Scorched Earth

From the wide, grassy sweep of Katama Plains to the rolling wooded hills of the north shore, the charred smell of smoke hung in the air throughout March and April this year in many of the Island’s outlying places.

This is the new fragrance of early spring, as The Nature Conservancy conducts prescribed burns on protected conservation lands around the Vineyard. A relatively new concept just a decade ago, these burns are now a well-accepted practice as a land management tool, replacing the natural fires that once periodically swept across the land, sparked by lightning or deliberately set by Native Americans who knew the value of such burns for keeping pasture land open.

Today, with the very real threat of disappearing native landscapes due to residential development and imported invasive plants, land management practices such as controlled burns are a necessary fact of life.

And they are very effective. Grasshopper sparrows, which had all but disappeared on the Vineyard, are now nesting at Katama and in Chilmark, and rare native plants such as bushy rockrose, sandplain gerardia and Nantucket shadbush are still in evidence. Pitch pine and scrub oak barrens, oak savannahs and sandplain grasslands — all but gone in places like Cape Cod and Long Island — are still thriving on the Island.

The burns have ended now for the year, but the smell of smoke — sweet with the knowledge of its many benefits — still lingers in the memory.