I’ve often reckoned myself lucky to have come across so many unique characters over the years, and especially over the 50 years I’ve lived on the Vineyard. The ones I’m thinking of were not necessarily the celebrated or the overlooked, the wheeler dealers, the politicians or the leaders devoted to their indispensable selves, and not the grouches or the wheedlers or the we-know-betters.
I have in mind men and women who have ever been merely and always themselves. It’s not easy to do, not easy to resist the daily calls to follow or to lead somewhere that is without a doubt not the right place, not your place.
Each of us these days has strenuously held opinions, and the opportunities to detonate them are deplorably plentiful, varied, and handy. Many of us appear to be of the opinion that, in his or her life’s unfolding, there is the treasure of a memoir from which the world will certainly benefit. In this, they are, almost every one of them, wrong. On the other hand, Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury, who died on January 11, 2020 at 96, has judged correctly that his story — told in his plain, frank, unguarded, and flavorful voice — is worth telling. The result, memoir Mill Pond Joe (2014), rewarded his readers, especially those, whether old timers or newcomers, whose knowledge of and interest in Martha’s Vineyard human and natural history is keen. He delivers himself undraped in this book. He is himself, take it or leave it.
Bryant was the outdoor columnist for The New York Times for almost 40 years. As a young man, he participated in the D-Day invasion with the 82nd Airborne, then jumped again into Holland and fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. He was wounded twice. Later, he became managing editor for 15 years of the Daily Eagle in Claremont, New Hampshire, and then a dock builder on the Vineyard, before beginning a career as a columnist that would take him around the world and back again to the Vineyard. Mill Pond Joe describes most of his hunting and fishing adventures and visits many of the remote locations where game was plentiful and fish were biting. It’s a global story of a born naturalist’s devotion to the creatures he studied, admired, and hunted. He tells his life’s tale with a sharp aim and a storyteller’s gift. He describes an extraordinary working life that grew from an Island boyhood among the fields, streams, and especially West Tisbury’s Mill Pond.
“Now in my late 80s,” Mr. Bryant explains, “I have only an occasional urge to go far afield in quest of ducks and am usually content to visit Town Cove with my youngest son, Jeff, or my partner, Ruth. I don’t abuse the spot — don’t hammer it every day. I regard the marsh, the cove, and Mill Brook that enters it with reverence. My trips there are like re-reading a favorite poem. I never tire of the place even if no birds are flying, and I am deeply grateful to the various owners of the property who have allowed me to hunt there over the years.”
But, set aside for a moment the richly detailed chronicle of birds and animals he hunted, fresh and saltwater fish he caught, the friends exalted and humble he met, the wonderfully remote places he visited, his bravery and fear in combat, skinny dipping with Kay Graham on Chappy, his pedestrian taste in wine, his working relationship with the New York Times, all of which together form the framework for the telling. Instead focus on this story of a writer who, when his professional journalist’s life ended, needed to go on writing.
“All my goddam life here after the war and college,” Bryant said this week, “I’ve been a journalist, and I wanted to keep writing, for the pleasure of it. It’s always been about the words. I’ve loved words, and I didn’t want to stop using them, although really I’m inclined toward poetry.”
The poetry in this volume is plain in Bryant’s earnest self-reflection, his unflinching, really brutal, confession of his youthful romantic and embarrassing enthusiasms, his sense of guilt over the Tisbury Great Pond drowning of his sister, his betrayal of his wife, his “children’s shortcomings.”
“I was a horse’s ass,” Mr. Bryant told me one day, “but I thought, what the hell, I’ve been a journalist all my life, a reporter, and what a reporter does is put down the truth.” Instinctually and from the habits of a lifetime, if he was going to do this he wasn’t going to do it vaguely or evasively. “I thought if I was going to write this memoir, then goddamn it I’m going to tell the truth.”
Mill Pond Joe is the central character in stories he created to tell his children, in place of stories written by others and merely read to them at bedtime: “I was Mill Pond Joe, and my yarns were based on actual events in my boyhood…. A few years after my stint with the Times was over, I was moved to chronicle the story of Mill Pond Joe from childhood to old age. In part this came from having been a journalist most of my life. When I quit writing on a regular basis, I discovered that much of my emotional well-being was wrapped up in getting words on paper. Somewhat melancholic and guilt-ridden, I also had the notion that while assembling Mill Pond Joe’s history I might gain more understanding of his flawed and selfish, albeit life-embracing, behavior.”
The poet in Bryant takes clear-eyed measure of his life and himself. He can’t use W.B Yeats’s solution to the late in life uncertainty that occupies the thoughts of folks his age. He is not disposed to sail to Byzantium: “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick …” Whatever happens next, Bryant told me, he will not “set a course for the “the holy city of Byzantium.”
“I must instead shuffle aimlessly toward eternity. I am, however, sustained by the knowledge that I am supremely fortunate to be living in comfort with someone I love, and with other loved ones close by, although with disturbing frequency I am troubled by contemplating the eternally fog-shrouded terrain of Hamlet’s ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.’ In combat, I feared death, whether from shrieking shells, machine gun bullets plucking at my jacket, or the snap of a sniper’s round passing inches from my head, but after those things went by, and I had yet another chance to live, the fear they had engendered quickly faded. Now I sometimes feel as if I am on an unending and meaningless night patrol — without map and compass — to oblivion. I have discovered that this can be eased by actively sharing my life and thoughts with friends and loved ones.”
This sharing is generous and rewarding, because it is precisely himself. Mill Pond Joe’s life, so earnestly and frankly considered, was the work of a Vineyard lad whose odyssey began and ended at home but encompassed a landscape so rich and extensive that only a writer of real skill and a love of words could do it justice.
Note: I reviewed Nelson’s book for the Martha’s Vineyard Times in November, 2014.