Soundings : The amazing shrinking moat
"One of the things I like most about the Vineyard is that the moat's exactly the right size." Thus quipped Jib Ellis, who back in 1981, my first year on Martha's Vineyard, was dispensing both wisdom and bargains from the counter of the Thrift Shop in Tisbury.
Not long after, I remembered Jib's line while reading "A Town and Not the World," the first chapter of Henry Beetle Hough's lyrical ode to community journalism, "Country Editor." In the opening pages, Mr. Hough wrote of going to press with an edition of the Vineyard Gazette on the day when radio reports announced the outbreak of World War II.
"Ordinarily the Gazette has no concern with outside news," the editor recalled, "but because this was an occasion which weighed heavily on our hearts and the hearts of all mankind we wanted to take some notice of it." So on that morning in 1939, Mr. Hough sat down at the Linotype and set a few paragraphs about how Islanders had learned of the invasion of Poland. Then, because it was a beautiful September morning and because he was, after all, Henry Hough, "I put in what kind of a day it was in order that future generations might know, if they cared to look back in the files, what things were like on our Island when the world went mad."
My sense this week is that in ways both sad and wonderful, the Vineyard's moat has shrunk considerably since Jib's remark in 1981, and even more since "Country Editor" was first published in 1940. Mr. Hough's gesture at the dawn of world war, setting down how "the last clouds of the northeast storm had drawn away in the unveiling of a crystal, gilded morning," seems as heroic today, and as inadequate, as the gesture of a single protestor standing down the tanks in Tiananmen Square.
It's no longer possible to pursue community journalism here from a stance that professes "no concern with outside news." Certainly to practice journalism on Martha's Vineyard is, and will always be, to become an expert on the details and dynamics of a particular place. But the membrane between our insular life and that of the world is so permeable now that seven miles of water separates us in only the most limited sense. It's not enough to note the weather on a day when our attention turned to world events; we need to know how world events affect our lives right here, right now.
The most overwhelming change in the past generation has come in the distance-erasing technologies of communication. The cell phone ensures that we're never really away from the responsibilities of work. And the online edition of this newspaper, where you may well be reading this column, is as easily accessed in Fiji as in Tisbury.
The financial moat is eroding, too: There's no question whether the global financial crisis will affect our economic lives on the Vineyard. The only question is how - and we've already seen one eye-opening answer in Banco Santander's acquisition of Sovereign Bank, whose branches include the Bank of Martha's Vineyard.
The collapse of stock values may be playing out on far-away Wall Street, but don't you think our Island nonprofits are trembling this month as they prepare to mail their year-end appeal letters? Of course they are.
At least there's still the environment, and our sense that the Vineyard will always be a place of sanctuary. But consider Walden Pond, just 50 miles west of Boston, where scientists mining the notebooks of Henry David Thoreau are discovering that more than a quarter of the plant species he described - including asters and buttercups, orchids, roses and violets - are either decimated or disappeared. Turns out that climate change, like acid rain, is no respecter of moats.
So the world is too much with us, or at least a lot more with us than it was half a century ago. We're less separated, more connected - and that's not all bad.
I've been thinking about our nation's struggle with its original sin of slavery and its aftermath - it's a story that arguably played out more in the cotton fields of Georgia and the streets of Birmingham than here in the cool North. But how heartening it was last week to see the qualities that are most hopeful in America win over our prejudices and fears. What a joy to see this nation step toward the fulfillment of the dream expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 45 years ago on the Washington Mall - the dream that someday Americans "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
We may live in a place apart, where folks are labeled wash-ashores if they don't have parents interred in Island soil, where the mechanic will nod at your broken-down car and say, "We'll have to send to America for parts." But I'm in the mood this week, for the first time in many years, to celebrate our membership in the larger community that stretches from sea to shining sea.