Garden Notes: I (Heart) Martha’s Vineyard

Are we killing the thing we love?

Winter scene, woods, wall, and field. — Susan Safford

Already, Valentine’s Day is almost upon us. Subject matter of garden columns is usually plants and flowers, especially around Valentine’s Day; but today’s is a more dyspeptic one, where I point to a different kind of love than hearts and flowers: love of place. When love is mentioned, and love of Martha’s Vineyard, the words of Oscar Wilde come as an inevitable corollary: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.”

“…Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the things he loves….”

Along with many desirable locales, such as Hawaii, Santa Fe, Jackson Hole — or really, any other beautiful “unspoiled area” — the pandemic is dealing us change that is rapid and destructive of those very qualities. There are numerous ways to demonstrate how much “I (heart) Martha’s Vineyard.” Many, unfortunately, in Wilde’s words, consist of ‘selling,’ and ‘buying.’

In this explosive real estate boom, while profits go into the pockets of protagonists, the associated costs are borne by the community at large: booms and bubbles lure people seeking well-paid work. Our community is expected to underwrite and absorb this. When does it cease to be Martha’s Vineyard, a finite island and the beloved place? Looks to me like killing the thing you love.

Tree valentine

Winter is when trees dominate the experience of the outdoors. Movement of wind among them; warmth and shelter from their wood; their beauty and magnificent designs against the sky when bare of leaves; bulwarks and protection against the elements; production of earth and soil by their constant provision of humus. Trees are like nature’s poetry.

For some, tree religion is more or less the norm; admittedly, many do not share these attitudes. In fact, it sometimes seems there is widespread failure to see them as other than potential nuisances. However, trees are also integral to the carbon cycle, their cellular formation and growth utilizing and binding atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis.

The following, a simple description of the carbon cycle, is from NOAA. “The carbon cycle is nature’s way of reusing carbon atoms, which travel [as CO2] from the atmosphere into organisms in the Earth and then back into the atmosphere over and over again. “Most carbon is stored in rocks and sediments, while the rest is stored in the ocean, atmosphere, and living organisms.” Trees, plants, and ourselves are those living organisms that exchange CO2 for the oxygen we breathe.

There is the Paul Bunyan-esque view of mutilating or felling trees as proof of manhood; and not so long ago, “tree hugger” as a term of disparagement was uttered by a former president, Ronald Reagan. He pronounced it as a way to de-legitimize protection for forests; and showed his ignorance of the organisms that are profoundly critical to life, human and otherwise, on the planet.

I try to stifle it but make no secret that it distresses me to see the amount of land-clearing taking place on the Vineyard, loss of so much cover, releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere. How are deserts created?

What defines a desert? In all deserts, there is little water available for plants and other organisms. Life in deserts is difficult and full of hazards. Literally or metaphorically, usually it is terrain devoid of trees and other life-giving features, with critical lack of water associated with inhospitable or degraded habitats.

Believing in trees’ importance to Earth’s biosphere, I was interested in the scheme, mentioned in the press, whereby Kerala, a district in India, decided to combat heat waves and enhance its carbon capture and promote its woodland with tree mortgages.

It is a simple incentive with big gains: plant a tree, and after three years residents can mortgage each sapling for an interest-free loan that can be renewed annually for 10 years. The money need be repaid only if the tree is chopped down.

Kerala has been troubled in recent years by an ailing farming sector, deforestation for cash that has led to loss of biodiversity, and the climate crisis making summers much warmer, especially in areas that used to be comfortably cool (much like the Vineyard).

Not only in Kerala is there an appreciative approach to trees. In contemporary Israel, Tu BiShvat is celebrated as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration. According to Wikipedia, “Tu BiShvat (Hebrew: ט״ו בשבט‎; tú bish’vat) is a Jewish holiday occurring on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat” (in 2021, Tu BiShvat began at sunset on Jan. 27 and ended in the evening of Jan. 28). It is also called Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot (Hebrew: ראש השנה לאילנות‎), literally “New Year of the Trees.”

Choosing good trees

For those interested in planting trees, there are many online resources, such as Polly Hill Arboretum’s M.V. Plant Selection Guide, as well as resources on your libraries’ shelves. Cautionary online information also has titles such as “Five Worst Ever Trees” and “21 trees never to plant in your yard.” The cited reasons range from invasiveness, to weak wood, to questing root systems that invade infrastructure or prevent other landscape elements from thriving. (The interesting thing about “naughty list” trees is that some actually do have attributes making them good choices, for specific locations or problem sites.)

Big-box stores promote fast growing trees for screening in subdivisions. The downsides of many fast growing trees are weak wood and short lifespans. As with all tree-planting everywhere, planting a variety of species and cultivars is always sound practice: avoid monocultures. “On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.” ~ W. S. Merwin



  1. Thanks Abigail for these very rich and true sentiments. The Island is really a very different place from just 20 years ago. It is bittersweet and I wish the future could reverse this trend. From a ecological perspective, there are many challenges ahead, all exasperated by increased human occupation.

Comments are closed.