Where is Martha heading?

MV Times Wild Side columnist Matt Pelikan holds a meadow grasshopper at the Cliffs of Dover during a recent trip to England. — Lori Shaller

If your mind dwells much as mine does on the natural world, it’s easy to give in to despair. Every day brings new insults: Another invasive species on a rampage, another native species gone extinct, another instance of society choosing short-term profit over long-term health. Even just at the Vineyard scale, gloom marches on: A large parcel of Edgartown pine-oak barrens proposed for development; an unpronounceable toxin tainting groundwater and seeping inexorably toward the great ponds. How much can poor Martha take?

And yet, at the same time, to step outside on the Vineyard is to be amazed by what the Island still offers. Bald eagles, back from a brush with extinction, turn up regularly along the south shore. Oysters abound in the Edgartown Great Pond. A successful hunting season reminds us that our woodlands are so productive of white-tailed deer that reducing their numbers, not increasing them, is our concern. Our annual Christmas Bird Count will tally something like 120 species of birds — in the dead of winter. She’s battered, maybe, but Martha is tough.

Much of my time spent in nature is work (though it feels like play): searching for insects, identifying and documenting them, compiling lists of what is here. Inherent in the process is the idea that the future will be different; my work, I like to think, sets a baseline against which future naturalists can assess their own version of the Vineyard. What has been lost, what has been gained? Even across the scant two decades I’ve lived here, I’ve seen species wink out, while others (but never quite as many) newly arrive. I often wonder how this will play out across decades or centuries.

Two basic versions of the future come to mind. In one, we drift along a course of degradation, losing our unique qualities, growing more like everyplace else as habitat is turned to lawn and specialized native wildlife succumbs to invading generalists. In the other, a critical mass of Islanders pushes back against encroaching dullness, finding ways to preserve the natural diversity and productivity on which past generations depended.

As the planet starts another swing around the sun, I can’t say I feel optimistic. I’ve seen too many local wildlife populations go from large and connected to small and isolated, to gone. I hear too much clamor — some of it civic-minded, but much of it based on the prioritization of business above all things — for more buildings, more pavement, more people, more room for cars. I see too many trucks laden with rolls of sod or exotic shrubs rolling off the boat, destined to replace native vegetation. I simply can’t believe that the future of nature on the Vineyard isn’t one of loss and diminution.

But I’ve also seen too many acts of generosity, too many expressions of joy in our natural environment and our unique identity, too many people caring about the Island’s ecological health for me to see the future as all dark. On my outings to Vineyard conservation properties — even, sometimes, just walking around town — I keep finding things I’ve never seen before: overlooked species, unexpected species, sometimes even rare ones, assuring me that nature is resilient, creative, and resourceful. Surely some of this will prevail.

The work to help the Vineyard maintain its natural character is not without support. For one thing, our geologic history guarantees some measure of distinction. Our beloved sand pile is part of what geologists call a terminal moraine: the hilly band of debris left behind as a glacier retreats from its maximum extent. Moraines are long, thin features, occupying a very small percentage of the earth’s surface. And their loose, granular soils — basically crushed rock — are distinctively permeable to water and unusual in chemical composition. Not everything will grow here (even some notorious invasive plants wither in our sandplain soils). And the plants that flourish best are the natives that evolved specifically for these conditions.

Moreover, our particular piece of moraine happens to intersect another thin, linear feature: an oceanic coastline. On top of our unusual geologic history, we experience the storms, salt spray, and marine climate characterizing the narrow band where land meets ocean. Perched at the intersection of two narrow strips of special conditions, the Vineyard is inherently unusual. Few other places on earth offer the same combination of coastline and glacial origin, and that convergence helps make the Vineyard special.

Finally, the barrier of water around us helps maintain the Island’s character. You can think of the sounds and ocean as a selective filter. Some species — many birds, for example (though not all) — cross it readily, so we experience many of the same avian phenomena that the adjacent mainland does. Other species cross the water only with difficulty, or maybe not at all. Katydids, for example, seem slow to colonize the Vineyard even as some populations march steadily into New England in response to climate change. In some ways, this effect limits our biodiversity. (Islands, being small and isolated, are invariably less diverse than adjacent mainland.) In other ways, the moat surrounding us buffers our ecosystem from harmful invasion. In either case, to the naturalist’s eye, the Vineyard’s uniqueness resides as much in what isn’t here as in what is.

As important as our physical environment, the Vineyard’s human community often works to keep Martha healthy. Thousands of us support the work of conservation organizations financially or as volunteers, and hundreds of Vineyarders have donated land, or the right to develop land, to conservation. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, though a veritable piñata for Island skeptics, continues a program of intelligent land acquisition and skillful ecological management. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, also a frequent dartboard for critics, serves in my view as a crucial if sometimes cumbersome brake on exploitation. Above all, we’re a community of hunters, fishers, shellfishers, birders, hikers, nature photographers, even dog-walkers — and if you spend time engaging with nature, you can’t help but learn about it, and learn to value it.

I think of our Island’s ecological future as a statistical process, the result of a multitude of individual decisions. Some decisions are large ones: If you’re in the stressful position of selling a tract of undeveloped land, must you go for top dollar, or can you consider a bargain sale to a conservation organization? Others are small: Do you drive, or walk, to run an errand? Do you plant exotic hydrangea, which nothing eats, or native winterberry, which supports a multitude of birds and insects?

Many of us, regrettably, don’t even notice that there are choices. The press of making a living in a difficult economy, plus the inescapable rain of messaging telling us what “normal” looks like, can make destructive action a seemingly safe default. But each car trip taken or not taken affects the probability of more pavement being poured, and each exotic shrub planted or foregone has implications for the survival of wildlife. Large or small, tending toward exploitation or sustainability, those decisions shape our future.

Seen this way, there are grounds for optimism, though not euphoria. The natural Vineyard is so unique and so compelling that there will always be resistance, among people and within nature itself, to its obliteration. Enough of us care, as I do, about the loss of a moth or a grasshopper, and are willing to incur a cost to prevent it, so that sometimes we succeed. Some things — not everything, maybe not even most things — will be preserved. But just possibly, enough of our natural wealth will endure so that Islanders of the future can say, as we can, that they live in a place like noplace else on Earth.


Matt Pelikan is The Times’ “Wild Side” columnist.