At Large : As Gosnold might have seen it
One Saturday, at the top of the modest hill near the western end of Cuttyhunk, the nearly cloudless sky, vast as it was, did not command the scene. It was the sea - endless, tumbling, and flat as a tabletop - that compelled attention. That's where the turbines will go.
Immediately below was the tower built as a memorial to Bartholomew Gosnold, who first visited Cuttyhunk in 1602. Beyond the stone tower you can't miss the shallow, torn-up ocean over Sow and Pigs Reef. Beyond the reef, there is the Buzzards Light Tower. The cold air whistled over the sea from the mainland to the northwest.
In 1602, after scoping out Cuttyhunk, Gosnold made the short trip to the Vineyard. He stood at the top of Prospect Hill in Chilmark and looked around. Had we been 17th century explorers, we could have waved to him across Vineyard Sound. (If explorers waved at one another in those days, which they may not have done much.)
Cuttyhunk is as much an island today - in geographic, social, and ideological terms - as it was when Gosnold stopped by. And, if the mood strikes you, it is easy to imagine that 17th-century scene. Gosnold, the town that comprises the Elizabeth Islands, is the seventh town of Dukes County, and spiritually it evokes the 17th century rather than the 21st. There are not many voters at Cuttyhunk, and none of them has expressed an interest in evolving that town's political ties to the parent county, which includes us - the Vineyarders, for whom island-ness is variously a badge, a lever, a defense, a financial asset, or a lure, but not a stubborn, unrelieved fact in the way that for Cuttyhunkers Cuttyhunk is.
Not that they're complaining. Despite the relentless telephoned efforts of Vineyarders to protect Cuttyhunkers - and their ocean views - from themselves and the coming wind turbines, the Cuttyhunkers, explorers every one, think a wind farm and cheaper electricity might be nice to explore.
Across the wide, western approach to Vineyard Sound, just beyond the clay cliffs, Nomans Land appears. That's where the other Massachusetts wind power factory may be built. South and west of there, where the pellucid air is diffused in mist, federal waters begin. That's where the national government would like to see another, yet larger, wind factory installed.
Nomans Land, from the Vineyard shore or Cuttyhunk is a surprise. Though it is part of Chilmark, we forget it. Years ago we thought more about Nomans, because the Navy made so much noise there with its bombing. Now that it's a wildlife refuge, to which we are not invited, we've misplaced it.
But for more than 300 of Nomans' 400 years since Gosnold's visit, that lovely, desolate 800-acre island - more confirmed in its island-ness than even Cuttyhunk - was the privately owned home for a series of sheep farmers from the Vineyard and New Bedford, and for fishermen eight months each year. Once, there were even trees.
And the rich cavorted there. In 1872, according to George A. Hough Jr., writing in his New Bedford Standard in 1916, Nomans was the site of a clubhouse for bass fishing enthusiasts. And also in 1916, the island became the site of a wealthy sportsman's gunning camp. Industrialist Joshua Crane of Boston improved the land, stocked a farm, stocked the place with game birds, set a stone breakwater to create a manmade harbor - there is no safe, natural anchorage - and built a lodge with several rooms for his hunting friends.
"The story of Nomans Land is filled with wrecks and death by drowning off its rough shore," Hough writes. "Codfishermen many times searched the shallow water for treasure supposed to have been lost there when a British frigate went down on the rocks in Revolutionary times. Almost every year saw its toll of ships destroyed and the little graveyard on this land contains a row of washed out mounds marked with field stones where seamen of many nationalities lie buried."
Today, from a hilltop on Cuttyhunk, Nomans takes one by surprise, as perhaps it did Gosnold - unexpectedly a mystery, an adventure perhaps, nearby but distant, well known but unknown. It invites exploration. But, even 400 years after Gosnold, not wind turbines.