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Tread Lightly

Road to Gay Head, Amelia Watson, 1888 From the Collections of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum
by  GERALDINE BROOKS

For the past three years, I’ve lived on two islands. As my feet traveled the familiar roads of today’s Martha’s Vineyard, my mind wandered back in time to Noepe, the island as it was when the first small band of English settlers arrived here.

I’ve been writing a novel called Caleb’s Crossing, a work of fiction inspired by the fact that the first Native American graduate of Harvard in 1665 was an Island Wampanoag named Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck. Facts about the life of that remarkable young man are sadly scant. In trying to create an imaginary version of what his life might have been like, I have had to delve into the history of the island, the written accounts, but also the story as it has been etched upon the landscape.

When the English arrived here, there were probably more than 3,000 Wampanoag Indians living – and living well – on the Island. (Early English writings invariably note how tall and healthy the indigenous people appear.) By all accounts, they lived lightly, divided into several bands of varying size. In summer, they camped near the shore, feasting on shellfish, hunting waterfowl, building fish traps woven of supple withes. They gardened with hoes formed from clamshells; raised squash, corn and beans in companion-plantings that suppressed weeds and minimally disturbed the soil. They gathered a bounty of native berries, from fat strawberries in spring to blueberries in summer and the crimson gems of cranberries in fall.

In the winter they moved inland, built domed wetus of bark sheets and woven matting, with lushly layered furs covering the benches within. Set in the lee of rising land, sheltered by virgin forests of beech and oak, these modest-sized dwellings retained the heat of the small cook fires that warmed the common pot from which family members helped themselves at whim.
Then came the English, setting down at first in a thin thread of dwellings along the shore of what is now Edgartown. Though few in number, the newcomers had a rapid effect on the land. Their more-exposed dwellings were harder to heat in wintertime, and accounts show that nearby woodlots were quickly depleted, with settlers soon having to travel some distance to haul fuel. Without oxen in the earliest years, farmers would simply ringbark trees to let light through to their crop, leaving the dead trunk standing. By 1665 the Tiasquam Brook was no longer wild; Benjamin Church had dammed it for a grist mill and made an artificial pond of about three acres in size, the first of some seven  dams on the brook that would later support industry such as fulling mills to prepare the wool crop for market. The sheep that supplied that wool required clearing on a vast scale, until only tiny remnants of virgin woodland remained. More wetlands changed with the commercialization of cranberry production and the construction of shallow bogs that could be flooded and drained on a schedule.

Now, the large sheep flocks are gone, the stone fences disappearing under tangles of catbriar and the lone wolf trees whose spreading branches shaded the field are being crowded by scrub oak regrowth. In some places, oaks are beginning to yield to young beech groves, reclaiming their place in the forest mix. In today’s pastures, summer homes are the crop of choice. Some, modestly scaled and wisely sited, sit as lightly as possible on the land. Others – the vast “impact” homes, quaffing oil to heat and cool rooms that stand empty most of the year, their garishly green lawns leaching chemicals into the ponds – represent a heavy, careless tread that threatens to crush the life out of so much of what remains precious here.

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