For the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, less is more


The Land Bank received an interesting letter early in 2012. Its author thanked the institution for supplying her with destinations where she could be alone, places where she could separate herself from her daily responsibilities. But she was specific in citing what she appreciated being separated from: things.

Things. It was that simple.

By that she meant that, on a Land Bank trail, she encountered no clutter. Sure, the Land Bank posts directional signs and, sure, each trailhead contains a signboard with maps, but as she hiked she forgot the commercial signs that she had seen on the upper State Road in Vineyard Haven and the long stream of houses along the South Road in Chilmark. She forgot the traffic at the Edgartown Triangle.

She forgot the mailboxes, the street lamps. The quahog-shell driveways. Pediments. Gables. Clapboard. Curbs.

None of these items is intrinsically objectionable. In fact, they, cleverly arranged, create some of the most appealing public spaces available. But, as she was telling the Land Bank, they can also grow tiresome.

The Land Bank responded to this letter with appreciation and noted that she had pinpointed one of the organization’s central goals: to provide the public with — nothing.

By nothing, the Land Bank meant that it was providing land “predominantly in its natural, scenic and open condition,” as its law stipulates it must. Providing such nothing requires a philosophical commitment and some able designers, both of which the Land Bank is privileged to have. The Land Bank commissioners scrutinize management proposals to be sure that they accord with that law, and their ecologist and foreman and field workers all work to translate that legal vision into a quiet landscape with few intrusions.

Nothing, however, isn’t easy to supply. It is human nature to want to construct and develop. It is also a political reality that empty land invites speculation — more than one Land Bank property over the years has been eyed as a fitting spot for an athletic center, or a solar field or turbine site, a youth clubhouse, an outdoor art gallery, you name it. All conservation organizations find themselves from time to time having to parry such proposals — probably all of which are conceptually positive and useful, provided that they are not sited on dedicated open space. It is a challenge to protect nothing.

Fortunately, in places such as Martha’s Vineyard there is a constituency for nothing. Sportsmen are the first constituency — these are the people who like to hike and hunt and swim and canoe. Hikers and hunters in particular need expanses, for without them their experiences are either foreshortened or outright spoiled.

Farmers are logical constituents too. They aren’t gardeners, who can squeeze their crops into the interstices of their yards, or pet owners, who can limit livestock to a run in the backyard. They need open and broad areas, areas of nothing.

And it goes without saying that wildlife are best served by consolidated blocks of empty space. They are the silent constituency for nothing.

There is a final constituency for nothing: the soulful. These are the people — perhaps all of us, or maybe just many or most of us — who look to conservation lands as places to replenish, places to encounter beauty. Pecoy Point in Oak Bluffs is perhaps the quintessential example — all seventeen acres of it. It is truly a microcosm of the Vineyard. A 20-minute excursion there will take hikers through fields and past a freshwater pond, over a long tongue of saltmarsh, into a woodland and out onto a beach on Sengekontacket Pond, where salt water vistas stretch to the west up Majors Cove and to the east out to State Beach.

Say, for instance, that a person doesn’t want a microcosm of each landscape but instead is seeking a concentrated dose of one or another. Pennywise Preserve in Edgartown hosts a wide grassland, with trails skirting its edges. Manaquayak Preserve in West Tisbury fronts on the Ice House Pond, one of the Island’s largest freshwater lakes. Or, perhaps you would rather visit the bench that has been erected at the arc of the salt marsh at the Poucha Pond Reservation in Edgartown.

Woodlands are many, at Gay Head Moraine in Aquinnah and Ripley’s Field in Vineyard Haven. Beaches range from the easily accessible (Moshup Beach in Aquinnah) to the distinctly remote (Wilfrid’s Pond Preserve in Vineyard Haven and, especially, the three barrier beaches — at Chilmark, Edgartown and Tisbury Great Ponds). No one is ever too far from a Land Bank reservation or preserve or farm.

In 1935, the Gershwin brothers had Porgy announce to Catfish Row that he had plenty of nothing and nothing was plenty for him. Nothing suited him. But it also suited the Land Bank’s correspondent this previous winter and it, with vigilance and acuity, will continue to suit Land Bank visitors into the future.

James Lengyel is the executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.