Invitation Edition – May 21, 2004


Ancient Ways

By Sam Low


I found one while walking the Farm Neck golf course. At first, I wasn't sure, because it showed itself as a faint depression descending from the eleventh tee. It could easily have been caused by rain water draining off the fairway and etching into the sand of what appeared to be a drumlin. But, as I followed it, I saw it widen and burrow deeper - then curve slightly and disappear into the woods. It was an ancient way, all right, and it presented a beguiling invitation to follow it into the forest.


I have long harbored an image of a magic ear trumpet – a device that could be implanted in the earth to hear conversations that once swirled over the land – snippets of strange Wampanoag words, of colonials hitching horses to plows, of real estate speculators pacing off their capital gains. That's a fantasy, of course, but it comes to me whenever I walk an ancient way. How many carts did it take to wear away the land in such a graceful catenary? What destinations dictated the beginning and end of the journeys mapped so deeply into the earth? What do these imbedded stories tell us of past and present – and future even?


Ancient ways anchor us to our ancestors. Construed broadly, everyone who walked the island's moraines, drumlins and beaches is an ancestor of sorts. And connecting to them draws us into a dialog with our past. As author David Macaulay once said: "...there's something remarkably reassuring about being connected to a place where other people have been before you. People like you who have had difficult times and have survived all kinds of things. I find that extremely hopeful and promising. If they could do it, we can do it."


Walking an ancient way stirs primal feelings like these. I am reminded of the Australian aboriginal concept of “song lines” - paths left on the land by ancestral wanderings. It's a tale of creation told over campfires. The Ancestors created the landscape and gave it meaning, say the stories, so when an aborigine goes on a 'walkabout", following the song lines, he takes part in that act of creation. He experiences a direct connection to the seeding of his bloodline. I think many of us do this, only we do not have a way to conceive it in our culture.


Many of our island's ancient ways started out as simple footpaths used by the Wampanoag people to access their hunting, collecting, shell fishing and horticultural lands. One of them is a path from Job's Neck Pond – now called the Pahoganut Road on most maps – to Felix Neck. Many of these foot paths were converted to cart paths by white colonists and linger today as tarred roads. When these modern roads were hardened by asphalt or other more enduring substances – they were often straightened. Today, if you know where to look, you can still find the errant traces of the more curvy ancient road off to one side of the modern one.


The legal right of public access to ancient ways is a subject of some debate. On the one hand advocates claim that by precedent these ways must be open to the public. They have been in use, after all, for hundreds of years. They are the repositories of our history - graven in the earth. This kind of argument sometimes takes on a high moral tone. Others claim that property rights trump historical ones. Many property owners erect fences to deter walkers – trying to erase an easement that has existed for centuries. Lawsuits sometimes result. It's a symptom of crowding and diverse opinion about the meaning of place and the right to song lines.


When the Martha's Vineyard Commission was formed back in 1974, they were given the power to help protect ancient ways. In 1991, they worked with the Town of West Tisbury to set aside five historic roads and paths. In 2000, they supported the people of Edgartown as they designated Dr. Fisher Road an ancient way. The commission continues to be a staunch protector of these gossamer links to our past.


There is some secrecy surrounding the island's ancient ways. Maps of them exist but they are closely held. As one savant told me when I discussed writing a brief article about them: “well, we don't really want that information to get out because then we'll have everybody out there walking them.” That's patently untrue, of course, given the public's general antipathy to walking - but it's an indication of the pressure people feel about crowding on the island. When you're told about an ancient way it's a kind of sharing that ought to be accompanied by a secret handshake.


Developers often find themselves astride controversy when they attempt to put in subdivisions or golf courses that threaten to erase an ancient way. Such was the case with Corey Kupersmith when he first laid out the Down Island Golf Course. On one Fall evening about three years ago, I observed a representative of Mr. Kupersmith's team and the chairman of the Oak Bluffs' Trails and Ancient Ways Committee lean over a map to discuss their conflicting views of these old roads on Martha's Vineyard .


“There are two trails here,” said the developer, running his finger over two ancient ways that paralleled each other as they wended over a rumpled topography that geologists call a terminal moraine – a place where a glacier paused more than 10,000 years ago. “Why do you want to preserve two trails when one will do?” the developer asked.


“Each trail is unique,” responded the committee chairman, “it's the features that make them so – the depression of the roadbed, the trees, the moss, the history of the trail or byway – each one is different and each one is worthy of preservation.”


The developer saw the trails as obstacles to planning the optimum layout of amenities on land that he had paid dearly for. He argued an ancient and honorable American right to property. The chairman, equally rooted in fundamental American values, argued the rights of tradition and public access.


“There is a history of public use on these trails for hundreds of years'” he said. “Generations of people have used them and they still do. Now, all of a sudden, that could be in jeopardy.”


The chairman was right, of course. The island's ancient ways provide us with our song lines. They endow us with that gossamer sense of place that Wendell Berry once described in a poem entitled In Rain:


I walk this ground

of which dead men

and women I have loved

are part, as they

are part of me.