Last Sunday afternoon, under wintery skies, there was yet another pilgrimage to Lucy Vincent Beach. For many it was a solemn moment as they stood and looked without saying a word.
Pam Bunker, chairman of the Chilmark beach committee, was there taking stock of how nature had once again changed the landscape of the beach.
“The whole eastern seaboard, from Plum Island all the way down the coast, is eroding . . . . It is a melancholy feeling,” she said.
The full story of Lucy Vincent Beach is one of both discovery and loss. Martina Mastromonico, the Chilmark superintendent for the town’s three beaches — Squibnocket, Menemsha Beach and Lucy Vincent Beach —
has a name for the cliff. “I call it The Goddess. She has personality.”
Mrs. Mastromonico has worked for the Town of Chilmark since 1995, spending summers overseeing the lifeguards and the beach. Over the years, she has made a point to take pictures of The Goddess through all kinds of weather.
“I feel protective of her,” she said.
Mrs. Mastromonico also said she has serious concerns for the safety of those who visit the beach these days, climbing the cliff to search for shark teeth and exploring the effects of erosion. Last Thursday the top of the cliff created by Hurricane Sandy collapsed.
“I tell people to stop,” she said. “Do you want me to call the police? That thing is scary.”
The town lacks the resources to keep people away, especially in the winter. “We’ve tried signage and fencing. But now the waves come right up to the cliff. It wouldn’t last,” she said.
For Clarissa Allen, a member of the Chilmark Beach Committee, the cliff is part of a much bigger story that goes back hundreds of years. From her home on Allen Farm she has a clear south-facing view of the beach.
“There used to be so much more land in front of the prominence,” she said, recalling the view from her youth.
Kristin Maloney, assistant director and children’s librarian at the Chilmark Public Library is also a member of the Chilmark Beach Committee. “I never thought I would see so much change,” she said. “It is climate change in real time before my eyes.”
In 1998 and 1999 an archeologist working with students from Harvard University spent a summer cataloging what they found at the beach. At the time Elizabeth S. Chilton was the assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard researching the Native American history of the area. The impetus for the project came out of the discovery years earlier of Native American human remains at the site.
The team collected thousands of items spanning centuries. Ms. Chilton was quoted in an article that appeared in the Harvard University Gazette saying: “We have components from 10,000 years ago, 8,000 years ago, 5,000 years ago, 1,000 years ago, 500 years ago, and lots in between. Few sites in New England show such consistent use over time.”
One of the objects they found was a spear tip dating back 10,000 years. Ms. Chilton reported it was one of the oldest human artifacts found on the Vineyard. Ms. Chilton is now the department chair of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also wrote at the time of the study about the effects of erosion on the cliff.
“The knoll upon which the site is located is eroding at an alarming rate,” she reported. “In recent years it has been eroding at approximately two meters per year. The U.S. Coastal Survey Map (1846) shows another knoll between the knoll upon which the site is located and the ocean. The 1949 topographic map shows a flat top of the knoll to be three times its current size. Thus it is clear that the environment and geographical setting of the site has changed drastically over its long history.”
Jim Richardson, 76, of Oak Bluffs and Pittsburgh, is curator emeritus of anthropology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He also took note of the erosion and its effects on the history of the land.
“Erosion is having an impact on the archeological record of the Wampanoag Tribe, their history going back thousands of years,” he said. “We are losing a tremendous amount of information about the people who lived here.”
Going back further in time, he said, to when Martha’s Vineyard was connected to the mainland, the land at Lucy Vincent Beach was open land far from the sea. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there are Native American sites that have been claimed by the sea as far south as the proposed areas for the windfarms, he added.
Bettina Washington, historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), is very much aware of the changes at the cliff. “It is so special to our people,” she said. “And for us there is a sense of loss. But if that is what the creator wants, that is what we have to accept.”
She asked that those who visit the beach not dig or remove anything from the cliffs. “We want you to be respectful,” she said. “And we also want you to be safe.”
Randy Jardin, who works with Ms. Washington and is the senior tribal cultural resource monitor, said he goes to Lucy Vincent Beach almost every day. He said he is struck by the fact that people don’t know that they should leave the soil alone. “It is troubling to the tribe to see anyone digging in that sensitive area,” he said. “There are federal and state laws against disturbing known archeological and cultural resources. I go there and people are unaware that it is a protected area.”
At present the beach committee has no immediate plans, but they are working on deciding what action to take when the beach opens next summer. One thing is for sure, though. The erosion is not just a logistical and environmental issue, it is also an emotional one.
“A couple of years ago when the cliff really started to go and crumble, we went after a big storm,” said Linda Hearn of West Tisbury. “We found there were actually people there on the beach crying. That is how affected people were. That really affected me. For those people who have used the beach for years and see what has happened, it really broke their hearts.”