Out of Sight? Not Quite

I lived in Washington, D.C., for 11 years and loved it. All those years I hardly ever thought about where my drinking water came from or where my trash or sewage went.

All that changed after I landed on Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-1980s. Before long, the phrase “sole-source aquifer” had entered my working vocabulary. An aquifer, says the American Heritage Dictionary, is “an underground layer of permeable rock, sediment, or soil that yields water.” “Sole-source” means there’s only one of them. All the drinking water on Martha’s Vineyard comes from that one aquifer. Screw it up and we’ll be importing water from the mainland. Sort of puts environmental squabbles in perspective, doesn’t it?

A very hot topic at the time was the formation of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDRRD — the acronym resists pronunciation so successfully that it’s generally referred to as “the District”). Within a year or so, I was talking trash like I knew what I was talking about.

“Refuse” means “trash.” “Resource recovery” means recycling. A big issue was what to do with the trash that couldn’t be recycled and was filling up the six town dumps, which we were supposed to call “landfills.” Once the decision was made to ship the nonrecyclables off to SEMASS, the big incinerator in Rochester (Mass.), the landfills officially became “transfer stations,” but nearly everyone I know still takes their trash to the dump. The recycling shed at the West Tisbury dump is the Dumptique. “Landfill-tique” and “transfer-station-tique” are almost as unsayable as MVRDRRD.

“Refuse” doesn’t include sewage, but within a few years I had a nodding acquaintance with that subject too. The downtown areas of the down-island towns — Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown — are now “sewered,” but most Vineyard residences and businesses have their own septic systems. Those septic systems are underground and out of sight so in theory it would be easy to forget about them, but in practice it isn’t because they come up in conversation a lot. Someone is always having their septic tank pumped out; a former hairdresser’s husband is in the pump-out business; and when you hear that so-and-so is dealing with a failed septic system, you offer your condolences.

Here’s a handy guide to how septic systems work.

All of which explains why I’d have a hard time living in the big city again. Once you’ve started thinking about where your water comes from and where your trash and sewage go, it’s hard to stop. Thinking about water, trash, and sewage in a place with fewer than 20,000 year-round residents is manageable — barely. Thinking about water, trash, and sewage in a place with 600,000 year-round residents? The mind boggles.

So when my neighbor-landlords had to have a new septic put in, I offered my condolences, but I also had a great view from my deck. John Keene’s crew and their machines arrived last Thursday. Here some of what I saw.

big hole

This is just the beginning. Watching the interaction among the men on the site made me wish I didn’t work solo. The precision of the big excavator is as impressive as its power. When it shook the dirt off the huge stump it had just pulled from the ground, it reminded me of Travvy shaking a squeaky toy. But it also plucked shrubs and small trees up so delicately that they could be replanted when the job was done.

I want to be a heavy equipment operator when I grow up.

Excavator at the brink

Excavator at the brink

All that dirt had to go somewhere. Some of it came back later. The contractor’s shop is just up the road — close to my town’s dump, as a matter of fact — so it didn’t have far to go.

moving dirt

Half of the concrete container that will hold our wastewater and sewage is lifted into place. Behind the excavator and off to the left you can see the deck I watched the proceedings from — when I wasn’t circling the lawn to get a better angle. My internet and phone were disconnected for the duration — the cable crosses the lawn that was now a big pit — so while the work was under way I made several trips next-door to use my neighbors’ wi-fi.

lifting septic

Having watched the excavator uproot a huge stump and shake it like a dog’s toy, I did not want it to go after the little building I live in. My apartment is on the second floor. My bathroom, whose services are being improved by the new septic, is on the first. Luckily the companions of the big beast have trained it well.

staring contestdigging

Most of the cement tank is now underground. See those R2D2-looking creatures on top? That’s how the tank can be pumped out without digging up the lawn again.


Before the hole can be filled in, the town’s health agent has to inspect the new system and give his approval. Here John Powers checks out the dimensions of the distribution area. Note relative size of person and pit.

health agent

health agent 2Now the dirt comes back, some of it anyway. The hole is filled in, the surface graded, and the small trees and shrubs replaced in their original locations. The machine that chews big stumps like candy is astonishingly delicate when it comes to smoothing and replanting.


Before the digging started, a couple of frogs lived in a little plastic pond above where the cement tank now is. One of the girls next door has been asking her parents for a bigger pond. The new pond is bigger than anyone expected. There’ll be room for more than frogs in this one.

new pond

Now I can’t pass by a yard without wondering what’s underneath it. Out of sight, yes, but not quite out of mind. See why I’d have a hard time moving back to the big city?



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September License Plate Report

Around the end of July I start to resign myself: This could be it for the year. August brought nothing new. That practically confirmed it.

Then around the third week of September I spotted Mississippi, one of the top 5 hard-to-gets. Now anything is possible. Five more to go. Bring on October!

2014 sept license plate

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Shirley Looks Back

cover scan smI’m forever quoting Grace Paley — “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you better watch where your mouth is.”

Shirley Mayhew is in the mud of Martha’s Vineyard at least up to her waist, and has been since she moved to the Vineyard in 1947 as the bride of Vineyard native John Mayhew. Now she’s collected into a book her personal essays about her extra/ordinary life in this extra/ordinary place. Three of them have already appeared in this blog — “Miracle,” “Community,” and “The Musicales — Then and Now” — so I don’t need to tell you what a good writer she is. She’s also a fine photographer, as is her daughter Sarah: their photos provide a visual dimension to Looking Back.

Shirley’s journey begins at a mixer she didn’t want to attend at Pembroke College, where she was a less-than-engaged student. Johnny Mayhew, a navy fighter pilot just back from the war, didn’t want to be there either; he was almost engaged, so it seemed, to a girl at Mount Holyoke. After an awkward attempt at dancing and chitchat, they walk into Providence, share three beers, and talk about the real-life stuff that doesn’t come up at mixers.

Shirley in the duck blind on the morning Johnny proposed, November 29, 1946.

Shirley in the duck blind on the morning Johnny proposed, November 29, 1946.

Within the next few months, they date a few times, Shirley gets a summer job on the Vineyard, and Johnny breaks up with his Mount Holyoke girlfriend. Shirley joins the Mayhews for Thanksgiving — and Johnny proposes.

Shirley writes: “We were in a duck blind on Tisbury Great Pond. It was cold but clear and ducks were scarce that early morning, and during a lull in the conversation he turned to me and said, ‘You wouldn’t marry me, would you?’ Without a pause to think it over, I said, ‘Sure.'”

Shirley was in the mud, and the water, of this place right from the beginning.

In the essays that follow, readers are treated to a rich glimpse of the catch-as-catch-can life of most Vineyarders in the late 1940s and ’50s. Johnny, his cousins John and Everett Whiting, and their friend Willy Huntington start the Vineyard Shellfish Company, growing oysters on Tisbury Great Pond. As the Mayhews’ children arrive, it becomes clear that oystering won’t support a growing family. Johnny goes back to school and becomes a math teacher at the (brand-new) regional high school. In “Food in the Fifties” and “Check Stubs Tell All,” Shirley recounts the challenges and rewards of year-round island living, back when the summer people left around Labor Day and didn’t return till Memorial Day at the earliest.

“Thoughts on Turning Forty in 1966″ appears around the middle of Looking Back. When she wrote it, Shirley had gone back to school. After 18 years living intensively in one place, her world opens up: “I felt I had rejoined the human race, and my mind, which was not ready for higher education in my twenties, was now like a sponge, soaking up ideas and knowledge.”

At 40, now equipped with a BA and a teaching certificate, Shirley regards the future with some apprehension. The reader, noticing that half the book’s pages remain to be turned, is curious but not too worried.

With good reason. Shirley becomes not only a junior high language arts teacher at the Edgartown School, but a world traveler. By the end of World War II, Johnny Mayhew had seen enough of the world. Shirley, who had gone straight from Westchester County, New York, to Martha’s Vineyard, wants to see more. And she does, often accompanied by one of her two daughters, and later by one of her three granddaughters. The essays here recount a few of her travels, to Tisbury, England; Finland; the USSR; and Kenya, where baboons really did come to tea — there’s a photo to prove it.

“Saving Edilberto” and “Trucking into Cusco” are both devoted to Paucartambo, a remote village in the Peruvian Andes. Shirley developed a several-year relationship with Paucartambo, becoming godmother to two village children and raising money on Martha’s Vineyard to buy basic supplies for the village school. (Having heard more of Shirley’s Paucartambo stories and seen more of her photographs, I strongly suspect there’s a whole other book in there.)

In 248 pages, Looking Back conveys the passing of the decades, not only for the author but for Martha’s Vineyard and the world at large. In the early pages Johnny Mayhew courts and marries Shirley; in the later ones, Shirley visits Johnny in Windemere, the local nursing home, then attends his memorial service at the Ag Hall. (See “A Miracle” for an account of that day, and a bit about Johnny’s life.)

In the early years Johnny and his cousins raise oysters on Tisbury Great Pond. In 1972, Shirley starts making oyster stew for the friends, neighbors, and relatives who drop in on Christmas Day. The eldest attendees at those early parties have passed on, but their kids and grandkids are still coming; the babies and toddlers of the 1970s now have kids and grandkids of their own. The party now takes place at daughter Deb’s house — and yes, the recipe is included.

In the 1950s, the musically inclined of West Tisbury gather in each other’s living rooms to jam and play and sing. Now the children and grandchildren of the original “musicales” are singing and playing, in pickup bands, at the annual Ag Fair, and — in the case of granddaughter Katie — with the Boston Pops and in London. Worth noting is that at the first musicales, the men play and the women listen (and the kids often listen from the top of the stairs when they are supposed to be in bed). Now the musicians include daughter Deb, son Jack, and all three of Shirley’s granddaughters.

In addition to introducing, or re-introducing, the reader to its remarkable author, Looking Back offers an evolving picture of what Martha’s Vineyard has been about for the last several decades, and why so many of us want to keep it alive as something other than a tourist destination.

On the island, Looking Back is available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. (I think Bunch of Grapes does mail order, but its website doesn’t inspire confidence; better call first: 508-693-2291.) You can also order from the author for $30 (including shipping): Music Street Press, P.O. Box 51, West Tisbury, MA 02575.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m in the Sunday night writers’ group with Shirley, and I copyedited Looking Back. Janet Holladay of the Tisbury Printer did a super job with the design and also helped organize the essays into a sequence that works wonderfully. This book is as island-grown as it gets!

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Susanna J. Sturgis:

My friend up the road, mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, has started a blog about life in and around her corner of West Tisbury. So far she’s blogged about grapes, hops, getting old, writing mysteries, and the hen that stowed away in a car trunk. Don’t miss it!

Originally posted on Martha's Vineyard Mysteries:

This year we had a bonanza crop of grapes.

The grape arbor is next to the small studio where Lynn Christoffers, our resident photographer, lives and works. She’d been watching the grapes progress from blossoms to green marbles to fragrant purple gems. Yellow jackets were moving in to dine on the overripe ones.

“We need to harvest them soon,” she said.

She and a bed and breakfast guest went to work, clipping off bunches of lush grapes and by mid-afternoon, baskets of grapes covered every available surface in my kitchen.

Outdoors, grapes attract yellow jackets. Indoors, it’s fruit flies. I had to do something with the full baskets and their mist of hovering fruit flies before I had room enough to prepare supper. I was in the throes of a deadline and in no mood to deal with a mountain of grapes. I felt mildly resentful of the fact that…

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Little Changes

Travvy and I walk the same paths and dirt roads regularly so we notice the small changes missed by those who pass less often or at faster speeds. For Travvy the world seems to create itself anew every night. Each shrub and tree trunk and puddle has a new story to tell him. To me they look pretty much like they did yesterday afternoon.

truck lifts

Well digger performs push-up.

Summer has wrought some changes that even I can see. Here are a few of them.

A guy with a chainsaw is clearing himself a house lot across Pine Hill, in the woods that lead down to the big empty pasture. I knew something was coming when the well digger showed up a year ago July.

The real action just started. First blaze orange marks appeared on some trees. The barely perceptible path became more pronounced. Then the chainsawing started. The owner is clearing the lot himself, on weekends and after work. I’ve seen his big SUV parked in the clearing near the well, but I haven’t met him yet. I hear from my neighbors that he’s a nice guy.

Future fuel

Future fuel

He hasn’t cleared nearly enough land for a house, but already he’s stacked enough logs for a heating season. If you look closely at the photo on the right, you’ll see my buddy checking out the wood pile.

private signFurther up Pine Hill a new sign has appeared. Whether there’s any connection between the sign and the construction I don’t know. This particular house is a ways up the road, and because beyond it Pine Hill is barely passable, the only passersby are walkers, horseback riders, and bicyclists. On the whole I prefer “Private” to “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing.”

Trav and I pass the West Tisbury School at least once a day. Sometimes we cross the playing fields. Sometimes we play on the playground: Trav likes to climb and he likes to jump, and he can do both over there.

Buses behind the West Tisbury School

Buses behind the West Tisbury School

School buses park in the big lot behind the school, next to the soccer field. When I was a kid, school buses were big and yellow. They still are. When their lights flash red, everyone behind and in front of them stops to let kids cross the road. They still do. The buses are somewhat sleeker than they used to be, and when they stop these days, a little STOP sign sticks out from the side, but other than that they look pretty much the same. I still remember how we loved to crowd into the furthest-back seat so when the bus hit a pothole we’d fly up in the air.

124 signEach bus has a number. Last year the buses in residence at the West Tisbury School were 117H, 121, 123, and 124. While they were away for the summer, little signs went up at the back of the lot: 117H, 121, 123, 124. There’s plenty of room back there for the buses to park anywhere they want, but someone at the school must like assigned seating. (“BUS” is stenciled on each space, so the buses will know not to park in the car-length spaces nearer the road.)

I thought the signs meant the same buses would be back for the new school year, but I was wrong. The only returnee is 124. Its new companions are 116H, 125, and 126. The other signs have disappeared. Only 124 has a sign. Will the assigned-seating fan requisition some new signs for 116H, 125, and 126? The suspense isn’t quite killing me, but I am curious.

116H busSpeaking of curious, walking past the buses as often as I do, I couldn’t help noticing last year that 117H had a letter but 121, 123, and 124 didn’t. What did it mean? When 116H showed up at the beginning of this month, I figured the H had to mean something. I looked more closely. It does: the H buses have a wheelchair entrance in the back. 116H is a “Handy Bus” — H is for Handy, probably short for Handicapped, but maybe they’re not supposed to say that out loud.

Probably the rest of the town already knows that, but I still feel pretty clever to have figured it out. If I wrote murder mysteries, I could turn it into a clue. To the unwary eye, all school buses look alike, but our intrepid sleuth pays attention to the numbers and knows which one was AWOL when the crime was committed.

For the rest — this September looks pretty much like last. There are fewer joggers, runners, and cyclists on the bike path telling Travvy how handsome he is. The birch leaves seem to have gone yellow earlier, probably because we’ve had so little rain, and the oak leaves, though still deeply green, look dry around the edges. Geese are gathering at Misty Meadows, and their flying formations are more orderly with each passing day.

The winged sumac is reddening into what might be my most favorite color of all. Last fall my favorite stand of winged sumac was cut down at the height of its crimson glory. I know it’s an “invasive species” and ordinarily my sympathy for invaders is not much, but I hope it doesn’t happen again this year. The guy who did the cutting last year left a sweatshirt hanging on a lower limb of a nearby pine. It’s been there ever since.

Winged sumac

Winged sumac


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More Than Meets the Eye

Aboard the Vanity: Susanna at the wheel and Capt. Chris Murphy holding the sheet.

Aboard the Vanity: Susanna at the wheel and Capt. Chris Murphy holding the sheet. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

I love this photo. At first glance, it’s a great shot from a late-summer sail on Katama Bay. If you know the backstory — well, it’s a bit more than that.

Remember the fight against the roundabout? It was, to put it mildly, a pretty big deal. Lines were drawn, sides taken; tempers rose, friendships frayed. I was an active and visible member of the anti-roundabout forces. (If you want to know more, click on the “roundabout” tag at the bottom of this post. That’ll get you a list of all my posts on the subject.)

At the heart of the public battles was the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The MVC was divided right down the middle. At at least two MVC meetings, the chair made questionable calls that gave roundabout supporters an edge.

In retrospect, I don’t believe the anti-roundabout forces ever had a chance. We had the numbers and the arguments, but the whole thing was being orchestrated at the state level in offices where we had no influence. We suspected as much, but we fought to the end believing we did have a chance, a good chance — as if the outcome were really up for grabs.

Which turned the MVC chair’s questionable calls into a Very Big Deal. The MVC chair became a symbol of the pro-roundabout faction, a lightning rod for the opposition at a time when the island’s political skies were fairly flashing with lightning.

The MVC chair at the time was Chris Murphy.

So a couple of weeks ago my photographer friend Lynn Christoffers invited me and a couple of other friends to go sailing. The skipper, she said, would be Chris Murphy. I chortled, reminded Lynn of the backstory, and, of course, accepted the invitation.

It was a perfect sailing day: bright and breezy. The catboat Vanity is as seaworthy as they come. She was built on the Vineyard — right in Edgartown, in fact — in the early 1920s and has been working Vineyard waters ever since. Now she belongs to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Chris gave each of us a turn at the wheel, all except for Lynn, who was busy taking photos.

We talked about sailing, the Vanity, oystering — we sailed past the oyster dredges at the south end of Katama Bay, and Chris, who’s lived on the water pretty much all his life, knows how they work — fishing in general, the houses along the shore and the people who live in them. We did not talk about island politics. Roundabout? What roundabout?

I wasn’t surprised. I’ve lived here a pretty long time and Chris, having been born and grown up here and being about my age, has lived here twice as long. We’re both part of the web that connects island people to each other. Each of us belongs to several webs that make up the big web. Those webs overlap at various points, some of them visible and others submerged.

Submerged connections can become visible at any moment. As Chris described the history of a boathouse on the bay shore, I learned that I guy I’ve known for years is related to a family whose name I recognize — I had no idea.

Each of us brings to our interactions with others all the webs that we’re part of. This could result in a hopeless tangle of intertwined knots and threads, but it doesn’t. Some of us by instinct, others by trial and error, we all see what we need to see and set the rest aside. My neighbor may be on the outs with your second cousin, but so what? At the same time we can be pretty sure that most of the people in our respective webs are at least dimly aware of whatever incident sparked the feud between my neighbor and your second cousin.

