This is the third in a series of articles that will describe unique and old trees across Martha’s Vineyard — one tree for each town (March 9, “The Quansoo oak,” June 9, “The West Chop pitch pine”). Each article relates the natural history of the tree to historical events that the tree has witnessed.
Of all the features that define the perimeter of Martha’s Vineyard, Cedar Tree Neck is the only one named for a tree. Cedars still grow upon this West Tisbury promontory, a high knob of the glacial moraine that extends into Vineyard Sound.
In the history book “It Began with a Whale,” John Tobey Daggett describes the geographical significance of Cedar Tree Neck. Mr. Daggett reckoned that in 1772, 22-year-old ship’s pilot Mayhew Norton probably built his house at Cedar Tree Neck because it is the closest point of Martha’s Vineyard to the Elizabeth Islands. Cedar Tree Neck, therefore, was an excellent perch from which a pilot could spy a ship in need of his services.
Cedar Tree Neck had been known for its cedars for some time prior to the Norton family’s residency there. According to Island historian Dr. Charles E. Banks, the Wampanoag name for the place is Squemmechchue, a name derived from the word M’sque-mechch-auke. This name refers, however, to cranberries, not to cedars. Banks noted that the earliest reference to the place as Cedar Tree Neck is in a 1718 deposition of Jonathan Luce. In his original descriptions of the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, explorer Bartholomew Gosnold wrote of “cedars tall and straight,” though it is not clear whether he was referring to those at Cedar Tree Neck.
One can conclude that cedars have fruited upon Cedar Tree Neck for a very long time, then, and those who named Island landmarks found these trees noteworthy. If this land was known for its cedars prior to the land being cleared for farming, one might also conclude that at one time, cedars grew upon this land in a great, dense grove, visible from the sea, and not as isolated specimens.
The cedar that is the subject of this article is nowhere close to centuries old, however. The Cedar Tree Neck cedar grows beside a dense grove of sassafras, on the slope of the land that descends toward a pond. Its slopeside position has rooted the tree in the lee of the bluffs. Sheltered somewhat from the gales of Vineyard Sound, this tree has not taken the grotesque, weather-beaten forms typical of trees growing on the bluffs, and has instead grown in a more open and spreading fashion.
The Cedar Tree Neck cedar measures about 15 inches in diameter, and is about 75 years old. It is about 18 feet tall. The trunk splits into two stems about three feet off the ground. The tree is actually only about half the tree it once was. In the winter of 2015, a blizzard dumped a load of snow upon the branches of this tree, and the tree was cloven in two. Half the tree split off, and the cleaving left a long, broad scar upon the stem. The exposed wood has now weathered to a silvery gray, just like a cedar shingle on any typical Vineyard house.
The living half of this tree still grows perfectly well at Cedar Tree Neck. The brown bark is stringy and fibrous. This cedar is an eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana. On Martha’s Vineyard, people typically simply call these trees cedars, though they may also be called junipers. The cedar is evergreen, and its boughs bear sprays of green needles. Cedar needles take two forms. Most needles are tight, blunt scales, but the needles can also be stiff little spines.
Cedars can be either male or female, and each sex has a different type of cone. The more familiar cone is the female one, which appears as a blue, waxy berry when ripe. Some berries ripen every year, but great bunches of them are produced every two or three years. Cedars reproduce from the seeds contained within these female berries. Birds plant cedars by eating the berries, flying about, and spreading the seeds in their droppings. People use the berries to turn vodka into gin.
Cedar yields durable, rot-resistant aromatic wood. The red heartwood is used for paneling in cedar chests and boxes. Cedar may be used for shingles, clapboards, or fence posts. It lasts a long time in the weather, and does not quickly rot.
Cedars may be found anywhere on Martha’s Vineyard, and not just at Cedar Tree Neck. They are often found in open fields, and they quickly establish themselves in fields that are abandoned. Cattle do not graze cedars, and cedars may spring up in pastures if they manage to escape trampling by the hooves.
In “It Began with a Whale,” John Tobey Daggett includes a map of what is now the Obed Sherman Daggett and Maria Roberts Daggett Sanctuary portion of Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary. On this map, he notes that hay was grown at Cedar Tree Neck, on the high ground between Cedar Tree Neck Pond and the rocky Vineyard Sound shoreline. Mr. Daggett’s son, Jack Daggett, recalls that this area was pasture for cattle. It is at this stage, that of pasture and of pasture gone by, that the life of the Cedar Tree Neck cedar begins.
