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Archaeology at the Mitchell House

Posted on: October 3rd, 2014 by sheriffsmeadow

Serviceberry

Posted on: May 15th, 2014 by sheriffsmeadow

In his classic book North with the Spring, Edwin Way Teale follows the season of spring as it moves northward up the east coast of the United States. In World War II, David Teale, the only son of Edwin and Nellie Teale, was killed in a battle. During the dark days of that war, stricken with sorrow, the Teales planned the journey with spring as a way of trying to soothe their grief. When the war was over, the Teales set forth. They followed the season, moving over the countryside from the Florida Everglades, to the Great Smoky Mountains, to Monticello, to the stunted forests of Cape Cod, to Mount Washington. Of the many plants that Mr. Teale describes in his book, one of them is the shadbush, Amelanchier laevis.

Mr. Teale found the shadbush growing along mountainsides in the Great Smoky Mountains and in the pine barrens of New Jersey, where it offered its nectar to the Hessel’s hairstreak butterfly. Teale noted that, in the pine barrens, the shadbush was one of just two sources of spring nectar for this butterfly. In the Jersey pine barrens, the shadbush stands out.

And in the very similar woodlands of Martha’s Vineyard, shadbush stands out, too. A short-statured tree, or perhaps a large statured-shrub, the shadbush blooms at the end of April or the beginning of May, depending on the season. Owing to the cold winter of 2014, spring has arrived a bit late on the island, and on the seventh of May, the shadbush had only just blossomed.

During its brief period of bloom, the white bouquets of the shadbush draw attention to this otherwise unassuming little tree. A few of the island’s larger shadbush trees grow at the Caroline Tuthill Preserve, near the Lily Pond, along the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Further up the road toward Vineyard Haven, a few shadbush trees blossom near Dodger’s Hole, that little glacial kettlehole pond with an island of its own in the middle. Others blossom along the Lambert’s Cove Road, and a great many along the Quansoo Road, and others generally all about.

Through the winter, the leafless shadbush shivers in gray obscurity amid the bare stems of oaks and hickories. When clothed in summer foliage, the shadbush becomes just another shade of the great green blur of the island woods. Yet for a spring fortnight, the shadbush blooms beautifully, its small, white, five-petaled flowers bunched in little sprigs at the end of slender twigs. To the drab oak woodlands, so often wreathed in cold spring fogs, the bright blossoms of the shadbush bring a bit of joy and levity. On this island, flowering dogwoods bloom in the woods, and lovely pears blossom near St. Augustine’s Church, and magnolia delight at the Polly Hill Arboretum, yet the signature tree of island spring is truly the simple shadbush.

The beauty of the shadbush is a spare and economical sort. The shadbush is no magnolia. For that matter, its common name, shadbush, describes the tree not so much for what it is – a shrub – but more for what it signals – the spawning of the American shad. A migratory, anadromous fish, the American shad hatches in the fresh water of a river, migrates to the sea, and returns to its natal river only to spawn. As the spawning runs of American shad coincide with the blossoming of Amelanchier laevis, the tree was given the name shadbush.

The shadbush, however, has another name, one that is not as often used. Its other common name is serviceberry. “Berry,” naturally, refers to the fruit of this tree, but “service?” Service refers, in this case, to a funeral service. The serviceberry name of Amelanchier laevis refers to the fact that when the serviceberry blossoms, the ground has thawed, and the winter’s dead may now be buried.

The dual common names of this tree intrigue me. The name shadbush heralds that which is to arrive – the American shad – and by extension, the spring, and all that it means. The shadbush signals the fragrance of lilac on Main Street, the return of the striped bass, the sound of a baseball thumping into a catcher’s mitt, the hatch of a million mayflies, and the summer yet to come. The name serviceberry, however, is one of loss. The blossoming of serviceberry calls for burying the dead, and for grieving over a fresh grave, and for final farewells. The serviceberry is a tree of burial and mourning, and the shadbush is a tree of spawning and birth, and the two are the very same tree.

The Teales planned their journey to soothe their grief. Ultimately, Edwin Way Teale’s books take the reader through all four seasons: North with the Spring, Autumn Across America, Journey into Summer, and Wandering through Winter. Though the Teales could have chosen any season in which to begin their exploration, they chose the spring. Perhaps it is the promise of this season, of spring, that spoke to the Teales, and that this promise helped, in some way, to ease their deep sorrow.

