Editor’s note: What follows is a paper read at the leadoff session to the Living Local Harvest Festival on Sept. 26. It responds to the question: From your point of view, what do we need to think about and do to ensure that your grandchildren can live well on the Vineyard?
To live well on the Vineyard is saying a lot because we believe life is very good here. It is good because we enjoy strong and vital natural resources and human communities, distinctly enough that people come from all over to restore themselves here, and many want to stay. I believe that the fundamental reason life is good here is that the scale of our human, artificial activities is in proportion to our natural resources of land, fresh and salt water, air, and plant and animal life. Although we have lost a tremendous amount of open space and natural communities to development in the last 40 years, we can still hunt for deer, geese, and ducks, pick blueberries, grapes and beach plums, hike through heavenly woodlands, harvest clams, scallops, and oysters from our salt ponds, trout, perch, and bass from our freshwater streams and ponds, and bass, bluefish and fluke from our shores. Through the generosity of large landowners and the foresight of conservation groups and the towns, we have saved a lot of our farmland enabling us to work with nature to provide food that doesn’t exist in the wild for our taking.
Why do we take such satisfaction in catching a fish when we can buy one cheaper in the store, or pick wild berries to make jam or catch blue claw crabs and spend hours picking them? It is because, on some deep level, we feel that we are blessed by something wonderful when we are singled out to receive these gifts. Our interface with nature, with a capital N, gives us an inherent sense of rightness so that if we are able to recognize it, and be a part of it, we feel the peace that comes with being on the right path in life. If we allow our human activities to overwhelm the natural, as has happened in so many places in America, we are condemned to a shallow existence on asphalt, waiting for the light to change on our way to the artificially cooled office with synthetic carpet and fluorescent lights.
Our Vineyard culture is based on its natural resources and the history of man’s relationship to it. Newcomers to the Island have usually embraced this lifestyle and even become its more vocal proponents. But there are some who, coming from blighted landscapes in America, have a higher tolerance for suburban sprawl, for instance, or may wish they had a Wal-Mart in Vineyard Haven. I hope that our assimilation of newcomers will happen at a pace that keeps our traditional Vineyard culture as the dominant one. When my grandchildren go to school and mix with new friends, I hope that they are as excited about the bass derby standings as clothing styles.
I want my grandchildren to be able to live on the Vineyard with the daily presence of the goodly providence of nature. I want them to be able to harvest much of their food from our wild and cultivated natural resources and to draw pleasure from the process. For this to happen, we have to think about how many humans we can have on this Island without ruining our natural blessings. We will have to act boldly in town meetings and on our nonprofit organizations to assure that we don’t build too many roads and houses or split our land into too many small parcels. We will have to think about the proportion of human activity to natural systems in terms of a good life on our limited Island and take actions to slow and stop the degradations that have become commonplace, and even accepted, elsewhere in America.
Jim Athearn owns Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown.