By: Sam Moore
A reckoning with climate change on Martha’s Vineyard, and a visual survey of the landscapes at stake.
Images from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital’s Permanent Art Collection curated by Monina Von Opel. Copy Photographs by Gary Mirando.
The obligatory parable: On May 11, 1916, the scrubby oak and pitch pine forest at the heart of Martha’s Vineyard was home to a conservation success story in all its booming vigor. Thousands of heath hens, shepherded back from the brink of extinction, were thriving in what is now the State Forest. Almost 50 years after these birds vanished from the mainland, quick and decisive action taken by Islanders had paid off.
On May 12, though, a huge fire wiped out many of the ground-dwelling birds. Over the next decade and a half, those that remained were killed by disease or picked off by hungry goshawks, and what was to be a legacy of prudence soured into one of waste. By 1932, when the last heath hen vanished, the story had become one of total failure, a brief moment of hope submerged in the sweep of a larger tide.
This tale has been told and retold on Martha’s Vineyard — but it might be useful to dust it off again. A century later, the Island is again ahead of the game, with roughly one-third of its land preserved and momentum for more. Many organizations are dedicated to protecting and managing the Island’s natural communities. And yet, a new whiplash begins as global climate change wreaks havoc on local gains.
For the Vineyard, climate change means higher water and coastal erosion. “Thinking about our beaches and our salt marshes and how those are going to change with sea level rise — that’s right at the fore for us,” Russell Hopping, ecology program director for The Trustees of Reservations, said recently. Cape Pogue, Wasque, and Long Point are among the most vulnerable Trustees properties in the state, according to a 2017 climate vulnerability assessment. Depending on the extent of warming, Massachusetts could be looking at six inches more ocean in the next 15 years, and a foot and a half more by 2050. These estimates are revised upward with disturbing regularity.
“Black Point or Menemsha painting, 2004.” — Allen Whiting
An 1876 visitors guide to Martha’s Vineyard described the relationship between land and water this way: “The dark-heaving sea is an insatiate monster. Slowly, but surely, the work of destruction goes on. Old ocean is never quiet.” Boosters of Island tourism have refined their pitch since then. As a result, we have arrived at a sunnier perspective on our fickle coastline, but the action in those old words is true enough, and getting truer by the minute.
Islanders are connected by a shared understanding of field and sea. Describe a stretch of beach or a hidden fishing nook, and get a familiar nod, or even a recital of the exact moment when some piece of cliff crumbled away. This may be because the landmass, surrounded as it is by negative space, forces a pronounced sense of shape on its residents. But it is also a built-up understanding, over many generations (and many, many generations for the Wampanoag), that beaches and bluffs, hills and holes, oak thickets and open fields are key markers of place and time.
These markers have changed before, for reasons both natural and human. Right now, many landscapes on the Vineyard are in a long, slow recovery from colonial grazing and forestry, what forest historian and Harvard ecologist David R. Foster calls the “pre-eminent inertial force that controls many of the ecological qualities of the Vineyard.” This legacy will continue to shape the Island, “rivaled,” he writes, “only by the new waves of destruction of nature by human hands.”
Frances McGuire’s High Water, 1954, acrylic on canvas; gift of the artist in honor of Ken Holden. Located in the lab hallway.
“Our impacts have described the landscape, and our lack of action, has, in a very quick amount of time, drastically changed the landscape,” Julie Russell, ecologist at the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, said. She is reckoning with past and future on the shores of the Tisbury Great Pond, in the fields at Waskosim’s Rock, and in the windswept headlands of Aquinnah, among other properties. “In that sense, climate change is happening slower than our action on the landscape,” she said. It is a background process, which might be hard to detect amid the litany of other changes that happen year-to-year. But as it becomes hard and then impossible to ignore, it moves into the foreground.
Russell worries about coastal access, but also points inland, where the can of worms (and caterpillars) opened by climate change could get very tangled indeed. It is tempting to imagine Vineyard landscapes simply morphing into versions found further south — maybe Long Island in 10 years, Chincoteague in 50, and Dry Tortugas in 100. The real future will be a lot less linear.
“Climate change is happening at a rate that I just don’t think evolution is going to be able to adjust to,” Russell said. For example, as warming changes the leaf-out date for scrub oak, it removes the food source for rare moth larvae, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. She is doubtful they will be able to cope. In other words, carbon dioxide is moving the levers, but nature designed the mechanism, and right now it looks a lot like a Rube Goldberg machine.
Rock Triptych, by Julia Mitchell; three 36 x 36 in. woven tapestries in wool, silk, and linen; gift of Monina von Opel and Edward Miller. Location: Rooftop garden ramp. The piece is a nod to glacial time, a tapestry of remnant rocks left over from the scraping of ice as it retreated; ephemeral, but only if you watch long enough.
Certain ubiquitous natural sights might disappear. Island biologist Luanne Johnson, founder of BiodiversityWorks, points to swallows and kingfishers. These quintessential birds might seem hardy, but they stand to lose their nesting burrows in cliff banks at Cedar Tree Neck and elsewhere. Not to mention the saltmarsh sparrows, damselflies, grasshoppers, and a lot of other specialized saltmarsh species who will be out of a home “when those salt marshes disappear,” she said.
For Hopping and The Trustees, the process is about assessing different plant communities on the Vineyard, and the animals they support, and figuring out where action needs to be taken. For example, he said, “I’m not so worried about the barrens communities, that are so iconic for the Island, disappearing as a result of climate change. It’s more: How are we going to keep them open and manage them?”
Even for species that will persist in the face of climate change, people will have to step in as natural processes wane. This can be seen in the Vineyard’s “frost bottoms,” unique microclimates that in the past have been liable to freeze any month of the year. “I think climate change is probably going to put an end to that, if it has not already,” Hopping said.
Kib Bramhall’s Weather Coming reads Island skies in the timeless way, but four decades later the phrase is ominously apt for the Vineyard’s future. The painting, oil on linen, was a gift of Kib and Tess Bramhall and is located at the second floor elevator lobby.
Back, again, to the heath hen. The other cautionary aspect of its “success,” in 1915, is that it took so little doing in the first place. The bird’s primary habitat was considered basically worthless, having been offered for free with the purchase of goods in Vineyard Haven stores as late as the 1870s, and it resumed being thought of as worthless once the bird itself was gone. The unique heathlands of the State Forest were regarded so poorly into the 1960s that they were harvested for timber at a loss rather than left alone.
Local conservation runs the risk of literally missing the forest for the trees — bits, or even large chunks, set aside as an apology cannot assuage the wider swath of destruction. On the Vineyard, for example, it is possible both to support a local conservation project, and to build an enormous house with materials shipped from less protected ecosystems. It doesn’t take a professor to do the carbon math on that. As climate change comes home to roost, this dissonance becomes deafening.
Agriculture is one way that Islanders have tried to address this, by feeding the Vineyard from its own fields. For one thing, this discourages wastefulness. For another, some types of farming can actually coexist with threatened plants and animals. “Agriculture is one way,” Hopping said. “We’re trying to explore this at the FARM Institute. We had grasshopper sparrows return last year — as far as we know, it’s the only population on the island.” He warned, as ecologists often do, that “it’s not going to be all things for all species. There’s no way to do that.”
Lucy Mitchell’s Beach Collection — Medicine Cabinet intersperses a biological collection from countless walks on the beach with natural forms from a parallel ecosystem in her mind. Like Athearn’s work, her sculptures abstract the details of Island nature, and mingled with the real thing, they blur the line between nature and artifice. A gift of the artist, this work can be found at the bottom of the rooftop garden ramp.
Climate change has guaranteed serious changes on the Vineyard, but residents can still hope to mitigate its worst effects. First, through concerted political action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Second, by supporting current conservation projects as well as new efforts to make Island ecosystems more resilient. Inaction is off the table — either we knowingly spin these places into chaos, or we do our best to influence how they look down the road. The task now is to draw inspiration from past landscapes to help the new ones take shape.
The Vineyard’s community of artists is a key ingredient in this conversation. They have a dual role: Many of them are affected by the land around them, and they help set the terms by which other people appreciate it. On the Vineyard, artists like Ray Ellis and Allen Whiting helped cultivate the Island’s quintessential appeal. The visual vocabulary of Islanders and visitors alike is anchored in rich, colorful cliffs, dunes next to shimmering ponds, and blue-sky sheep farms set against rolling glacial uplands.
Crab Creek – Tisbury Great Pond, black-and-white photograph, 1974, gift of the artist. Location: First floor elevator lobby. Barbara Norfleet’s image goes out of its way to freeze time; a startling snapshot specter of a gull, and the outlines of a familiar waterway, half a century past.
Whiting, a farming painter, knits together the Island’s tradition of working landscapes with its growing appreciation for the pastoral as an aesthetic. These lovingly transcribed scenes portray not a timeless landscape, as some might hope, but a landscape in tumult, as it recovers from one set of land use practices (colonial agriculture) and is shaped by another (development and climate change).
Like the land itself, the qualities that make land beautiful are in constant flux. Historians have shown that for a long time, settlers thought that rock spires, steep ravines, and dramatic seascapes were symbols of a malevolent wilderness inhabited by the devil. In the 19th century, landscape painters enshrined these elements as sublime, even holy. In the present day, Island artists help us look at the landscape still more closely — to understand what might be at stake, and to imagine what the future holds.
Painters, photographers and sculptors represent a middle range on the spectrum between ecologists and everyone else. Ecologists, who might worry about an endangered moth, or a microscopically tiny sedge (Julie Russell), are hyper-focused on observing environmental change and reacting with as much speed and accuracy as possible. Artists share this acute sense of detail, but weave it into an aesthetic process that might influence less empirical minds.
Adolf Dehn’s 1934 lithograph, Boat & Dunes, sketches ephemeral structures on an unnamed dune, anchored on nothing but sand. Gift of Monina von Opel and Edward Miller. Location: Radiology waiting room.
Consider John Athearn’s “Fictional Vineyard” series — Island scenes which depict no place in particular, and yet many places in essence. These watercolor distillations strike at the general character of the land, unique to our moment in time. Or Jack Yuen’s “Gay Head Lighthouse,” an imaginative rendering of an Island hallmark, notably surrounded by water, and marked with tributes to preservation efforts past. Yuen, among the Island’s youngest artists, will see more change in his lifetime than anyone so far.
Astrid Tilton, also from this new generation, combines past and future in a cyanotype of Lucy Vincent Beach; a photographic process from 1842 used to document an erosion process in 2012. Reaching far back in this history of coastal retreat, Adolf Dehn’s 1934 lithograph sketches ephemeral structures on an unnamed dune, anchored on nothing but sand.
Lucy Mitchell’s “Beach Collection — Medicine Cabinet” intersperses a biological collection from countless walks on the beach with natural forms from a parallel ecosystem in her mind. Like Athearn’s work, her sculptures abstract the details of Island nature, and mingled with the real thing, they blur the line between nature and artifice.
Master printmaker Ruth Kirchmeier’s “Pathway With Bittersweet, Duarte’s Pond” (a gift of the artist), it is located in the volunteer corridor.observes a change that has already occurred: the spread of a highly invasive plant, introduced to America in the late 1800s and popularized as a garden feature in the mid-20th century, now at home in the Vineyard landscape. As other invasives like Japanese knotweed and the fittingly named mile-a-minute weed thrive in the new climate, will they make their way into Island art?
Julian Robinson and Abraham Pieciak each draw from species with dynamic relations to the Island — barn owls and osprey. The owl nests here, at the northern extent of its range, where the severity of winter can make or break its population, making it a signal flag in a changing climate. The fish hawk represents a trend reversed, a once scarce sight now common.
Abraham Pieciak’s Lobserville Osprey, mixed media (driftwood, buoys, netting), is located in the main entrance vestibule. The sh hawk represents a trend reversed, a once scarce sight now common. The work is a gift of the artist, Edward Miller, Monina von Opel, and Ben Heineman.
These artists, and anyone on Martha’s Vineyard who is inspired by Island scenery to put pencil to paper, paint to canvas, or camera to eye, reflect a connection to the land, and a deep, if not entirely conscious, investment in it. Many creative people are weaving these wild systems into their imagination, and, we can hope, into ours.
The Hospital Art Collection, in its size and scope, provides an unrivaled view of how Vineyard artists have internalized and metabolized the natural landscapes of the Vineyard.
What these artists choose to depict is what sets the boundaries of our imagination — do they hearken back to a golden past, or gaze toward an uncertain future?