Grief and promise grow within Amelanchier laevis. Shrouded in May morning mist, the serviceberry mourns, as dewdrops drip from its little white flowers. Yet when the sun comes out, the shadbush cheers, its bright blossoms promising a fish on the hook, or a home run ball smacked over the fence, or a clutch of forsythia for Mother’s Day. Serviceberry mourns, but shadbush smiles, and these two trees in one offer the solace and the promise that the Teales sought in spring.

Serviceberry

Posted on: May 15th, 2014 by sheriffsmeadow

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Posted on: March 3rd, 2014 by sheriffsmeadow
Bruce Marshard and draft horse, Max, at Cedar Tree Neck

Bruce Marshard and draft horse, Max, at Cedar Tree Neck. Photo by Alison Shaw.

Scouting on the Moraine

Posted on: March 2nd, 2014 by sheriffsmeadow

After stopping at Up-Island Automotive and Cronig’s Market for a full tank of gas and a half-price sandwich, I headed for the woods to scout for timber.

Scouting, perhaps, is the most enjoyable activity that one can undertake in managing conservation land. Scouting is simply seeking: roaming and exploring the woods, judging the potential for some certain use, judging the possibility for some plant or animal to be present. Sometimes one rambles on the edges of bluffs, scouting the location for a new trail. Other times, one scouts for orchids, or prickly pear cacti, or sundew. Sometimes one scouts for the potential for a long-distance view.

On this particular Friday afternoon, I visited a portion of the Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary that was given to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation by Eleanor Moore Irvin. Specifically, I was scouting for white oak trees. I sought a dry, accessible upland area with enough white oaks to allow a few to be cut. The lumber from these white oaks would be used to replace the rotten sills in the Hancock-Mitchell House. These sills are made of white oak, too, yet the island oak trees used for the original sills were cut some 300 years ago.

I pulled my truck off of the Indian Hill Road, parked by a stone wall and ate lunch. Lunch finished, I stepped out of the truck and stepped onto the snow-covered forest floor. Some six inches of snow blanketed the earth in white. For much of this winter, in fact, snow has covered the ground across the island. I laced my boots a bit tighter, tugged on a pair of gloves, and set off into the woods.

I began the scouting expedition by hiking up a woods road. From a gap in a stone wall, this woods road climbs the hills, winds around the corners of stone walls, passes an old, concrete barn, and ascends to ground that is near some of the highest points on Martha’s Vineyard. The road begins in a grove of American beeches. By casting deep shade, and by sprouting new beeches, or “suckers,” from the roots of older beeches, American beeches can slowly claim areas of forest for beeches alone. Stands of beeches are delightful to walk through, especially as a respite after pacing through thickets of huckleberry that untie bootlaces and tangles of greenbrier vines that pierce pants. The beeches here grow in a bit of a rock pile of small boulders.

I walked past the beeches and hiked up the hill, for some distance following footprints in the snow. Beyond the beeches, black oaks, white oaks, sassafras trees and hickories grow in the woods, towering above the stone walls. Meeting at right angles, enclosing what once were paddocks and pastures and livestock enclosures, the stone walls divide the land into a patchwork quilt of woodlots. A lichen crust, colored ash gray and mint green, covers each old stone. On the winter day of my visit, the top stones in the wall wore a topping of snow.

Off to the east stood a tall and solitary northern white cedar, conspicuous in the winter with its evergreen needles. Scattered about, on the tops of ridges, and beside the boulders, grows the tree of the future – the American holly. Here and there, young hollies grow, their lustrous leaves and red berries making a Yuletide scene on the snow-covered hill. Absent fire, and given enough time, the hollies and beeches will eventually take over here, and will make for a splendid forest.

As it turned out, there were plenty of white oaks, and many were close enough to the road to be skidded out without much trouble. The wood of the white oak is naturally rot-resistant, and its lumber is some of the best wood that grows in any American tree. In his masterpiece, A Natural History of North American Trees, Donald Culross Peattie notes that the gun deck of the U.S.S. Constitution is made of Massachusetts white oak, while her keel is made of New Jersey white oak, and her knees are made of Maryland white oak.

Though I scouted for white oak trees, what truly caught my eye were the boulders known as glacial erratics. The boulders lay here and there, on ridges and in hollows and on the sides of hills. Lichens and snow covered the rough rock surfaces. Some boulders lay atop one another, forming small caves and crevices, delightful hideouts for adventurous souls. One distinctive boulder might be considered the “Half-Dome” of Martha’s Vineyard. Only half of this boulder stands upright, while the other half of this cloven boulder lies beside it, prone. Presumably, some thousand years or more of continuous freezing in a crack in the stone sufficed to one day cleave the rock in two, just like an iron wedge in a firewood log.