Timeline: The fall of 1938, or thereabouts
A cedar waxwing alights on the bough of a cedar that had been toppled by the Great Hurricane. The bird scarfs down a beakful of blue juniper berries. It leaves a dropping on the ground, and in the dropping is a single cedar seed. The seed spends the winter in the soil, and then another year, and germinates the following spring, in about 1940.
The tiny cedar sprouts from the earth and stretches upward, reaching for the sunlight. The grazing cattle spare it, but graze the grass around it. This keeps it sunny around the young tree, a perfect condition for a growing cedar.
Still unpalatable to bovines, the cedar grows upward from its tip, and is several inches tall. During the summer, landing craft infantry boats practice for the Normandy invasion on the rocky beach of Cedar Tree Neck. The boats lower the ramps on their bows, and from the boats armed men storm the beach. Mr. Daggett writes that in the fall,
“A group of top officers took quarters in our house for a week for various conferences and the making of plans for the training of the men preparatory to the invasion of the Continent.
“These preparations for war were exciting, but they had a grim side too. We saw much of the men, and we liked to talk with them. They came from many states, and some had never before seen the ocean. They never gave us any trouble. All were appreciative for what we did, and seemingly of high grade — the flower, I suppose, of young American manhood. We were proud of them.”
The cedar has reached about four feet tall, and though still gangly, is beginning to take the somewhat pyramidal form of a vigorous young cedar. The wood formed this year is now at the pith, the very center of the heartwood of this cedar, and is now a reddish-purple in color.
The cedar now stands almost six feet tall and is an inch in diameter. It has forked into two stems, and its slender branches wave about in the breezes that sweep over the hill. A dense grove of sassafras trees has begun to grow nearby, where cattle had not been permitted to graze. Nearby, just up the hill and off the Ephraim Allen Road, Henry Beetle Hough gave to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, then a fledgling land trust, its second gift of land. This, known as the Pond Lot, was a one-acre piece of land with a vernal pool in the middle. Mr. Hough named the pool “Lake Elizabeth” in honor of his wife, Elizabeth Bowie Hough.
1967 is a great year for the Cedar Tree Neck cedar. It must have had plenty of sunlight and lots of water, because after a run of fat rings in the 1960s, the tree puts on its fattest ring yet in 1967, bringing the young tree to two inches in diameter. Yet something far more important happens to this cedar in 1967. In that remarkable year, through a gift of land and a bargain sale funded by contributions from the public, John Tobey Daggett, Robert G. Daggett, and Emma S. Daggett (through her conservators, John Daggett and Marjorie Daggett) gave to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation 100 acres of land as the Obed Sherman Daggett and Maria Roberts Daggett Sanctuary. This land includes the promontory known as Cedar Tree Neck and the land beneath the young cedar, now some 29 years old.
In the very same year, Henry Hough and George Hough donated 62 acres of the abutting Fish Hook land, Bessie Lee Norton donated another 40 acres, and Georgina Stevenson donated 14 acres at the top of Indian Hill. Together, these lands compose the new Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary.
Now growing in a nature preserve, the cedar finds itself growing amid oaks and sassafras. It has grown to a dominant height and stature, but had it been a young sprout, it would have found itself contending with a tangle of invasive plants: honeysuckle, autumn olive, and bittersweet. All of these invasive plants were planted there, with good intentions, but unfortunate results, as they took over the open, grassy meadows of the Neck. The cedar had grown in girth to some five inches in diameter. In this year, Henry Beetle Hough published “Mostly on Martha’s Vineyard,” and described Cedar Tree Neck as “this promontory — undecided as between boldness and mildness, and achieving a magical, changing blend of the two — gave the Vineyard a point for its triangular share and its farthest extension into Vineyard Sound.”
Almost 15 inches in diameter, the Cedar Tree Neck cedar stands at about its present height, some 25 feet high. Poison ivy and bittersweet grow near its base. In this year, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation director of stewardship Kristen Fauteux restored grazing to Cedar Tree Neck. Goats from the Native Earth Teaching Farm begin spending the summer at Cedar Tree Neck, grazing the vines and low-growing shrubs, with the intention of restoring the open character of the land.
It was a cold, harsh winter. A blizzard snaps off half of the tree, but the other half continues to grow, undaunted.
Adam Moore is executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, and a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry.