Walking Martha’s Vineyard with Tess Bramhall


“Felix Neck,” by Kib Bramhall

Massachusetts was shut down and both of the Vineyard’s bookstores were closed when copies of Tess Bramhall’s latest book arrived. Coming out with a new book while bookstores are closed is generally not considered optimal, but in this case, Bramhall’s book, “In Praise of Protected Lands and Special Places on Martha’s Vineyard,” couldn’t have been better timed. During a typical March, the Vineyard is revving up for the summer season. This year, we shut down. We bought masks, stocked up on essentials, and were told to stay in our cars on the ferry. The Island’s schools went online and while there is no count available, it’s likely that hundreds of college kids, my daughter among them, returned to the Vineyard. The cancellations began in mid-March — the Vineyard Playhouse’s summer season, Taste of the Vineyard, the Tisbury Street Fair, the Ag Fair, and so on. We started talking about the “new normal.” What would it look like? What would it be like?

Bramhall’s book could help provide some answers, in that it’s possible that the “new normal” could resemble the “old normal.” That “old normal” was a time before the off-Island press corps routinely described the Vineyard as “a playground for the rich and famous”; before the crush of fund-raisers, film festivals, talking luminaries, and catered parties turned lazy summer nights into extravaganzas; and before two sitting presidents spent their summer vacations on the Vineyard. The “old normal,” at least for me as a child, was still golden, but less groomed and far scrappier. We spent our days at the beach or on bikes, or —when we were lucky — galloping on horseback across a field. We searched for frogs in ponds, and got walloped by waves. These were idyllic childhood summers that later drew me to the Vineyard as a year-round resident, and from that perch I watched the Island transform.

Busy. We had gotten so busy: with work, with events, with family, with houseguests, with friends, with traffic, with, with, with. Journalist friends of mine from New York who come for a month every summer say they do more socializing on the Vineyard than they do in the eleven months of the year they’re in the city.

Then came Covid-19, and this summer, for the first time in a long time, we will go without. And perhaps, this summer without (insert event here) will give us something unexpected back: the Vineyard.

When my daughter, Maddy, returned to the Vineyard in March, we started taking daily afternoon walks. “Where should we go today?” we’d ask each other every morning. We’d pick a new trail or part of the Island to explore: Cedar Tree Neck, Waskosim’s Rock, Duarte’s Pond, Quansoo Preserve, Great Rock Bight, Menemsha Hills, around the tip of Aquinnah, Katama, East Chop, West Chop. It was often windy and the sun flickered in and out, as did our moods. Maddy was supposed to be enjoying her senior year of college in Scotland, but instead was finishing her dissertation in her childhood bedroom, which has remained a rather unfortunate shade of Pepto Bismol pink. Most of her high school friends had also returned to the Island, but all of them were dutifully self-isolating. Our house is small, and definitely not an ideal place for three people to be at home together all the time, so my husband started spending his afternoons picking litter up off of Barnes Road (and there was a lot of it — nips drinkers have no shame), and Maddy and I explored the Island by foot.

These walks fortified us, they gave us something to look forward to and to marvel at: the peekaboo vistas, the meandering stone walls, the blasts of fields, the different types of bark on trees, the late afternoon light, which in March hits in the early afternoon. We circumambulated the interior of the Island as the COVID-related death toll across the globe continued to rise. We were among the lucky.

“Allen Farm,” by Kib Bramhall

Bramhall moved to the Vineyard year-round in 1980 and has been walking the Island sincere then; her book is a coffee table book that combines the history and geology (as well as personal reflections) of 21 properties that are open to the public. It includes paintings done by artist friends, who happen to be some of best-known Vineyard landscape painters (including her husband, Kib), depicting these properties. The idea came after a friend asked Bramhall a question about Waskosim’s Rock Reservation in Chilmark, and she didn’t know the answer. She writes, “I set out to learn more about Waskosim’s Rock and some of Martha’s Vineyard’s other protected lands, their history, their physical make up, and anything else that was interesting and special about them.” She picked properties that are in conservation; some are protected by land conservation organizations, others by the state or towns. Each of the properties she profiles is open to the public and Bramhall guides us through them in, as she calls it, an “indirect counterclockwise circle.” The book, published by the Land Protection Fund for Martha’s Vineyard (an organization started by Bramhall), “brings all the conservation groups together,” Bramhall said in a recent phone interview. “That hasn’t been done before.” Proceeds from sales of the book go to the Fund, whose mission is to “help Island conservation organizations purchase land when their existing funds are either restricted or not sufficient.”

“I always wanted to express in my writing that it was never a question of us against them,” Bramhall said, “meaning the land against people. It was always land for the people, and how land helps people.” To this point, she subtitled the book, “For Public Enjoyment and the Conservation of Natural Resources.”

She writes, “People speak for themselves but the land cannot talk, so we who love Martha’s Vineyard must speak for it, must advocate for its survival as we know and love it.” Bramhall’s book reminds us to take stock, to remember that the Vineyard is so much more than the sum of summer of events: to walk, to commune, to slow down, to be besotted by the beauty and take in the briney air — while keeping our mask nearby.


Bramhall’s Favorite Walks

● Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, designed by R.M. Copeland, was one of the first planned residential communities in the country. “One could say that in the mid 1880s the Vineyard was in the forefront of the idea of land protection for the benefit of its citizens and visitors,” writes Bramhall.

● The State Forest is ecologically significant because of the unusual frost bottoms. Bramhall writes, “When the air cools in the evening, it settles in the bottoms, chilling them much more than it does the higher ground around them. In fact, the entire plain cools more than the rest of the Island.”

● The Aquinnah cliffs are pre-glacial and unusual in New England because they were unearthed by a glacier. To illustrate what happened, Bramhall quotes “The Enduring Shore” by author Paul Schneider, “The once-flat land lying in front of the glacier crumpled and buckled and bulged up like the hood of a car in a head-on collision.” Bramhall writes that “The cliffs are a gold mine of information.” Marine fossils, including whale, seal, and walrus bones, and even the tooth of a rhinoceros have been uncovered over the years. In 1966 the cliffs were designated a national landmark.

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