There were enough white oaks here; I had found my place. Yet on this scouting expedition, as on most, I found much more. I found that sense of vigor that comes from hiking over rugged country. I found that childlike sense of wonder that comes from venturing off the trail and exploring.

And when I looked over the erratics, I found the bright blue waters of Vineyard Sound, and the profile of Naushon, and even Buzzard’s Bay and the mainland coast beyond that. I found a landscape that plunges past fallen logs and sapling hickories and twisted beetlebungs. I found hills that roll past the cellar holes and stone ruins of long-lost farms. I found a land that tumbles down to the shore, where boulders brought here by glacial ice, have finally met the saltwater waves of the sea.

Photographs of Bruce Marshard and his Percheron draft horse, Max, at the Eleanor Moore Irvin portion of Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary. Photography by Alison Shaw. Special thanks to Tom Robinson.

Quansoo in Winter

Posted on: January 10th, 2014 by sheriffsmeadow

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Arctic Visitors

Posted on: January 10th, 2014 by sheriffsmeadow

Arctic Visitors

The blizzard began on a day that dawned a leaden gray. Soon the snow began to fall, and the wind blew, and throughout the day, the clouds gathered and the storm grew.

The island prepared. School was dismissed early, and school buses made the rounds on roads that were now covered with snow. Cars crowded the parking lot of the Stop & Shop, and inside the store, friends and neighbors jostled shopping carts through the aisles, and queued in long lines at those registers that were open. I returned home in the afternoon to join my family, stacked firewood on the front porch, and lit a fire in the wood stove. Darkness fell as the winds howled. I took a final look toward the northeast, at the belly of the storm, which the distant lights of the airport had caused to glow. Then I turned back, and closed the door, and shut out the storm.

A house exists to provide shelter. At no time is this fundamental purpose more clear than during a blizzard. Though outside a battering northeaster raged, inside, the house was warm, and a fire blazed in the woodstove, and the lights of the Christmas tree cast a warm glow. The children slept that night in the living room, snug in sleeping bags between the Christmas tree and the wood stove. I settled myself in a rocking chair, and the children drifted off to sleep to Longfellow’s “The Building of the Ship:”

Build me Straight, O Worthy Master.
Staunch and strong, a goodly vessel,
That shall laugh at all disaster,
And with wave and whirlwind wrestle.

By morning, whirlwinds of snow spun across the plains of Quansoo, and the blizzard tearing across the island had whipped waves out of the still-unfrozen waters of Black Point Pond. Crested drifts rose on the lee sides of the tall bunches of switchgrass, and wells formed around the trunks of open-grown trees. The snow itself was light, and dry, and could not be packed, even if the winds would allow it. In snow-covered cedar boughs, a male cardinal and two female cardinals perched on the branches. A black-capped chickadee darted from one cedar branch to another, and a couple of doves stood in the wind-scoured well around the tree, out of the snow.

In the open, the frigid gale scoured the fields. The wind stung the face, and froze the hands, and demanded that the skin was covered. Yet by mid-morning, off to the south, above the bare branches of the oaks and hickories, the sun had begun to glow, appearing as a bright gray spot among the darker gray clouds. By noon, the snow had stopped, and the sun had emerged, shining in a sky of brilliant blue color and freezing cold air.

The new-fallen snow makes everyone an explorer. Anyone setting out can be the first to break a trail, and to discover a landscape that has been transformed. We bundled up in scarves and coats and layers of wool, and then set forth. In the shorn fields, a stubble of straw protruded from the snow, as wind had swept some areas of open ground nearly bare. At times one would stand upon firm, frozen ground, while at other times, one would plunge up to the knees in the snow.

The woods, however, offered shelter from the wind, and here some eight inches of snow had piled beneath the bristle brush layer of huckleberry shrubs. Limber viburnum stems arched over backward, while snow, sometimes four inches deep, perched on the bent branches and stems. The northern sides of oak trees bore a layer of white, seeming as if the storm had smeared the snow on each tree like plaster on lath. In late afternoon, the setting sun first illuminated the woods with a gentle golden light, and then set in a violet blaze.

While the sun was setting, I took off my gloves for a few minutes. I was testing a small stove that burns pine cones and twigs, and uses the heat from this little fire to charge a phone. I learned that the stove works, but I also learned that, in this weather, just a few minutes sans gloves was all it took to make my fingers completely numb.

It soon became evident that the snowy owl was not the only Arctic visitor to Martha’s Vineyard this winter. The other visitor has been the Arctic weather, whose cold is just as piercing as the owl’s talons. By the following morning, the air was so cold that a sea mist rose off the beach, just as a mist rises from a pond on the cool summer morning.

When one thinks of Martha’s Vineyard, summer is the season that typically comes to mind. We think of days on the beach, and surfcasting, and clambakes. Yet is summer the island season, or is it winter? Geologically, much of the island is a relic of the massive, Laurentide glacier, a heap of jumbled rocks, scraped off New England bedrock, and crushed beneath a thousand feet of ice.

On January days when the thermometer at Mermaid Farm reads minus four degrees Fahrenheit, and when snowy owls in white plumage hunt at Big Bridge, when docks wear skirts of icicles and when the Chappy Ferry captains wear survival suits, thoughts of summer are hard to conjure. The island seems much nearer to its ice age origin. On these days, it is winter, winter alone, that comes to mind.

Tree Swallows

Posted on: September 7th, 2013 by sheriffsmeadow

By Adam R. Moore

By the numberless thousands they descend. The birds arrive as a great host, flying from the northeast, following a sinuous path on invisible, atmospheric currents. The flock appears as a river of birds, curving through the air, with birds pouring forth in a flow that seems unceasing.

The great flocks of migrating tree swallows have arrived upon the plains of Quansoo and elsewhere on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard. By sunset at the end of a gray Labor Day, some hundreds of members of a flock of swallows had alit on the branches of a black cherry tree and on the upper boughs of a neighboring eastern red cedar.

The swallows appeared restless. The birds would roost in the branches, all of them facing south, seemingly situated for the night. Yet after a moment or two, the birds would take flight en masse, wheel about in a choreographed spin, and then alight again. On the cherries, the swallows appeared to favor branches that terminated in dead, leafless twigs over those branches that bore leaves to the distal ends.

From a distance, the flocks of swallows appeared very much like swarms of bees. Tumbling, wheeling, circling, the swarms of swallows soared over the plains. Some pairs of swallows, separated from the flocks, dashed over the meadows, flying low, and skirting the tassels of switch grass as they snatched insects in flight. A few individual birds hovered in the air above, one perhaps fifty feet high, another one hundred feet high, perhaps acting as sentinels for the rest of the flock.

Of the plants, the bayberry attracts the swallows. Along the margins of Black Point Pond, the bayberry shrubs now bear their waxy gray fruit in profusion. These bayberries can be gathered up, and when boiled in a large pot, the wax will separate from the fruit. The wax can then be skimmed off, allowed to cool, and used to make a bayberry candle. As someone who has attempted this, I can attest that one will have a very dark winter should one choose to rely on bayberry candles as a source of light. Fortunately for the swallows, they rely on bayberries not for illumination, but rather for sustenance. They find the bayberries a plentiful and valuable food source. The swallows stop at Quansoo, or Katama, or on the headlands of Cedar Tree Neck. On the bayberries they feast, before rising in a cyclonic swarm to cross the ocean on the next stretch of their migration.

These great hosts of swallows are, after all, migrating. What we witness here in September is a great wonder of Nature, a scene of throngs of animals engaged in an annual migration. The flights of swallows do not equal the long lost flights of the passenger pigeon, so numerous that the flying birds darkened the sky and the roosting birds snapped limbs from trees, but the swallows do call such a migration to mind. The swarming swallows, the non-resident Canada geese flying in V-formation, the striped bass following cold waters back to island beaches, the plovers scurrying from waves that lap the opening of the Tisbury Great Pond – all of these migrants pass the island as summer turns to fall.

We recognize this change of the seasons. We, too, migrate, and change along with the changes in the light and the weather. The sassafras turns a speckled orange, and passengers by the thousands walk the gangways in Vineyard Haven and in Oak Bluffs and board the ferries, bound for the mainland. The sumac turns a bright red, and the school bus pulls up by the mailboxes. The seasons are changing, and sometimes, we take a moment to mark the changes in our own lives.

On the plains, the raindrops of a cloudy afternoon still cling to blades of grass. The little bluestem has turned a ruddy purple. Hazelnut bursts with fruit, its brown-tinged clusters of nuts splitting open. Goldenrod droops its yellow blossoms over the edges of the dirt road. The surf sounds in the distance, and above, and all around, a thousand tree swallows fly and dart and swarm and roost. The swallows are bound for a distant land, but for one September night, here they sleep.

