Swans Got Your Goat?

I. Goats

On our morning walk the other day, Travvy and I left the bike path, heading toward the West Tisbury School. Immediately I caught a metallic glint from the little meadow up ahead. We walk past that meadow almost every day. This was new. A little closer and it looked as though someone had scattered several big white rocks across the scrubby grass.

Travvy caught on before I did: goats. Goats are the newest rage of the organic, environmentally friendly agriculture crowd. Goats eat everything, including brambles and poison ivy. There are now at least three enterprises renting out goats to help with, as one company calls it, “goatscaping.”

Travvy wasn’t impressed. He bucked and plunged and howled like a banshee. With me holding tight to his lead, we made our way along the path till Old County Road was just a few yards away. Between us and it, however, was a problem: the electric fence — the glinting metal I’d glimpsed from the bike path — came right up to the path on one side. On the other side was brambly, wooded scrub. The path itself was less than a foot wide.

If Travvy hit the fence, so much the better. I just didn’t want him to push me into it.

Travvy got shocked, my left thumb got wrenched, but we made it through. When we got home, I was too ripped to call and complain: You bloody idiots, what were you thinking to bring the fence so close to the trail? I’d wait till tomorrow.

By the next day, however, the fence had been moved back from the path.

In the days since, Travvy has learned to keep his brain in gear while walking near the goats. An unwelcome intrusion has turned into a teaching opportunity.

Travvy checks out the neighbors.

Travvy checks out the new neighbors.

II. Politics

Elections don’t  bring out the best in me or my fellow USians. Regional and national ones are by far the worst. The 24/7 fearmongering and lies that precede them, the handwringing and gloating that come afterward — understandably we come to dread elections worse than visiting the dentist (which I did yesterday, so it’s on my mind).

donkeyLocal elections aren’t nearly as bad. Campaigning is minimal, it doesn’t go on long, and the chances are good that you know at least something about most of the candidates. Unfamiliar names you can learn more about by asking whichever friends, neighbors, and acquaintances you run into at the post office or grocery store. Infallible this method is not, but it has to be more reliable than TV advertising and robocalls.

On the national level, campaigns are the distant thundering of gods, demigods, and devils. Sorting out the facts from the distortions from the downright lies is a full-time job. I have no trouble understanding why so many people don’t vote. I’ve sat out a few elections myself. I think compulsory voting is a terrible idea.

“All politics are local,” as the late Tip O’Neill, a brilliant politician from my home state, used to say. Politics are about so much more than elections and politicians. They’re about how people arrive at decisions (or don’t) and implement them (or not). In our workplaces, homes, neighborhoods, organizations, and wherever else we gather, we’re doing this all the time.

III. Swans

So while the rest of the country is freaking out about fracking, climate change, income inequality, and the cost of health care, a big issue in my town is swans on the Mill Pond.

No, that’s not quite right. We’re freaking out about fracking, climate change, income inequality, the cost of health care, and all the rest of it, but we’re also paying attention to the swans on the Mill Pond.

Mama swan with cygnets, April 2014. Photo by Martina Mastromonaco.

Mama swan with cygnets, April 2014. Photo © 2014 by Martina Mastromonaco.

Joannie, our ACO (animal control officer), has long taken a special interest in the Mill Pond swans. This past summer one of the cygnets was badly bit by a snapping turtle. Joannie arranged for the cygnet, now named Rocky, to get veterinary care, and wonder of wonders, Rocky survived, thrived, and is now back on the Mill Pond. Many of us followed the story firsthand, by word-of-mouth, or on Facebook.

The Mill Pond is a scant few feet from the Edgartown Road. The speed limit, 25 mph, has long been ignored, and since the police station moved from next door up to North Tisbury, plenty of people think the speeding has gotten worse. Long story short, some of the cars have taken out swans and ducks trying to cross the road, so last month Joannie asked the board of selectmen if she, with the help of her husband, could put up a gate to discourage the birds from crossing the road.

West Tisbury being West Tisbury, one selectman thought that the town should pay for the gate. The board as a whole believed the proposal should be referred to the conservation commission and the historic district commission for their review. A local naturalist, whose surname, appropriately enough, is Pelikan, questioned the advisibility of encouraging the swans at all. Mute swans — which the Mill Pond swans are — are considered a non-native, invasive species. In Rhode Island, he said, feeding waterfowl is prohibited. He called the feeding and protection of the swans “puzzling” and “misguided.”

How, one might wonder, could so many of West Tisbury’s intelligent, well-informed, environmentally conscientious townsfolk possibly be supporting, actively or tacitly, a practice that Mr. Pelikan all but called irrational?

Interesting question. I’m pretty rational, but I love seeing the swans on the Mill Pond, I followed Rocky’s recovery on Facebook, and I often stick a spare dollar bill or two in the jar at the grocery store devoted to the care and feeding of the swans. As invasive species go, swans do nowhere near as much damage as human beings, but at the same time I suspect Mr. Pelikan has a point.

After every election, including the one just past, you hear plenty of people asking how any sane, intelligent person could vote for those jerks. The obvious implication is that those people are crazy or stupid. They, of course, are saying the same thing about us.

Day in, day out, I get to see firsthand how complex are the interests and emotions and priorities that go into even a very minor issue, like whether swans on the Mill Pond are a good idea. If I had to vote tomorrow, would I vote yes or would I vote no?

Most likely some people would be wondering how a sane, intelligent person could possibly vote the way I did.

Bobette and her brood, April 2014. Photo © 2014 by Martina Mastromonaco.

Bobette and her brood, April 2014. Photo © 2014 by Martina Mastromonaco.


About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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6 Responses to Swans Got Your Goat?

  1. Your dog is a gorgeous dog!
    Your writing is always witty and on the dot. I like your take on politics. And I love swans, even though they can be dangerous if frightened. The babies are of course adorable. A pond with swans is a delight for the eyes, so I would also stick a buck for the recovery of an injured swan. Always like your tone of voice when you write about your island. Affection, humor, and just enough of a critical eye to make each post worth a visit.


  2. Miguel says:

    Personally I think we should encourage the consumption of Quansoo Rabbit.


  3. hihowsyou25 says:

    Aww wonderful capture !


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