Independence Day 2008

Small American flags flutter around the gravestones at the Westside Cemetery in Edgartown, where Bobby Hagerty has trimmed the old cedars and maples in time for the Fourth of July. The cemetery is a peaceful place to pass through on the short walk from uptown to downtown, all dusky grass and yellow sedum. The town superintendent doesn’t like the sedum and wants to get rid of it, but Bobby, who is a veteran tree and plant man, has told him he should leave it alone.

Bobby is right; the sedum is pretty.

Today is the Fourth of July and the Vineyard is a picture of Americana, summer resort-style. At Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs the bandstand is draped with bunting, the grass underfoot is verdant from early summer rains and small children dance around the fountains. Up-Island the old Cape Cod style houses have their flags out. At West Chop people sit on the broad verandas of the rambling Queen Anne-style summer homes and drink cocktails and iced tea and watch the world go by. Edgartown is painted red, white and blue for the holiday: white picket fences, red roses and blue hydrangeas.

Edgartown is also the main stage for Fourth of July on the Vineyard. The annual parade steps off from the elementary school parking lot at five this afternoon and downtown streets will be closed to parking to safely allow room for the thousands that will gather to watch what somebody once called the best little parade in America.

Later tonight the sky over the town harbor will light up with fireworks.

And Islanders of all ages will sit back and watch, and hopefully remember what we are celebrating — the freedom that independence brings.

President John Adams said: “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence . . .”

The Vineyard of course has its own brand of independence that predates the birth of the country. Dukes County was founded in 1671 — more than a century before the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July Fourth, 1776.

The year the declaration was signed a census of the Island showed four hundred eighty two families and two thousand, eight hundred twenty two people living on the Island, according to Charles Edward Banks in his three-volume history of the Vineyard.

This afternoon at least that many people will gather in Edgartown over a few blocks to watch the parade.

The Vineyard is a place where people come to be free from the mainland and leave behind their hectic lives in urban and suburban places. They come here to shed their shoes and the worries of their daily lives, to slow down, to get away. And they count on the Vineyard to help return some balance to their lives.

And the Island will do that, if you allow it.

And while the Vineyard remains a place apart, in this particular year when the country is poised at the brink of change and ready to elect a new president in November, it feels like the mainland has moved a little closer. Last summer the early presidential hopefuls were all on the Vineyard, raising money and honing their campaign platforms.

Now the smoke and rhetoric and hoopla have cleared and after the summer conventions are over it will come down to two choices for the next president of the United States: Barack Obama or John McCain. On the birthday of the country Americans everywhere are engaged as never before, including on the Vineyard.

And the Island is no longer so isolated, nor is it immune from the ills of the mainland. The national economy is unsettled, the stock market is jittery, the housing market is in a bona fide crisis and all this affects the Vineyard way of life, from the price of gasoline to the price of lettuce, home-grown or imported. Some believe a hard winter lies ahead.

But it is July Fourth and still very much summer — in fact this weekend opens summer on the Vineyard for a third time. The first time happened on Memorial Day and the second time was June 20, the first official day of summer. Three beginnings to summer make this a lucky Island indeed, and if you need to ask why, the answer was published in the Gazette a long time ago:

“Day by day they come, more and more of them, the summer migrants called by sea and open country, by shore, hill, and country sky. In a deep sense it is home that calls them, for the home of mankind is the place most remote from cities, the old domain of nature. Scientists, we remember, even maintain that the home of man is the sea itself; if not that, then an Island comes nearest.”