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A Map of the Heart - Sense of Place on Martha's Vineyard

Martha's Vineyard Magazine, May-June 2001
By Sam Low

A friend once composed a map after a visit to the island. It was a very personal sort of cartography. Where we lived she painted a gingerbread cottage and for the larger area around it penned in "where the Harts all live." A location at South Beach became "the fishing place," a trail became "the hike" and a big-eyed owl was painted where we had seen one. It was an example of what one urban planner calls "sacred cartography" - a map of the heart. It showed how landscape becomes evocative of pleasure and - when experiences accumulate - the land itself becomes a memory device, triggering meaning that goes back into the past.

It's a primal concept of place and it's shared by societies that we label as 'primitive.'  Australian aborigines, for example, conceive of their world as crisscrossed with songlines, gossamer paths left behind by the Ancestors. The Ancestors created the landscape and gave it meaning, so when an aborigine goes on a 'walkabout', following the songlines, he participates in that act of creation and, I presume, experiences a direct connection to his past - to the seeding of his bloodline. I think many of us do this, only we don't have such a formal way of conceiving it. It's like the map my friend made. Standing at the "fishing place" conjures her face and the time we were there and the laughter and stories we told.

Our ancestors connect us to our past. They remind us who we are. I will always remember my parents' voices, bathing me in their stories and laughter, rising through the floorboards as I went to sleep in a tiny bedroom over the dining room. We are part of a ribbon of history or we are part of nothing. We are part of, as Wendell Berry wrote: "the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family... the knowledge of a place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, [and] loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons." Or, as he wrote in his poem, In Rain: "I walk this ground/of which dead men/ and women I have loved/are part, as they/are part of me."

What are the dimensions of our lives? Space and time, of course, and when we spend significant time in one place it becomes meaningful. That's why places are so important to a community and why changes in them threaten the very nature of it.

Suppose that I could never go back to that "fishing place" described by my friend in her sacred map. Perhaps the beach has been purchased and closed off by some private party, or under the threat of crowding the local community has declared that only townspeople can go there and issue beach passes to enforce that rule. I have lost a songline. The memory of my friend's laughing face recedes.


Menemsha - Painting by my father, Sanford Ballard Dole Low

I grew up on the Vineyard with a sense of islanders as heroes - especially the fishermen of Menemsha where my father often went to paint watercolors. My father was a fisherman too, although a recreational one, and he easily made friends with the men who inhabited the shacks edging the piers. I remember one lean man dressed in hip boots, his face grizzled with beard, who greeted my father with: "Well hello Sandy - is the sap still running?" The man was called, as I remember it, "Horsepower Mayhew." He was famous among the already legendary fisherfolk of Menemsha. The Mayhews, Larsens and Pooles were, I suppose, in a different social class than most of us summer folk but I don't recall that anyone ever noticed. The fishermen firmly inhabited their own world in which they were not only respected by the summer crowd of bankers and lawyers, but even revered. Getting to know such men was probably easier in those uncrowded days when, even if your were a summer person, it was assumed that you shared a common love of the place or you would not be here. In those days, the island was an inclusive place.

Now consider what happens to a sense of community when people put gates around them. Powerfully symbolic, they indicate that those within are different from those without. "Don't enter unless you have a key." Gated communities arose at the turn of the century in places like Saint Louis where large archways surrounded by walls buffered elite communities from their neighbors. It was a planned urban landscape that said "I'm special" and "don't enter unless you have business here" - appropriate perhaps to a large city where people are concerned about crime and displaying their position in the social pecking order but not to Vineyard towns where the traditional ethic has been "we're all in this together." Having the key to the gate marks belonging to a different, separate world. An inclusive society becomes an exclusive one. Status conquers community.

Who are these people? What motivates their drive for exclusion and privacy? They are the top of the hourglass society, the "New Elite" as Washington Post Columnist Richard Harwood calls them, writing in a 1995 Cosmos Magazine article. The new elite is a product of the "new economy" which has produced wealth beyond imaging for a few. In 1960, for example, an average CEO earned, after taxes, about 12 times what an average factory worked earned. Today it is 70 times what the average factory worker earns.

"There has always been a privileged class even in America, but it has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings," Harwood writes. "In the 19th century wealthy families were typically settled, often for several generations, in a given locale... Wealth was understood to carry civic obligations. Libraries, museums, parks, orchestras, universities, hospitals and other civic amenities stood as so many monuments to upper-class munificence... The new aristocracy is different. They follow the Holy Grail of money and position wherever it leads -- usually to the East and West Coast enclaves populated by people like themselves... [They] are at home only in transit to the high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist's view of the world..."

Martha's Vineyard has been a tourist island for centuries. But these are a different kind of tourist - with sufficient money to build houses which they occupy a few weekends of the year - jetting between them and other houses. They have no time and seemingly no interest in community and they change the landscape by leaving behind their houses on steroids.

Why do we object so to the imposition of large houses on the Vineyard? Is it jealousy? Perhaps. But it's more than that, I think - a deep cultural revulsion for the lack of respect these mini-mansions display for a natural environment which is essential to our sense of place here. In 1973, the Vineyard Open Land Foundation hired Kevin Lynch, a well known MIT urban planning professor and landscape savant, to study what made Martha's Vineyard unique. His report, called "Looking at the Vineyard" is a sensual catalog of our island's natural heritage - and a key to our preference for modest and traditional houses.

