The idea behind this column is that Cape Codders, and Falmouth folk in particular, might like to get to know their Vineyard neighbors. It works the other way too, of course, but my half century on the Vineyard and in the newspaper business has narrowed my outlook. Certainly, we are not exactly what you may think we are. Not merely the self-absorbed hosts of the rich and famous. Not exactly the plaguey Steamship Authority travelers clogging the roads and at the same time complaining that the roads are clogged. Not exactly the island tribe that adores the Cape Cod Mall but doesn’t want a mall on its own turf and feeling rather pleased with themselves for holding that line.
So, an introduction.
Right off the bat, you must know that we are not today what we were years ago, and an election story of uncertain origin will help explain the way things have changed. Voters use to be predictable, no matter which of the six island towns you lived in. Nearly everyone voted Republican. The characteristic story that proves the rule recalls the Gay Head (now called Aquinnah) town clerk who was asked by a reporter late in the evening of election day for the vote count in the presidential election. Well, she said, consulting her tally sheet, it was Dewey 47, Truman 1. There was a pause, the flustered town officer appeared confused, then irritated. That can’t be right, she managed, it must be Dewey 48. Today, Dewey would not have a prayer of success.
“The islander refuses to be hobbled by the values of the Protestant ethic: thrift, piety, work for work’s sake. He is willing to earn less as the price of freedom. He shows little interest in the unionization that would increase his wages, because he fears it would limit the range of his occupation and curtail his free time.” This is not casual talk, not puffery. These are the findings in a book length study of Vineyarders, People and Predicaments, the only one ever of its comprehensive kind. It was researched and written by Dr. Milton Mazer, a Vineyard resident and the founder of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, successor to Martha’s Vineyard health center. His research was published by the Harvard University Press in 1976.
“When the deer season comes, [the islander] expects to be able to take the week off because he is often paid only when he works. If he cannot afford to, he expects to be able to have his gun at hand if the job is out of doors and near a wood.”
Gun toting, union shunning, freedom loving, and impious islanders carve their own path, Dr. Mazer discovered. And today, his findings hold true for the year-round population that has grown from about 6,000 in 1970 to nearly 17,000 today. Despite the growth and the wealth, the house carpenter in Chilmark charging $600 a square foot to build an architect designed 5,000 foot house will not hesitate to put his hammer down, pick up his shotgun and plug a deer browsing across the spacious lawn in front of the mahogany deck he is framing.
“If he has inherited land,” Dr. Mazer wrote, “he values it more than the things its sale might permit him to have, for the possession of land gives him prestige and deference from his neighbors, and its sale is felt as a betrayal of the past.”
Well, yes and no. On this point, things have changed over the years. Pneumatic land values and withering estate taxes have made cash king for old time islanders with large family holdings.
“Many islanders who are rich in land live quite poorly, selling bits of land in crises when illness strikes or when a child wants to go to college. The term ‘land poor,’ though archaic in many places, has real meaning on the island,” Dr. Mazer reported. “Planning for the future is of no great concern; the now seems more important than the morrow.”
But, once again, time and change inspired islanders to acknowledge the value of adjusting their net worth upward. They recognized the wisdom of well timed divestitures of property and the pleasures of well funded retirement in Florida.
“Planning and zoning were until recently [the mid-1970s] troublesome words, dangerous to use in public meetings,” Dr. Mazer wrote, “The islander’s primary interest is in what he will do today and, after that, his recollections about the past. Until recently, when the very nature of his life was threatened by the unrestrained plans of ‘land developers’ and speculators, he rarely concerned himself with might be; he was more interested in what is and what had been.”
The press of new people, part-time people, and lots of them have led to layers of subdivision and development rules almost none of which existed when Dr. Mazer did his research. When the Black Dog Tavern was built in the Vineyard Haven beach sand in 1972, the only permit needed was for a cesspool. Of course, you were expected to build it on land you owned, which the Black Dog nearly did, although a corner of the building was discovered to encroach on Steamship Authority property, a problem that was adjusted with relative ease in those less fractious times.
“The islander’s view of human nature departs from the generally optimistic, liberal belief that man is innately good and is corrupted by the evil in society,” Dr. Mazer found. “Human nature is usually seen by the island as innately evil, in comparison to his middle class summer visitors who see it as a mixture of good and evil.”
The puzzle, Dr. Mazer decided was that “The implications of these finding for mental health or mental disorder are governed by the fact that islanders are composed of two groups, those who were born and have lived on the island all of their lives and those who have come to the island. Whether the in-migrants possess the dominant values of contemporary American culture to a greater degree than do the natives, or whether their choice of a community represents a deviance from those values, is not certain.”
An islander today, new or old, would answer the question this way. “These wash-ashores come to the island because of what they love about it, and the first thing they want to do is change it.” Newcomers need only a few years in residence to develop a native islander’s well nursed hostility to the wash-ashores he barely preceded.
In this 21st Century world, data driven and interconnected to beat the band, People and Predicaments is the fruit of analog not digital research. Dr. Mazer’s subjects were also his neighbors, friends and patients. His goal was not just to count them, but to know them.
“This book,” he wrote, “is based on my clinical work. It owes much to the subtle intimations that came to me day by day as I became more and more a part of the community, joining its everydayness. For, in addition to my job as director of the Martha’s Vineyard Mental Health Center, I have for nine years been moderator of the West Tisbury town meeting. I have come to believe that the second job is of equal importance to and complements the first.”
(The Falmouth Enterprise published a version of this essay on its website.)