Tree Swallows at Cedar Tree Neck

Posted on: September 7th, 2013 by sheriffsmeadow
Tree swallows at Cedar Tree Neck

Tree swallows at Cedar Tree Neck

Spring Ephemerals

Posted on: September 7th, 2013 by sheriffsmeadow

The starflowers are everywhere.

In mid-May, along the blue trail at the Caroline Tuthill Preserve, the bright white blossoms of starflowers dapple the floor of the forest. Here, a starflower sprouts upward beside fallen maple leaves. From the emerald bed of a sphagnum bog, another starflower grows, a parasol for a courting frog. Like white ribbons on wooden pews, starflowers grace the sides of the path, growing next to bare oaks and ancient, gray-barked beetlebungs. Starflowers are sprinkled across the entire forest floor, right to the edges of the Sengekontacket salt marshes.

The starflower is a member of the Primrose family, and its Linnaean name is Trientalis borealis. The flower is lovely: white petals set among green leaves, with yellow anthers atop white stamens. Aside from its delicate beauty, the starflower is worth noting for the fact that its features appear in groups of seven. Seven petals, seven sepals, seven leaves and seven stamens make a starflower. Native bees pollenate these plants.

Starflowers are spring ephemerals. Spring ephemerals are native wildflowers of the woods. Such flowers blossom in the spring, and then are gone, fading into obscurity among the twigs and leaf litter of the forest floor. Spring ephemerals blossom in April, or in May or June, depending on the particular type of flower, and on the timing of the season of spring in a given region. Ephemerals take advantage of that brief interlude of spring sunlight in a forest of deciduous trees. The flowers bloom when sunlight shines directly upon the ground in the forest, just as the tree leaves are beginning to unfurl. The United States Botanic Garden, incidentally, has an excellent exhibit of photographs of the spring ephemerals of Shenandoah National Park. The photographs were taken by Jackie Bailey Liebovitz, and the photographs appear in a new book entitled Understory.

The best way to enjoy the ephemerals, though, is to take a walk and see them for oneself. I had my own experience with spring ephemerals in April. In April, my family visited Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. By mid-April, spring had come to the valley floors below, and the redbud trees stood out, draping the roadsides in cascades of purple flowers. Yet up in the mountains, spring had not yet ascended, and the ephemerals – the white bloodroot, the yellow trout lily, and more – stood out among the Appalachian rocks and the black birches and the bare stems of stout red oaks.

We hiked among the ephemerals, descending the mountain trails to waterfalls in the valleys. We hiked on the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the mountain spine of this park. We hiked beside the trout lilies on the way down to Rapidan Camp, the trout fishing camp of President Herbert Hoover. We crossed streams on wet stepping stones, an experience where I, not being nimble, crossed last, with my children on the opposite bank urging me on, with “come on, Dad!” and “you can do it!” I had never had that experience before: where my children led me, and encouraged me, and lent me a helping hand. That was, perhaps, a sign of age, a foretaste of the future.

At the end of the hike and the end of each day we were blessedly winded, ready for dinner. The children hiked without complaint. It was only a two-day visit to the park, a fleeting trip, a brief respite from a hectic family schedule of school activities and practices and scout meetings and Sunday school. Yet the walks among the spring ephemerals made our trip, perhaps, the most enjoyable vacation we had ever taken.

Such enjoyment of being outdoors in the spring – smelling the lilacs on the sidewalk in Vineyard Haven, spotting the lady’s slippers at the Caroline Tuthill Preserve, walking amid starflowers in the gentle green of spring beside Sengekontacket Pond – makes one think about just what is really ephemeral. The starflower, for that matter, as delicate as it is, and as susceptible as it is to pernicious invasive plants, is a perennial plant. The seven-petaled blossom of the starflower disappears by summer, yet the plant persists. It grows beneath the surface of the ground, and spreads through underground rhizomes. The rhizomes store energy through the year, allowing the flowers to burst forth in spring beauty once May has returned to Martha’s Vineyard.

In a spring where the month of May may send gentle showers and warm breezes, but may also send forth tornadoes of deadly force and unthinkable destruction, one wonders, after all, just what is ephemeral? The very word “May” raises the question. What may happen? What may come?

For me, the starflowers are lovely, yet not truly ephemeral. The flowers do disappear, yet the plant itself thrives, and emerges again next spring. What is truly ephemeral is a carefree springtime hike with children by the trout lilies. What is truly ephemeral is a day spent in the out of doors, where everyone is happy. What is truly ephemeral is the sight of a child, skipping down the path, among the starflowers. The real spring ephemeral is childhood.