"The up-island moors are that part of the rolling, rocky terminal moraine which is open grassland with occasional low thickets," Lynch writes. "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 land does not change so much with the seasons as with the light, or in the mist. The rolling of the ground is one of its strongest visual characteristics, yet the hills are not actually very high."

"Although 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 and visitors."

"A 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."

Mr. Lynch was writing well before the pressure from mini-mansions but he leaves little doubt about what he would think of them.

Why the outcry about the imminent threat of three new golf courses? The litany of letters to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, published in the two local newspapers tells much. They speak of the danger to the quality of our drinking water - and to its quantity - the threat to our birds and other natural species, our experience of wilderness, our ancient trails. But they also speak of the kind of people that such high tone golf links will attract - those who can, for example, pay $200,000 for a membership. The New Elite.

Most of us who have experienced the Vineyard in its earlier times, summer and year-round residents alike, at least share a common appreciation for activities that are based on what the island uniquely has to offer - fishing, bathing, walking, boating. These purusits leave few scars and engender an appreciation for the natural environment. But golf, I submit, is an artificial past-time that requires an artificial landscape, no matter how beautifully tended. It's an environment for the rich to play a game that has nothing to do with the island's natural resources - a game that changes it's natural beauty into an artificial one.

In the preface to her book - The Unreal America - historian Ada Louise Huxtaable writes: "No matter how well executed, designer developments and prepackaged styles reduce a person's life to a facsimile of living, and a person's connection to others to consumption... What interests me as an architectural and urban historian is the transformation of history into fantasy, of the environment into entertainment... What concerns me as a critic is how that affects our attitude toward the reality of the past, with its remarkable messages of survival and continuity, and the reality of the present with its equally revealing messages about who and what we are."

I live in a small community that was formed by my great grandparents in about 1911. For at least two generations the place was peopled by relatives mostly - or good friends of them - and so everyone knew each other well. There were parties they all went to and the end of the year clambake where they all gathered to shuck clams and boil lobsters in great steaming caldrons. Nowadays the family is thinning and we are renting our houses from time to time to cover expenses. I wave to everyone on my road - most of us on the Vineyard do - but now I often get people who just stare at me. They must be thinking - 'who are you?" but it still seems strange that they don't have the simple "wave reflex" in their nonverbal vocabulary. "Who are they?" I wonder, somewhat hurt and defensive. I notice it most in my neighborhood, but it occurs everywhere. It's a small thing - but it has big ramifications because it's these little nonverbal nods and waves and eye flashes that signal our membership in a community and when people stop waving something subtle changes. Anyone, I believe, who harbors a remote connection to place will instinctually recognize others, even if by simple nonverbal gestures. As Maine poet and environmental activist Gary Lawless puts it, "The more you know about a place, the better you behave." Not waving, or eye blinking, or whatever - is common to urban places, not rural ones, because cities are filled with strangers.

The island is crowded during the summe and this engenders an urban sense of density - which may explain partly the tendency to ignore each other. But, I suspect, it also goes back to that growing sense of exclusion. Never mind the gates - the island is becoming a place where, by our merest gesture - or lack of it - we exclude others.

Our shared experience is called our culture. A culture that has depth, I submit, is one where the experience has been shared over some length of time, a process leading toward perfection. If you are a lover of boats, you might think of those special yards where the skills and knowledge have been passed on for generations - Waldo Howland's yard in Padanaram where the Concordia yawls were made, for example. Anyone driving though New England can see the culture expressed in those cleanly dressed farmhouses. The architecture, whether marine or terrestrial, expresses deep experience.

One of the problems today is that our culture seems to be reaching the shallow end of the pool. Houses are built to appear magnificent, boats are made of plastic and resemble seagoing ski boots. And both of these artifacts are fabricated by hands that may do so for only a few years before turning to another trade, moving on to another place. The culture is shallow because the experience is not deep.

If time spent doing something in one place produces a culture that is deep, what happens when we spend less and less time in any one place - flitting about from one pleasure dome to another? As Russ Rymer puts it in his book American Beach, "The problem here, it seems, is all we know to do with our money is to grow up and be children. To take our money, build our golf courses and gated communities, and be safe and insulated."

Culture goes beyond the making of things, of course, it encompasses everything - how we act, think, talk - who we are. If you have lived in one place long enough, culture inheres in the landscape. I remember interviewing Calvin Place - a Maine farmer. I asked him to take me on a brief tour of his land, thinking that I would be introduced to the boundaries of the place and learn about what and how he farmed. Nothing of the sort. Calvin stopped at just about each rock, fence post, tree - even some places where there were no visible landmarks - to discourse on his brother, or uncle, or parent and what they accomplished there. The entire landscape was a mnemonic device - triggering memories that went way back in time, rooting him (and eventually me in some ways) to the place. 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."

Our sense of place defines us. It is much more than a sense of style - an antipathy to display, for example. Places contain the memories of people important to us, of events we have shared that express the values that nourish us. By deciding to include or exclude others in our special places we define our attitude toward our fellow man. By our daily manners - even our nonverbal greetings - we express a willingness - or lack of it - to recognize our commonality. The question now facing us in our town meetings and our representatives on the Martha's Vineyard Commission is what kind of society do we want to belong to? And, more importantly, what kind of people do we want to be? As Wendell Barry once put it succinctly: "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are."

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