Recalling simpler times, greater abundance on Martha’s Vineyard

Beverly Wright spoke of foraging as a child in Aquinnah. — Photo by Susan Safford

On Friday, September 30, a group of Island elders kicked off the Living Local Harvest Fest with tales from their youth. Beginning in the 1920s, and up through the middle part of the 20th century, they farmed, gathered, and fished. Times have changed, but many of those old practices remain relevant today.

Beverly Wright of Aquinnah reminisced about running loose in the summer, gathering berries. “I gather now to make jelly,” Ms. Wright said, “but when we were gathering as kids we just ate until we got sick and never worried about saving much for the winter; that was what our parents thought about.” She picked swamp apples, blueberries, strawberries, and huckleberries, then beach plums, grapes, hazelnuts, and cranberries. “During the summertime it seemed like we would never go home for lunch because we would just dig quahogs and clams and just break them open and eat them raw.”

One year, a hurricane covered the beach with mussels. “We ate ’em and we ate ’em and we ate ’em,” Ms. Wright said. “I guess that’s why mussels aren’t my favorite today.” Lobsters were common food, too. She used to climb trees in her grandmother’s orchard. “My grandmother would just throw all the lobsters on the grass underneath the orchard and that would be our lunch,” she said.

Elisha Smith was brought up on his grandfather’s farm at the head of Lagoon Pond. “My father died when I was five years old, so my grandfather adopted me,” he said. “When I was about six years old he gave me 25 chickens to raise, and the next heifer calf was mine, so I was really in business.”

Mr. Smith had to go to school, too, but it seems that the people in his life knew that the farm took precedence. “One day the teacher wanted to keep me after school,” he said. “The old bus driver came in and said, ‘Come on, Smith! Get on the bus!’ And the teacher said, ‘Oh no, I’m keeping him after school.’

“‘I brought him in and I’m taking him out,’ said the bus driver, ‘and don’t ever try to keep him after school again.'”

Later, Mr. Smith went to work for a farmer in Edgartown, then got a heavy-handed offer to buy his own farm, at Katama. “The old fellow that owned it was selling out,” Mr. Smith recalled. “That was 200 acres there when I bought it and he wanted $2,000 for it. The man at the bank said, ‘He wants two thousand but he’ll take a thousand, and I got the thousand right here in the bank for you, so you just tell him that, that you’ve got a thousand for it.'”

Paul Jackson’s next door neighbor took him to the bank one day and set papers in front of him, and he walked out with a mortgage on a house for $33,000, which he wasn’t sure how he was going to pay for. He cleared away the pines with an ax, collected manure, and began building his legendary garden soil.

Susan Klein, who moderated Friday’s discussion, gushed about that soil. “It’s like when you’re making chocolate cake and you have the flour and the cocoa and haven’t added any liquid yet,” she said. “It’s that fluffy.”

Mr. Jackson said that he started off with four apple trees, then moved them to make a vegetable garden. “I kept buying the land and making more gardens and planting more trees, until we got to the point where I thought we had enough,” he said.

Mr. Jackson’s activities reached beyond his garden. “We hunted rabbits, we hunted deer, we hunted pheasants. We even hunted eels. My wife could cook everything. Now of course all of that’s gone — you know, fishing and everything. We scavenged almost everything on the Island. You had to on $50 a week — make it stretch.”

Now, Mr. Jackson’s garden grows some of the most impressive produce on the Island, including a 20-pound cabbage he showed at the Fair, and amazingly long carrots he brought in to show Friday’s audience. “That’s what I love about gardening, you’ll never learn everything,” he said.

David Tilton wrapped up the evening with stories of swordfishing adventures from his boyhood. “I started early, skipping school and stuff,” he said. “My father said that I would learn more on the boat than I would in school. Toward the middle of June we would go swordfishing. In those days you would go in the dory to pull the fish by hand. The fist time I went in the dory I was 12 years old. There was no lifejackets. I had a knife with me, so in case you got caught in a line you could cut it. You had a lance to bleed the fish once you got up alongside of it. It was better than any swordfish you’d get now because the fish was brought up to the dory alive and bled alive. You had to watch out for the sharks because they like fish, too.”

Longlining, Mr. Tilton says, destroyed the stock of swordfish. “You never would have run out of fish if you’d only harpooned,” he said. “Only the mature fish come to the surface. They don’t reproduce until they’re 100 pounds. Longlining is indiscriminate.”

Mr. Tilton quit swordfishing after a brush with death in the summer of 1955. “In the trough of the sea, with three of us in the rigging, it was like a shot… The topmast broke and I figured that was enough.”

It was an evening, as Ms. Klein said, of “learning about how things used to be and measuring that against the way things that are done now, and seeing if there are things that could be done differently, or let go of…”

While five-dollar-an-acre land and plentiful swordfish are things of the past, some of these traditions, and others like them, live on for those of us resourceful enough to take advantage of them.