“Home Bird: Four Seasons on Martha’s Vineyard” essays by Laura Wainwright, illustrations by J. Ann Eldridge, Vineyard Stories 2012. $19.95.
Laura Wainwright’s essays in “Home Bird” make me yearn to live on Martha’s Vineyard. Swimming in Ice House Pond with little fish nearby and songbirds overhead, meandering through the autumn woods and catching glimpses of birds and bright leaves, or hunkering down by the wood stove with loved ones and a bottle of wine as an autumn Nor’easter bears down all sound like heaven to me.
As I read the 27 short essays I was filled with nostalgia for some time I couldn’t quite pinpoint. How I would love to abandon my writing desk for a beach romp with the dogs on a drizzly morning, or forage for wild cranberries then come home and bake them into a pie.
I found myself longing to wander the trails, walk the beaches, search for wildflowers and sea glass, make jelly, and feed the birds in this magical place that Ms. Wainwright calls home.
But wait, I do live on Martha’s Vineyard! It’s the very same Island.
And the very riches that Ms. Wainwright describes in such fine and precise detail that we can see and smell and taste them are available to all.
Yes, we year-rounders may have an advantage, knowing who to call to find the prettiest walking spots and out-of-the-way beaches, what unfamiliar bird is at the feeder, which path will lead to lush watercress or plump beach plums, which farmers will sell you fresh eggs, milk, or meat right at the barn and share some stories too, or send you out to pick your own berries.
But even newcomers and visitors need only ask and keep eyes and ears opened, to find and reap the rewards.
Keeping eyes and ears and all senses opened is one of Ms. Wainwright’s gifts. The ability to capture her experiences in words perfectly chosen to convey them is a second. Both are informed by the wisdom and spontaneity to take time, make time, to savor the small and simple pleasures of nature, home, animals, family life, Island life at its true finest.
It may seem that Ms. Wainwright’s life is specially charmed, but a careful read reveals that she and her husband, Whit Griswold, have a drafty old house, work to do, two children not-yet-fledged, pets to care for, laundry, and skunks invading the basement just like the rest of us. But she does not let all that get in the way of appreciating her home, this Island.
Ms. Wainwright’s prose is calm, clear, serene, uncluttered. Though economical with her words, she draws image after image and brings them to life with just the right details. And though reserved and careful (no gushing, no overblown adjectives, no rambling) she imparts rich, authentic emotions in a voice that is truly her own. There is delight at seeing unexpected bluebirds; excitement at the first winter skating expedition; regret when she finds an empty nest; pure contentment as she enjoys a favorite meal of Island-grown food prepared in her own kitchen, eaten at her own table.
The essays are divided by season: Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring. Each section highlights activities that evoke the feeling of that time of year perfectly. Summer finds Ms. Wainwright picking (and devouring) raspberries, swimming every day, welcoming guests, picking wild blueberries. Autumn has the flavors of bay scallops and wild cranberries picked with a friend; stormy nights and time to read.
Ms. Wainwright’s winter is rich with empty beaches and clear night skies, memories of duck hunting, and the warmth and sweet smells of a neighboring cow barn at dusk. Then Vineyard spring surprises the writer and all of us with lady slippers, watercress free for the gathering, the magical sight of a turtle laying her eggs, and woodland walks with dogs and friends.
But Ms. Wainwright shares more about nature than pretty images. Along with the streamlined poetry of her writing she parcels out some carefully researched information about such things as the life cycle of painted turtles, migration patterns of birds, details of how wild fruits and flowers grow, and much more.
The term “home bird” need hardly be defined after reading the book with its cherishing of home as a place of great contentment. Ms. Wainwright explains that a home bird is someone who likes to stay home but can enjoy outings as well and she counts herself in that species.
“It’s just that we find special delight in the comfort, nourishment, and complexity of our lives at home,” she writes. “I feel a hardy kinship with those birds that come to my feeder all year long…When the summer season turns to autumn, instead of moving on, we hunker down.”
A handful of favorite recipes for Vineyard delicacies are described in mouth-watering detail. Some are gleaned from cookbooks or magazines like Alexandre Dumas Potato Salad by James Beard and the hearty White Bean and Striped Bass Stew. Others have the added tang that comes when recipes are given by and shared with family or friends. There are fresh bay scallops sizzled in butter and sherry the way her father always cooked them, a beach plum jam recipe from a longtime family friend, reminding Ms. Wainwright of collecting beach plums in Chilmark with her mother years ago.
The illustrations by New Hampshire artist J. Ann Eldridge are a perfect match. The sepia-toned prints are as careful, detailed, and evocative as Ms. Wainwright’s essays. Traditional yet whimsical, even witty, dreamlike while down-to-earth, they have a simple country feeling without being precious. A turtle (seen from behind) lumbers across a road, a dog stands entreating outside a screen door. There are birds’ eggs and acorns, gnarled trees and a toad, snow-covered stone walls, a farm-house kitchen. The wonderful cover illustration, an old barn with a tiny red wheelbarrow in the loft, brings the familiar William Carlos Williams poem to life.
This is a book for the seasoned Vineyarder and first-time visitor alike. One for your Island in-laws, your son or daughter away at school, and those less fortunate friends and relatives who only get here once a year. And it’s the perfect gift for all of us as we lead our busy lives, gently reminding us to get out and enjoy the simple treasures the Vineyard offers, right here at home.
“Home Bird” events: Thursday, June 28, 5 pm, West Tisbury Library. A reading with author Laura Wainwright. 508-693-3366.
Saturday, June 30, 5–7 pm, Shaw Cramer Gallery, Vineyard Haven. Book signing with author and illustrator. 508-696-7323.