When Huck, my six-year old son, lists our family pets, he includes our dog, Bloo, and our lone guinea fowl, the last remaining bird of a flock that once numbered 26. Yet he also includes our ospreys. Curse me if you like, but of these pets, my favorites are the ospreys.
The ospreys, of course, are not “our” ospreys, nor are they pets at all. They are, rather, wild and magnificent raptors. They nest atop a wooden pole in the Quansoo woods nearby, and we simply happen to live within a short distance of their nest. That Huck considers them pets has always intrigued me.
As many islanders make a game of betting upon when the pinkletinks will first be heard on spring nights – nights that are still cold, but just warm enough – our family bets upon the arrival of the ospreys. This year the pair arrived together on March 28, 2013, which was about a week later than I had predicted.
Except for the fact that these ospreys nest atop a wooden pole that was installed specifically for them, the ospreys require no care at all, unlike our other pets. That is just as well, for I am a very poor fisherman, and were I to be responsible for the feeding of these ospreys, they would quickly have given up. The ospreys would have flown north to the Mill Pond, which the Commonwealth has just stocked with a truckload of trout, or perhaps to Duarte’s Pond, where another osprey has been feeding, happily, for several weeks, on Commonwealth-issued trout.
The eyrie of these fish hawks is a great, woven mass of sticks, roots and flotsam and jetsam, all of which the birds have snatched from the surrounding fields and beaches. Upon arriving back here on Martha’s Vineyard from a winter spent in South America, the ospreys set to work fetching new sticks to add to the nest. Sometimes, one notices the shadow of the bird before seeing the bird itself. Upon spotting the startlingly large shadow darkening the ground, one wheels about, looks up, and spots the bird in flight.
To catch a fish, the osprey dives completely into the water, immersing itself. When successful, it grasps the luckless fish in its talons – a perch, perhaps – then beats its wings, lifts itself out of the pond, and flies off to a spot, perhaps a tree limb or a post, on which to eat its catch. When flying, the osprey orients the fish so that the head of the fish faces forward, in as aerodynamic a position as possible.
In pets, people find a number of things to love. Some find companionship. Some find unfailing loyalty. Others find a release from everyday stresses and problems. Can Huck find any such qualities in the ospreys? The ospreys won’t let a soul near the nest, which is unreachable without an arborist’s bucket truck, regardless. The birds scream incessantly, and wheel about furiously, whenever anyone ventures too near.
So what do the ospreys offer to a little guy, who thinks of them as a pet? Well, perhaps they do offer a sense of companionship, and a bit of communion with wilderness. These are wild animals, and we are really visitors in their habitat. Despite that, they tolerate our presence, and share the land with us. Sometimes, at summer’s end in September, one of the ospreys will make a final, soaring swoop over the house. Huck interprets this as the farewell gesture of the bird, about to depart for an annual migration.
In a sense, they, too display loyalty. They mate for life, and demonstrate fidelity not to any human master, but instead to one another. And even though they mate for life, every year, they court each other, still. They offer another kind of loyalty, too, not the loyalty of a faithful dog, but rather a loyalty to place. Until they die, this pair will return every spring to this nest above the picnic woods at Quansoo Farm. Another returns to the nest high above Cedar Tree Neck Pond and Daggett’s Pond. Another returns to its home above the Priscilla Hancock Meadow, near the coves of Chilmark Pond, and so on.
The ospreys also show loyalty to time. Their return reliably marks the changing seasons, and their reassuring presence gives structure to the year. Observing the ospreys’ return is a tradition of spring, as is the celebration of Easter, or Passover, or the opening day of baseball season. When the ospreys return, so, too, do the herring, and the piping plovers, and so call out the pinkletinks at Parsonage Pond, and so, across New England, flows the sweet sap of maples into galvanized sap pails and mazes of collection tubes.
To a child, then, the ospreys symbolize tradition. Children love tradition, perhaps even more than they love pets. They love to repeat what they have done before. They will open the same suitcase of toys on each visit to a grandmother’s house. They long to read the same poem on Christmas Eve. They stand across from Cannonball Park and watch the same parade, every Fourth of July. They love, and perhaps they need, such symbols of constancy amid change. And every spring, each child’s heart lifts, at the end of a long winter, upon first spying the osprey, returning to our shores.
by Adam R. Moore
The island, now, is at its emptiest. The school vacation week has arrived, and on Friday began the annual exodus of islanders. A few families have ventured north, off to ski in the White Mountains of New Hampshire or the Green Mountains of Vermont, but most of them have headed south. Pining for sunshine and warmer days, islanders travel to Florida, and some to the beaches of Mexico, and, curiously, many of them travel to other islands. A number of families are fond of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, others of the Turks & Caicos, others Puerto Rico, and the rest are fond of a wide variety of Caribbean destinations. Something, indeed, attracts islanders to other islands.
