Decades of "Looking at the Vineyard"
Friday, August 29, 2003
By Sam Low
"I love the roads up here," a visiting friend of mine
told me a few days ago, "the way they curve, the stone
walls, the canopy of trees overhead." We were traveling
through West Tisbury at the time. The appearance of the roads,
I explained to him, was not just the random result of geology
and human history, but was also part of an inspired plan first
developed three decades ago by the Vineyard Open Land Foundation
(VOLF), a public charitable trust.
plan is contained in a modest book entitled "Looking At
The Vineyard" published by VOLF in the fall of 1973. In
her foreword to the book, Mary P. Wakeman, then chairman of
VOLF quoted Frederick Law Olmstead's words about Central Park
in New York City:
main object and justification of (Central Park) is simply to
produce a certain influence in the minds of people
character of this influence is a poetic one and it is to be
produced by means of scenes, through observation of which the
mind may be more or less lifted out of moods and habits into
which it is, under the ordinary conditions of city life, likely
as a mind altering experience - that was exactly what my friend
had noticed traveling those sinuous West Tisbury Roads. Here's
what the book tells us:
Vineyard Roads do much to make up the special Vineyard flavor.
Built for rural purposes, and for the most part not drastically
modified since then, it is their very narrowness, their shifting
alignment and rural detail that constantly reminds us we are
in an unusual locality. The passing views of ocean or pond,
marsh, moor or pasture delight us - and the appearance of a
few new roadside buildings can make us believe that the entire
Island is overbuilt."
at the Vineyard" recommends preservation of these island
roads - and their visual experience - keeping them narrow and
curving, encouraging the overarching colonnade of trees, setting
buildings and telephone poles back behind screens of vegetation
- but also allowing the opening up of vistas of ocean, pond
and meadow that add dynamic visual delight as we move along
experience of island roads is teased apart into objective categories
that allow for analysis and assist planning. The foliage bordering
the road can be categorized as intermittent, dense or overarching,
or a combination of these. The views can be a fleeting glimpse,
an expansive view from a single point or a continuous one from
a long stretch of road. Take the view of the Keith Farm on Middle
Road, for example, a continuous vista of open meadows dotted
with geese, sheep and livestock, rolling to the sea. In the
1980s, VOLF worked with the Keith family to plan five houses
for their children and place them to blend with the landscape.
This open vista was preserved forever by a conservation restriction
on the Keith's 48 acres which VOLF helped to implement.
thirty years," says Carol Magee, the executive director
of VOLF, "we have worked as consultants with landowners
to employ concepts from "Looking at the Vineyard"
to help preserve public vistas while allowing for limited development."
"Looking at the Vineyard" encourages us all to think
about planning in a new visual way and provides tools that may
help solve problems we now encounter daily. Take the imposition
of megamansions on the island's moors and plains, for example.
Here's what the book recommends:
up-island moors are that part of the rolling, rocky terminal
moraine which is open grassland with occasional low thickets.
It is a soft, flowing landscape, quiet, rather old and worn
- sometimes almost mournful. Stone is very much part of it,
as are erratic boulders, old stone fences, old foundations.
The rolling of the ground is one of its strongest visual
characteristics, yet the hills are not actually very high."
many island views are broad, and give a sense of great openness
and spaciousness, the scale of the natural features of the island
is actually rather small. Hills are neither long nor high, and
most trees are low. Where nothing else serves as a means of
measurement, small hills, modest fields or low cliffs appear
larger than they are. This illusion is an important aspect of
the sensation of great space which is appreciated by many Islanders
house which sits directly on top of one of the moors' low hills
(and this is where many houses are mindlessly set) inflates
its own presence and makes the hills seem to shrink. A large
boulder or a clump of bushes belongs on such a hilltop, but
not a house or a car, or even a large tree."
moors are just one of eight distinct types of visual landscapes
catalogued in the book - each with its own suggestions of planning
controls. Another is the "salt lands" that surround
our ponds and lagoons.
ponds, linked to the sea yet separated from its constant motion,
are fertile nurseries for birds and fish, and still reflectors
of the changing sky. Where this stillness is preserved there
is a rare opportunity to feel part of the rhythm of life. The
cycles of seasons and weather are clearly articulated in the
changing vegetation and animal life, and the dunes of the barrier
beach seem to grow and subside in the varying light. In moonlight
the ponds are spectacular. The beach itself if of enormous visual
scale dominated by the sight and sound of the sea, seemingly
absolutely cut off from the land behind by the bluff or barrier
build on the beach, dunes and cliffs, the book suggests, set
buildings back from these vistas and keep them low and unobtrusive.
When reading these guidelines, the recent wrangling over large
houses - visible from Cape Pogue Pond - comes to mind.
at the Vineyard" suggests that development be encouraged
in certain areas - such as the "wooded plains" and
"wooded moraines" - where it is screened from view
and will not destroy our island's visual delight. The book also
encourages more public access to the Vineyard's special places,
and it recognizes that visual qualities are just one aspect
of planning - others such as the need for moderate cost housing,
transport, water quality and other environmental concerns are
dissecting our subjective visual experiences of the island and
rendering them objectively understandable - "Looking at
the Vineyard" continues to provide tools that we may use
to plan for our future. It is in many ways as fresh today as
it was when published thirty years ago - and should be on the
'must read' list of every islander, especially those entrusted
with preserving the island's unique sense of place.
book can be purchased at some island bookstores, or directly
from VOLF by sending a check for fifteen dollars to Vineyard
Open Land Foundation, PO Box 4608, Vineyard Haven, 02568. It
can also be found in many island libraries).