This is what community is about. It supports us and sustains us, but it also makes us cautious. Any one of us could with a word or action set several boats to rocking. So the pressure is constant, from both within and without, to say nothing — or, rather, to say nothing on the record. Potentially disruptive information circulates behind people’s backs, so we all know plenty of stuff that we can’t let on that we know, and a fair amount of stuff that might not be true.

This accounts for why relative newcomers to the Vineyard so often set about rearranging the furniture, all in the interest of some ideal that sounds good in the abstract but gets messy in its particulars. They haven’t been here long enough to be part of various webs whose interests are contradictory or even mutually exclusive.  Or they choose to associate mainly with their own kind and consider the rest of us part of the scenery.

I suspect this helps account for the miserable performance of our current Congress. A considerable portion of our national legislators think it’s a virtue to be single-minded, to turn the lines between Us and Them into walls and keep building them higher. Martha’s Vineyard is not kind to ideologies. It tends to sideline ideologues who don’t confine their rants to off-island issues like Benghazi and Monsanto.

Vineyard people, and people in any functioning small town or neighborhood, could tell the congressional ideologues that’s no way to get things done. Things get done in those complex webs that connect us one to another in visible and invisible ways.

Without those interwoven webs you get gridlock.

Newly elected members usually come in all fired up to change things. When they start to temper their rhetoric, they’re invariably accused of selling out. What if they’re just realizing that the targets of their campaign invective are real people with real lives, people with whom they might have important things in common?

Without those interwoven webs, you also get the incivility that so many deplore about the current political scene. Maintaining the web is as important as scoring political points. In a hard-fought battle, the threads may stretch, fray, and even break, but when it’s over, it’s possible to repair most of the damage.

When talking about civic discourse and public life, even we landlubbers are forever resorting to nautical metaphors: Don’t rock the boat. We’re all in the same boat.

And you never know who you might wind up sailing with.


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August License Plate Report

In last month’s report, I wrote that the end-of-year license plate map would look pretty much like July’s. Ayup. August’s map looks exactly like July’s:

2014 july license plate

Worth noting however: Last Friday afternoon I was in Edgartown, down by the harbor. A little bright blue car passed me wearing Hawaii plates. This is at least the second Hawaii car I’ve seen this year, and possibly the third — this after seeing zero Hawaiis in 2012 and 2013. I was so excited to spot my first Hawaii of 2014 that I couldn’t tell you anything about the car it was attached to. Maybe Hawaii #2 was the same as Hawaii #2, or maybe it wasn’t.

Blue Hawaii (I know, I didn’t make that up) definitely wasn’t Hawaii #1 and/or #2. Is Hawaii really on the increase, or am I just getting out more? It’s one of life’s unanswerable questions, and likely to remain so.



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The Musicales—Then and Now

cover scan smShortly after I moved to the Vineyard, I started volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse. It was strictly a winter thing in those days, the mid-1980s. It took place on most weekends, January through March. Wintertide, I was told, was inspired by the old West Tisbury musicales (pronounced “musicals”–I didn’t get the spelling right till later). Gradually, by listening and asking questions, I learned what the musicales were.

In this guest post, Shirley Mayhew describes the musicales and links them to today’s vibrant island music scene, as evidenced at the annual M.V. Agricultural Society Fair. The fair’s in town this weekend. I’ll be heading over tonight to hear some music.

What follows is abridged slightly from the chapter of the same name in Shirley’s recently released and thoroughly wonderful collection, Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard. More about that later.


By Shirley W. Mayhew

In the 1950s, on the day after Labor Day, most of the few restaurants, as well as the four movie theaters, closed for the winter.  There were no support groups or theater productions or other means of entertainment between Labor Day and Memorial Day, so it was up to us to make our own fun. We fed each other at dinner parties after the husbands had had a successful duck or goose hunt, or fishing trip, and we got together to play music. This was a male endeavor, as they were the ones who played guitar and banjo, violin and accordion. The wives were the audience, chatting about their babies or a new recipe that had turned out pretty well.

Sometimes we gathered at the Whitings’ house or the Scannells’, and once in a while at our house. Everett Whiting and Johnny played guitar and Willy Huntington was good on the banjo as well as the guitar. Mike Athearn, a self-taught musician, was the only accordion player, though he also played violin in the Vineyard Sinfonietta and tuba in the Vineyard Haven Band. Jack Scannell, who had not grown up on the Vineyard and had never gotten into playing music, tried hard to mix in with a kazoo. Ernest Correllus and Elmer Silva occasionally joined us.

They all played and sang old favorites, some not fit for their children to hear, but it was our only entertainment and we enjoyed it. Some years later my three children confessed that they used to sit at the top of our stairs when we had a musicale in the old church parsonage, into which we had moved after eight months in the chicken coop. And the Whiting and Scannell children hid behind the furniture in their homes so they could listen undetected. The music got into the Huntington boys, as well as into my family (though not from my side). My son, Jack, and my daughter Deborah play the guitar and Deborah has handed down her lovely voice to her daughter, Katie Ann. Jack’s two grown-up daughters are both accomplished musicians.

 * * *

I was reminded of those early days on the Vineyard recently when I was watching MVTV as they showed videos of the 2011 Agricultural Fair—the 150th anniversary of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. The first fair I attended was in 1946, and I haven’t missed one since, although it is increasingly difficult for me to get around.

I went in 2010, with the help of my daughter Sarah, to listen to a performance of the Flying Elbows, because my granddaughter Caroline was joining them with her fiddle for a few songs. And again in 2011 when I met Johnny there—he was living at Windemere by then and they had brought a few residents in wheelchairs to enjoy the music and food.

In 2013 my daughter Deborah took me over and we set up our folding chairs in front of the stage to listen to the Stragglers. I was almost overwhelmed with nostalgia when I realized I was listening to the third generation of local musicians, and what a wonderful tradition had been started more than fifty years ago here in West Tisbury. The Stragglers is one of several groups in town that now play all over the Island.

Peter Huntington is one of the Stragglers. His father, Willy Huntington, was a member of our informal musicales back in the fifties—and in those early days, when the Fair was held in the Grange Hall, with no carnival and no music coming out of amplifiers, Willy and his brother, Gale Huntington, along with Elmer Silva and Ernest Correllus, sat on the front porch of the Grange Hall with their banjos and guitars and provided music for the annual event. Peter’s daughter, Shaelah, plays the violin today and used to enter the fiddlers’ contest at the fair along with my granddaughters, Caroline, Lucy, and Katie Ann.

Danny Whiting, son of the late farmer and musician Everett Whiting, is also a member of the Stragglers. He was four years old when I first met him at that 1946 Fair, and I attended many musicales when his father was playing guitar.

Jimmy Athearn, that famed farmer who started Morning Glory Farm with his high school sweetheart, Debbie, took up the trombone when he was in seventh grade at the Tisbury School. He went on after his schooling to discover a group of Islanders who were putting together a swing band, music from the thirties and forties that was making a comeback in the mid-eighties. This band, a mixture of native Vineyarders and a few wash-ashores called the Martha’s Vineyard Swing Orchestra, began to play at weddings on the Island. As a backup they also had some rock-and-roll tunes to play in case the big band music was too foreign for the young wedding guests. During the nineties they did a many as twenty to twenty-five gigs a year, sometimes three a week during the high season.

That was a busy time for Jimmy. Sometimes, usually on a weekend, he would rise at dawn to spray the corn, then pick it from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., and then rush to shower and change his clothes and step into his role as a musician and play his trombone until midnight.

Tom Hodgson has been a member of the Flying Elbows, a well-known Vineyard group,  for more than twenty years. He also plays guitar with the Woods Hole Folk Orchestra and sometimes joins with the Gospel Singalong Concert Series in Falmouth.

His mother, the late Nancy Whiting, and I had known each other since we had met in a Connecticut summer camp when we were fifteen years old. Tom was in the Vineyard high school when he started playing the guitar, as was my son, Jack, who was a member of the Bodes, a high school rock band. Three of the original four Bodes still have a gig every once in a while. They have been playing together for over forty years.

Mark Mazer’s family moved to the Vineyard in the mid-sixties when his father became the Vineyard’s psychiatrist. His parents weren’t musical, but Mark began playing the guitar when he was in high school. Later he became a guitarist and lead singer with the Stragglers. I didn’t know Nancy Jephcote back in the fifties, but she sounds like she was born playing the violin. A member of the Flying Elbows, she is in several groups and can play classical as well as fiddle tunes. All three of my granddaughters took violin lessons in the Suzuki method from her when they were very small, and they all participated in the fiddle contests at the annual Fair. Nancy is very talented and now teaches music in the elementary schools of the Island.

John Early is a guitar player for the Stragglers. He is a well-known builder and was a West Tisbury selectman for many years.

Merrily Fenner, wife of Frank Fenner and co-owner of the Menemsha Galley, is the daughter of Hamilton Benz, who played in the Vineyard Haven Band many years ago. She and Nancy Jephcote are the female members of the Stragglers. Though I never really knew Ham Benz, I would recognize him if he were still living—he was a well-known musician on the Vineyard, and Merrily is carrying on the tradition. Peter Knight, who plays drums for the Stragglers, is married to Merrily’s daughter.

Not long ago I listened to the Stragglers on our local TV station. The program ended with a salute to the late Danny Prowten, builder, volunteer firefighter, and a founding member of the Stragglers. The next day I watched and listened to the Metropolitan Opera’s TV production of Carmen—both were wonderful. But my musical life really began when I sat on the floor of the Whitings’ living room about sixty years ago, tuning out the women’s babble about their babies and new recipes, and listening to Willy and Johnny and Everett and the others singing “Country Road” and “My Pretty Quadroon.” The tradition goes on.


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Built on Stilts

Oak Bluffs streets were crowded on this early mid-August evening, both with cars and pedestrians, but I found a parking spot on Penacook — my go-to street for summer parking in Oak Bluffs — and walked toward Union Chapel.

My feet heard the drumming before my ears did.

2014 signEach performance of Built on Stilts, the dance festival that completed its 18th season last night, begins with a drum circle. Anyone can join the circle. Anyone can get up and dance.

As the minutes move toward 8:00, the dancing around the drummers takes shape. The evening’s performers are warming up. Moves ripple around the circle. The dancers are so attuned to the drums and each other they seem to be of one mind.

This year’s Built on Stilts comprised eight evenings of dance. Each evening comprised 10 or 12 or 14 dances — and no two evenings are identical. If you make it to all eight performances, you’ll see each dance twice. You’ll see some of the same dancers working with different partners. You’ll see at least 40 different dances in all.

Warming up around the drum circle

Warming up around the drum circle

Built on Stilts is like an umbrella, gathering dancers under Union Chapel’s soaring roof. As director and co-founder Abby Bender wrote in this year’s program:

“And so each summer B.O.S. participants juggle their schedules to come together and make new dances with parks and backyards as their training grounds. Built on Stilts has found its home in this beautiful performance space and has made possible the discovery of friends and fellow artists who might otherwise remain strangers. Collectively, we have built an inimitable summer dance community in which we may ALL share our love of dance with you, regardless of our ages and sizes, no matter what our various training and experiences may be.”

 And what a community it is! Grade school students, high school students, and adults of all ages. Summer visitors and year-round residents. Professionals and amateurs. Working together, learning from each other, egging each other on — and performing for a standing-room-only audience as multifarious as the dancers.

Each night Abby Bender thanks the audience for being part of the performance. It’s not hyperbole: you can feel the performers gathering up energy from the audience, transforming it into dance and channeling it back to the audience.

On the last three nights of Built on Stilts 2014, though, the line between stage and audience was more permeable than usual. Roberta Kirn, dancer, percussionist, percussion teacher, introduced us to “circlesongs,” a form that she learned from its developer, musician Bobby McFerrin.

Circlesongs can be sung by a handful of people, or dozens, or hundreds, or thousands. The leader comes up with a tune and gives it to the circle. Then she comes up with another, complementary tune and gives it to part of the circle. And another, and another. Pretty soon multiple layers of harmony are rising from this circle of friends, casual acquaintances, and total strangers.

A few of us have been singing circlesongs with Roberta at her monthly community sings. Why not introduce them at Built on Stilts? Why not indeed. She’d do it with volunteers from the audience. She encouraged us “regulars” to come in case the audience proved hesitant. Hesitant we weren’t: volunteers of all ages, sizes, and vocal ranges made a circle where the drummers had been, and led by Roberta the singers created a song.

Built on Stilts has been evolving for 18 years. Why am I so struck by the wonder of it this year?

Because last week I was witness to an arts-related event that was different in every way: the seriously misnamed Islanders Write conference. For this island writer, Islanders Write was demoralizing. Island writers and island writing weren’t much in evidence. In marked contrast, island dance and island dancers were all over Built on Stilts. Year-round residents were well represented in the audience too. And all this was happening in the middle of August. When people from New York, Boston, D.C., and points west flock to the Vineyard to attend events featuring musicians, actors, comedians, and speakers from New York, Boston, D.C., and points west.

True, dance, like theater and music, is a collaborative art. Writing, like painting, is a solitary activity, but it’s a rare writer who thrives on isolation. Writers are each other’s coaches and supporters, listeners and readers. A conference about island writing could be as expansive and energetic and multigenerational as Built on Stilts. Abby Bender and co-founder Anna Luckey set out to create “an accessible forum for making and performing dance here on the island,” and that’s what it’s become, on a scale they probably couldn’t imagine back in 1997.

You know what? So far the much-ballyhooed “creative economy” has looked like an extension of Martha’s Vineyard: The Theme Park, where year-round working people are mostly support staff. If it starts fostering events like Built on Stilts, I might just get behind it.

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Islanders Write? Not Quite

In the summer we denizens of the Seasonally Occupied Territories are regularly bombarded with events that have “Martha’s Vineyard” in their names. Their main connection to the year-round Vineyard is that they’re held on the same terra firma.

no trespassingSummer residents are often featured at these events. The year-round Vineyard, though, is usually not on the organizers’ psychic map. The underlying assumption seems to be that we year-rounders have much to learn from the summer folk but they have nothing to learn from us.

So earlier this summer, when I heard of an upcoming conference called Islanders Write, I dared hope that it might be something different. “Islanders Write”: Doesn’t that sound active to you? Islanders writing, talking about writing, talking about all the kinds of writing being done on Martha’s Vineyard, encouraging other islanders to write?

Aside: “Islanders” is what the academics call a contested term. Do you have to be born here to be considered an islander? Is it possible for someone from somewhere else to become an islander? It’s worth discussing, but I don’t want to go there now. Let “islanders” include anyone whose feet are in the mud of this particular place. As in what the late Grace Paley once said in an interview: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

One skim through the list of panels made it clear that this was not what “Islanders Write” meant to the event organizers. “Writing for Radio,” “Writing Children’s Books,” “Narrative Non-fiction,” “The Recipe for Cookbook Writing”: any of the panels could have taken place anywhere.

What “Islanders Write” meant to its organizers was, apparently, dozens of people sitting in rows at the Grange Hall, facing the stage, where two, three, four, or five panelists expounded on the subject at hand for 45 minutes. After which the dozens of people could get up, go downstairs, buy the panelists’ books at tables set up by the island’s two new-book purveyors, and get the books signed by their authors.

A handful of the panelist-authors do have their feet in the mud of this place — Nicki Galland, John Hough Jr., Nancy Slonim Aronie — but the roster of the missing was impressive. Where were the poets? Where were the island journalists? Not a single reporter or regular contributor to either the Vineyard Gazette or the Martha’s Vineyard Times appeared on a panel. This is all the more remarkable because the event was sponsored by the Times. (OK, that explains why no one from Gazette was invited, but it doesn’t explain the absence of island journalists, period.)

The “Writing in a New Media World” panel was billed as being about “digital books, video gaming and self-publishing.” Why on earth were these three topics lumped together? Why was blogging omitted?  Worthy questions to be sure, but this was the big one on my mind: Why were no self-publishing island writers on the panel?

Well, well, well. Two of the island’s most knowledgeable self-publishers, Amelia Smith and Michael West, were outside in the “self-publishers tent,” organized by Amelia with some help from other island writers (including yours truly). Those who stopped by learned a lot more about self-publishing than those who attended the panel.

We were outside in more ways than one. We were outside the hall, although there was plenty of room for us downstairs at the Grange. (Fortunately the weather was perfect.) We weren’t invited to be on any panels. Whatever “Islanders Write” was about, it wasn’t about us — or about island writing, islanders writing, or writing about the island either.

What it was, was a tailor-made example of why I call this blog From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. The occupying forces — those with connections and clout — call the shots, make the rules, and define the terms. This is business as usual on summer Martha’s Vineyard and nothing to blow a gasket about. What was, and is, infuriating about this particular event is its name. If they’d called it, say, “Writers with Some Vineyard Connection Flog Their Books,” I’d have no problem with it.

But they didn’t. They called it “Islanders Write.”

The headline on the Times’s puff piece about the event gives the game away. “Islanders Write shows writing is a growth industry on this Island,” it says. This event wasn’t meant to be about islanders writing. It’s about bolstering the so-called “creative economy,” which I blogged about in late June.

So what would an Islanders Write conference worthy of the name look like? First of all, why should we care?

Two reasons:

  1. Because islanders (variously defined) are writing, and writing well, often against the odds; and
  2. Because there’s a crying need for more Vineyarders to be telling Vineyard stories. Most stories the wider world hears about Martha’s Vineyard are told by people whose acquaintance with the place is limited. The national news media and New York publishers, among others, get to decide what stories are worth hearing. That in turn affects what stories get told.

A conference about islanders writing wouldn’t be held in August. That’s a no-brainer. In summer we’re fried: working two jobs, dealing with traffic, supervising out-of-school kids, hosting houseguests, and so on and on. In August we’re fried squared.

In fact, it might not be a one-day conference at all. How about monthly panels held at the various island libraries? Put three or four Vineyard writers on each panel and leave lots of time for discussion.

What might the panels be about? Off the top of my head –

  • Where to start
  • How to keep going and keep growing as a writer
  • Finding or starting a writers’ group
  • Building an audience without “getting published”
  • Why poetry?
  • Blogging 101
  • Self-publishing demystified
  • Challenges of small-town reporting
  • Why write about the Vineyard — and what happens when you do
  • Collaborating with musicians, actors, dancers, and/or visual artists

That’s just a beginning. Any of the above could spin off in different directions. Why not? The off-season is fast approaching. If you’re interested — let me know!

Tools of this writers trade

Tools of this writer’s trade

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