Forward into the past


For those of us who live and work here year-round, Labor Day is one of the most eagerly awaited holidays of the year. If it were a sacred occasion, its Biblical text would surely be a reading from the book of Exodus.

If medical science ever discovers the gland that secretes human patience, they should send a team to the Vineyard to take seasonal measurements. The doctors would find that our patience glands are as plump and happy as fresh plums at the outset of summer, but by September they’ve shriveled to raisins.

By most metrics — traffic, commerce, performance events, fundraisers, cocktail parties — the Island does about half its business in July and August, and the other half in the remaining 10 months of the year. This seasonal dynamic colors every aspect of Vineyard life so pervasively that it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate its power.

For starters, there’s the proverbial leaky roof syndrome. The guy with the leaky roof doesn’t want to go up and fix it during a downpour, but when the sun comes out, it’s no problem. Each summer we’re too busy with summer’s business to address such vexing problems as the gaps in our bike path network or the traffic backups at the blinker light; in the off-season these become non-issues, and are mostly forgotten.

The Island’s seasonal roller-coaster also has a deep connection to the narratives and ways of thinking that shape our political dialogue. One of the central themes in our conversations about the Vineyard is the notion that things were better once, that the past few generations have seen a general decline in the bucolic rural beauty and easygoing pace of this place. And every year, in so many dramatic ways, we watch as our community swings between the poles of summer, which represents the alarming future toward which we fear the Island is careening, and the off-season, which carries us back to something more nearly resembling the life we remember from years ago.

Each Labor Day weekend, with its prospect of wider sidewalks and shorter check-out lines at the supermarket, serves to reinforce the suspicion that the guy with the “Poor Martha” sticker on his pickup truck has it about right — that things were better once and are getting worse, that perhaps the highest possible ground in any Island discussion might be to take a stand against change, because after all, look what change has done for us so far.

Certainly it’s true that some of the Vineyard’s finest qualities are attributable to the many times this community has said no to change, embracing instead the historic continuities that speak to the unique character of this place. When my family first moved here 30 years ago, one of the stories we heard again and again was the story of how Martha’s Vineyard stopped the McDonald’s chain from building here.

And yet, nostalgia as a driving force in public discourse leaves a lot to be desired. First, because all change isn’t bad, and second, because human memory has a way of romanticizing the past.

In her book of oral histories, “More Vineyard Voices,” Linsey Lee collected a wonderful story from Basil Welch recalling the view from his father’s house on Skiff Avenue in Vineyard Haven. “When I was in high school,” he said, “from the upstairs window you could see the harbor. Now you could get up on the roof and you can’t see anything, just trees.

“Every time somebody says, ‘Let’s plant a tree. Let’s make the Island the way it used to be,’ I always say, ‘Let’s cut two trees down. Let’s make the Island the way it used to be.'”

Nostalgia, and the resistance to change that has served us well in many instances, plays a powerful part in our discussions on such disparate hot topics as the Cape Wind project and the Chappaquiddick bicycle path. It’s as if each of us carries an internal snapshot of the Vineyard as we first knew it, whether in childhood or upon moving here, and that snapshot shapes our feelings about almost everything that happens to this place.

Perhaps what the Vineyard needs is our own local variant of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer: “Grant us the serenity of mind to savor and appreciate the things we should not change; courage to change the things we should; and wisdom to know the difference.”