Irvine-Young-Mieli-Pomerantz-Guiney-Delgado offspring who represented the summer neighborhood out on the Mohu road. There were rules and you did not break them. You did not climb the cliff (erosion). You did not throw things off the cliff that were not biodegradeable. Peanut butter sandwich rinds were acceptable, the napkins used in eating them were not, even if accidentally blown off the picnic table by the almost ever-present wind. If this transgression should occur, you were to refer back to the first rule. You were to feel appropriately ashamed and Pop would climb down for it then or later (partly because of rule number one and partly because he was immune to poison ivy). It was for this reason that my grandfather smoked filterless Chesterfields — so he could stub them out (quite completely) and flick them over the cliff with an incidental, repetitive grace.
Other rules: no helping smaller children climb up onto the huge glacial boulders that populated the property like some ice tour’s abandoned entourage. My grandfather named them: Mama Elephant, Baby Elephant, the Tooth, the Diving Rock, Picnic Rock, Brother-and-Sister Rock, Seal Rock. As one of the smaller children, I can say that this rule really stank — the theory was that if you were not capable of getting up, then you would not be capable of getting down on your own either. So in the sand you sat, in the face of older children who could and did, climb the rock. The Tooth was the real bugger to get up on, rumored in the family to have a secret staircase.
There were rules about the flags: a large mast reworked into a flagpole stands to this day at the very tip of Paul’s Point. Pop installed this to fly yachting flags beneath the American flag up at the top, each daily combination hailing out a different message to any passing boaters or beachcombers who might wander by — sometimes regarding weather, often “Come up for a drink” — that sort of mid-to-late 1900s version of hail-fellow-well-met.
And they did, many of them, strangers to my grandfather when they rowed in after mooring in the cove and climbed up the steep stairs to the beach. They always left, after a couple of cans of beer or a coke, friends, some fast and lifelong, charmed by the stern and elegant man who was my grandfather.
Floating toys were frowned upon at Paul’s Point, as were unnecessary electrical devices. No TV or stereo — just the small radio that Pop listened to WGBH on. Blow-up float toys were considered to be devices that encouraged lazy children not to swim and could be caught all too easily by the changeable wind and tide to carry you beyond the safety of the shore. It was your job to keep track of the tide changes and be aware of the wind direction — Pop posted it every morning at five on a small chalkboard on the porch of the deckhouse. Getting into trouble in some way at the Point was generally considered to be your own damn fault. It was the original lesson in personal responsibility.
Cooking facilities at the deckhouse were rudimentary — the beautiful old white enameled stove with the hinged-top cover had an oven that was used only to keep Ritz crackers and Pepperidge Farm cookies from getting stale in the humid salt air (the pilot light did the trick). I remember how pleased Pop was by the only really modern thing he ever added to the kitchen — a three-quarter size white refrigerator to replace the bubbly-looking old gas one — and how pleased he was at being now able to keep Breyer’s peach ice cream. A house specialty treat was Breyer’s peach with Oreo cookies stuck into the ice cream.
Fourth of July at the Point was a big deal. A cookout at the deckhouse (as the tiny hip-roofed house was named) involving family, friends, most of the summer residents off the Mohu road — was a lobster boil some years or a clambake on the beach, always a huge bonfire (driftwood only, gathered in the month before from the beach to clean it up after winter) and always fireworks off the cliff face. Pop was in charge of the pyrotechnics. I remember a particularly good party followed by Pop being arrested by George Manter. In reality, this was probably a visit the next day with a gentle remonstrance, but as we heard it — or interpreted it — it was an arrest. Shocking that our upright, ex-Wall street corporate attorney grandfather could ever do anything so wrong. And always, on the fifth of July, after early morning tea, down Pop would go on the cliff face, carefully, carefully in his faded blue, no-lace Top-Sider sneakers, to retrieve the detritus leftover from the fireworks.
He was the original, unspoken example of “leave nothing but footprints.” He taught generations of children at Paul’s Point an inherent conservation ethic. He was a diligent and conscious caretaker of his property, its environment and the road leading into it. Many times I rode in with Pop, or met him on the road, as he crawled along in his Plymouth Volare station wagon, stopping frequently to remove rocks or debris that had appeared on the road’s surface well into his 80s. He frowned on excess — both material and emotional. He knew he was immensely privileged to live where he did and he was incredibly generous in sharing that privilege. As long as you followed the rules, you were welcome at Paul’s Point any time.
I wonder what my grandfather would think of the property he once owned now as the current owners take, or pay their contractors to take, the Island’s supposedly conserved environmental wealth and then pooh-pooh the taking as being easily replaced with installation and new plants? Why then couldn’t the residential landscape have been so easily done with the installation of new plants? Is it more important for a lavish private residence to be authentically native than dedicated conservation lands where these plants were naturally propagated and grown? Are we to not penalize anyone here because these wealthy clients are deigning to use native plants rather than depleting and tainting the freshwater aquifer with an over-irrigated and over-chemicalized landscape? You can make a beautiful landscape without any of these things and without raping public lands. And you can do it (relatively) quickly, given resources, which the present owners clearly have.
I know; this is what I do for a living. The areas where the takings occurred are conservation lands; many of them were given to these organizations specifically to spare them such a fate. But if you are the right kind of contractor, you can drive in with a bulldozer and pick up an entire meadow.
When Paul’s Point first sold outside of my family, I looked up the name of the family who had bought it and ran across a newspaper story about a family of the same name in New York state and the theft of large boulders from a local park (executed by their landscape contractor) used to enhance their home. I called my sister in New Jersey and wondered, is this what we mean about privatization of public responsibilities?
And what about the contractors? Are these the practices we want to engage in to fund the expansion of our businesses here on the Island? I cannot understand any of it. But what I do know is this: in a solitary grave in that little cemetery off Lambert’s Cove Road, someone is spinning.