While I like to think of myself as a hardy New Englander, I, too, have found myself longing to get in the Suburban with the family and head down I-95 to Florida, just as I did last year. This year, however, we have planned no such southern adventure, and lamentably we are staying put. There is, however, a way to call to mind the charms of the South, even amid the mud and the slush and the freezing drizzle falling upon the island. That way is to observe the trees of Martha’s Vineyard, as the forest here has far more in common with the forests of the southern United States than those of the bulk of New England.
Start with the beetlebung. Unique to Martha’s Vineyard, the name “beetlebung” describes the tree known throughout the south as the tupelo, and also as the black gum, or the pepperidge. Nyssa sylvatica is the scientific name for this tree. Its local name refers to two uses for the tree, that of being used as a “beetle,” which is a hard club used for pounding, and also that of being used as a “bung,” which is a round piece of wood used to plug a hole in a barrel. The tree features wood that is extremely hard and heavy, and the species is found throughout the American South. On Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere, the beetlebung likes to keep its feet wet, growing in and on the edges of swamps and ponds.
The flowering dogwood, that small tree whose white bracts grace the coves of the Appalachians, also takes root upon the soil of Martha’s Vineyard. When leafless, though, it is rather hard for the untrained eye to find the tree, as it blends quite well into the gray anonymity of the winter woods. Its opposite branches do lend a clue, though, and, come spring, its white blooms announces its presence at once. Here we have hickories, too, both mockernut and butternut. Stout, straight and strong, hickories furnish the best tool handles and their meaty nuts feed the turkeys which roam island woodlands and roam throughout the great Atlantic forest.
The greatest similarity between our forest and that of the southern Atlantic coastal plain, though, is that of the overall composition of our forest. Pines and oaks dominate our forest. Our island sylva is merely the northern extension of the broad, continental belt of pines and oaks which stretches from the longleaf pines of Florida to the loblollies of the Carolinas to the pitch pines that stretch from New Jersey, across the glacial deposits that are Long Island, Block Island, the Elizabeth Islands, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and out to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. Our oaks here are black oaks, white oaks, scrub oaks and post oaks, for the most part, and as one moves south, these yield to other oaks, notably the live oaks of the southern, Atlantic coastal plain. The seaside, Martha’s Vineyard white oak bearded with fruticose lichen is the northern kin of the Georgia live oak, draped with Spanish moss.
For those who can’t travel south, then, I advise simply to step outside on the warmest day that nature offers. Take a walk on the outwash plain, perhaps at Quansoo, or at Sepiessa, and gaze at the pines, and the oaks, and the hickories and tupelos. Take a walk in the woods, and, as another Vineyarder described some time ago, you can be going to Carolina in your mind.
Blizzards and Presidents
Adam R. Moore
My favorite Presidential photograph is one of President Theodore Roosevelt. The photograph depicts President Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir standing together atop Glacier Point, in Yosemite National Park, with Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls visible in the background. In the photo, the President wears a slouch hat and a bandana around his neck, and appears the rugged outdoorsman that he was. The two had spent the previous night in the open, around the campfire, and had awoken to find five inches of fresh snow atop their bedrolls.
Some winter nights bring the type of snow that falls gently, the snow of the Sierra high country, perhaps. Such snow is delightful and weightless. It can be shrugged off one’s blanket with a smile and it melts in the steam of camp coffee. Such snow blanketed Roosevelt and Muir that night in Yosemite, and four inches of the same snow fell, early this Thursday morning, blanketing the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
With such a snowfall comes ravishing beauty. One sees the snow impossibly perched atop every twig and every pine needle. In the forest canopy gaps, one spies the rose glow of dawn as the sun rises. As the sun rises, for just a few minutes, its rays illuminate only those objects high above. That morning, in West Tisbury, the rays of a bright yellow sun darted over the wooded coves of the Tisbury Great Pond, and shone upon the buildings of this quintessential New England village. Light fell upon the snow-covered roof of the Grange Hall, and on the steeple of the Congregational Church, and on the shingled sides of the Town Hall. At Alley’s store, snow covered the roof, and clung to the sign. Two young people burst out the front door, backpacks slung over their shoulders, to catch the school bus, and the American flag flew from the column of the porch.
Yet other winter nights are not at all benign. Such was the case during last week’s blizzard. As night fell, the winds blew harder. The breezes howled as they shook the branches of cedars, and howled around the eaves of the house. The windows rattled, and drafts of freezing air blew in from the outside. Through the night the storm raged, and changed from snow, to a freezing rain, and back to snow again. We drifted off to a fitful, uneasy sleep.
Morning came, gray and cold, and still the fierce winds blew, though the gale had lessened somewhat. Squalls of snow swirled over the plains. The snow-laden oaks arched over the snowy road, and the trees sheltered the walker from the wind. In the moorlands and by the marshes, the wind tore over the ragged brush. A great blue heron, flushed by the sound of people walking near, flew up from the creek. With slow, deliberate beats of its wings, the great bird flew over the dune and off to the mighty ocean. The creek itself wore a convulsed, rippled cover of ashen ice. The blizzard of Friday last was no trifling storm. I wondered, for a moment, what would Theodore Roosevelt have made of such weather, real winter weather, a furious blizzard, and no campfire flurry? How would he have described the blizzard? Would he have ventured out in the bitter cold, risking frostbite?
The answers are that he would have described a blizzard better than anyone, and that, yes, he would have risked frostbite. In this excerpt about a Dakota winter from Roosevelt’s book, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, Roosevelt himself tells it best:
WHEN the days have dwindled to their shortest, and the nights seem never ending, then all the great northern plains are changed into an abode of iron desolation. Sometimes furious gales blow out of the north, driving before them the clouds of blinding snow-dust, wrapping the mantle of death round every unsheltered being that faces their unshackled anger. They roar in a thunderous bass as they sweep across the prairie or whirl through the naked cañons; they shiver the great brittle cottonwoods, and beneath their rough touch the icy limbs of the pines that cluster in the gorges sing like the chords of an Æolian harp. Again, in the coldest midwinter weather, not a breath of wind may stir; and then the still, merciless, terrible cold that broods over the earth like the shadow of silent death seems even more dreadful in its gloomy rigor than is the lawless madness of the storms. All the land is like granite; the great rivers stand still in their beds, as if turned to frosted steel. In the long nights there is no sound to break the lifeless silence. Under the ceaseless, shifting play of the Northern Lights, or lighted only by the wintry brilliance of the stars, the snow-clad plains stretch out into dead and endless wastes of glimmering white.
Then the great fire-place of the ranch house is choked with blazing logs, and at night we have to sleep under so many blankets that the weight is fairly oppressive. Outside, the shaggy ponies huddle together in the corral, while long icicles hang from their lips, and the hoar-frost whitens the hollow backs of the cattle. For the ranchman the winter is occasionally a pleasant holiday, but more often an irksome period of enforced rest and gloomy foreboding…
The winters vary greatly in severity with us. During some seasons men can go lightly clad even in January and February, and the cattle hardly suffer at all; during others there will be spells of bitter weather, accompanied by furious blizzards, which render it impossible for days and weeks at a time for men to stir out-of-doors at all, save at the risk of their lives. Then line rider, ranchman, hunter, and teamster alike all have to keep within doors. I have known of several cases of men freezing to death when caught in shelterless places by such a blizzard, a strange fact being that in about half of them the doomed man had evidently gone mad before dying, and had stripped himself of most of his clothes, the body when found being nearly naked. On our ranch we have never had any bad accidents, although every winter some of us get more or less frost-bitten. My last experience in this line was while returning by moonlight from a successful hunt after mountain sheep. The thermometer was 26° below zero, and we had had no food for twelve hours. I became numbed, and before I was aware of it had frozen my face, one foot, both knees, and one hand. Luckily, I reached the ranch before serious damage was done.
This love of the rugged wilderness, of the hardy life, of time upon the frozen lake and the thrashing seas and in the trackless woods, is a part of the American character. This President’s Day, let us celebrate this trait, with a hike on conservation land, or a skate on a pond, or a walk in the park.
Save the Date! Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation is very pleased to announce that it will hold a program on April 3, 2013 from 5:30 to 7:30 at the Somerset Club in Boston. The program will feature Brian Cooper of Early New England Restorations, who will speak about the planned restoration of the Hancock-Mitchell House. Invitations to our supporters in the greater Boston area will be mailed soon. For more information, please contact Adam Moore at (508) 693-5207
Photo by Nina Bramhall
February 1, 2013
They stand firm. They hold their ground, despite near-constant winds, and a desiccating salt spray, and limb-twisting, branch-snapping tempests that, from time to time, torment the waters of Vineyard Sound and torture the trees of the islands beside it. These rough conditions are the unchanging facts of life for the trees near the bluffs of Cedar Tree Neck. When faced with these conditions, the trees take on a maritime form.
Perhaps the most familiar example of trees with such form is the grove of American beeches along the red trail at Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary. These smooth-barked trees now grow surrounded by larger and taller black oaks, but the beeches once grew in a setting that was a bit more exposed. Over many years, salt-laden winds stunted the stems, twisting the trees into forms grotesque. This beech grove has become beloved by visitors. It is so beloved, in fact, that Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation is now restoring the ground cover of moss that many years of admiring foot traffic has completely worn away. This grove of the gnarled trees, however, is not the only such grove.
Venture a bit further into the Sanctuary, and follow the blue trail as it rambles to the edge of the weathered bluff. Cross a patch of heather, and then enter into the first of a number of groves of stunted trees. One such grove is composed of black oak trees, and another, somewhat more interesting one, is composed of beetlebung trees. (Beetlebung is a name unique to Martha’s Vineyard. The tree is also known as Nyssa sylvatica, as well as black gum, tupelo, and pepperidge.) The beetlebung grove is of somewhat greater interest than the oak grove, as most beetlebung trees grow around the moist edges of ponds and wetlands, and not on the exposed edges of bluffs.
What piques the curiosity about these groves is that, though each is composed of a different species of tree, they all exhibit identical form. The bark and the leaves vary from one species to the next, of course, yet all the branches are wizened and weathered, and all of the stems are twisted, huddled together in a dense cluster, leaning away from the prevailing winds. Some trees resemble the body of an overturned squid, were the squid to be made of wood.
It is the wind, then, that causes the trees to grow into these maritime shapes. From across the fetch of Vineyard Sound, both gentle breezes and fierce tempests toss waves upon the rocky beach. The winds blow a scouring spray of salt, and send punishing gusts rushing up the bare bluffs. Against, through, and over the groves the wind blows, while the trees cling to the soil just back from the edge of the bluffs. The reason that the oaks and beetlebungs and beeches can live in these conditions is that all the trees in the grove, over time, grow into the form which best tolerates the wind. These trees essentially grow amid a river of air, and their form, individually and as a group, is an aerodynamic adaptation.
Trees are not sentient beings. Despite that, they do inspire us, and at times one can find oneself attributing human characteristics to them. One can imagine the groves of weathered beeches, beetlebungs and black oaks to be resolute. Aged and twisted, the trees still stand firm, facing the elements, braced to their task. In these trees, one can see resolve. Yet the better thing to do, though, is upon seeing resolve in the trees, to be thus inspired to find resolve within oneself.
We are pleased to report that we have resumed our restoration work at the Sheriff’s Meadow Sanctuary. The cold weather has frozen the ground, making conditions excellent for work in the woods. Please call the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation office at (508) 693-5207 if you have any questions about our work or wish to support it.
A week of winter
January 25, 2013
By late afternoon Monday, the gathering clouds had turned the skies a battleship gray, and the children knew that snow was soon to come. They could smell it – or so they said. We stacked firewood on the back porch, stuffed the Sunday paper and some kindling into the wood stove, and lit a fire.
As often happens before the snow begins to fall, for a brief time, a great calm came over the land. No winds shook the windowpanes or rustled the branches of the eastern red cedars. The sun cast its last long rays of the day over the flat expanse, and then quietly set. In the twilight, the meadows stretched to the marshes, and the marshes to the cold waters of Black Point Pond, and all lay in repose, all lay in stillness, waiting.
Then, with darkness, the snow began to fall. And as the snow fell, the earth and the sky seemed to shrink. In silence falls the snow, and the world seems to extend only as far as the beam of the flashlight can shine, becoming a “snow-globe” indeed. Through the night fell the snow. Before bedtime came, we now and then turned on the porch light, just to marvel at the falling flakes.
By morning some eight inches of snow blanketed the Quansoo plain. The fierce winds of this area had not yet begun to blow, so the snow still lay deep on the fields and had not been swept into drifts at the edges of the woods. We woke the two youngest children before dawn, so that they could romp around for an hour or so before needing to get ready for school.
That morning, the woods at Quansoo and across the island wore an ermine coat, an ephemeral garment, cast off quickly when shaken by the wind and warmed by the sun. Yet early that morning, the snow still clung to the branches of every oak and shadbush and stout hickory. My truck broke trail on the snow-covered dirt road. The tree limbs, laden with snow, arched closely over the road, brushing against the sides of the truck as we passed. Snow filled the crotches of bare hardwood branches. Snow piled in heaps on cedar boughs, as if ladled onto the tree. Limber limbs of pines bent beneath their white load.
The week has been frigid. The snow has not melted, the ponds have frozen, and this weekend should find hockey skates out on Parsonage Pond. At these cold times I find myself grateful for the simple blessings of the plain warmth of home, and office and car. Just as it can be a delight to sled or ski or skate – as long as one has a warm place to take shelter in, eventually – it can be an equal delight to just savor the warmth of a home on a winter’s night. What pleasure it is, to sit by the fireside, with a warm drink, and a copy of Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of North American Trees in your lap, while outside the snow gently falls.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “we know of no scripture which records the pure benignity of the gods on a New England winter night.” Tonight it is to snow again. Let it snow.
Photo of Dew at Packard Preserve