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Library - Martha's Vineyard

Three Decades of "Looking at the Vineyard"
Friday, August 29, 2003
By Sam Low

"I love the roads up here," a visiting friend of mine told me a few days ago, "the way they curve, the stone walls, the canopy of trees overhead." We were traveling through West Tisbury at the time. The appearance of the roads, I explained to him, was not just the random result of geology and human history, but was also part of an inspired plan first developed three decades ago by the Vineyard Open Land Foundation (VOLF), a public charitable trust.

The plan is contained in a modest book entitled "Looking At The Vineyard" published by VOLF in the fall of 1973. In her foreword to the book, Mary P. Wakeman, then chairman of VOLF quoted Frederick Law Olmstead's words about Central Park in New York City:

"The main object and justification of (Central Park) is simply to produce a certain influence in the minds of people… The character of this influence is a poetic one and it is to be produced by means of scenes, through observation of which the mind may be more or less lifted out of moods and habits into which it is, under the ordinary conditions of city life, likely to fall."

Landscape as a mind altering experience - that was exactly what my friend had noticed traveling those sinuous West Tisbury Roads. Here's what the book tells us:

"The Vineyard Roads do much to make up the special Vineyard flavor. Built for rural purposes, and for the most part not drastically modified since then, it is their very narrowness, their shifting alignment and rural detail that constantly reminds us we are in an unusual locality. The passing views of ocean or pond, marsh, moor or pasture delight us - and the appearance of a few new roadside buildings can make us believe that the entire Island is overbuilt."

"Looking at the Vineyard" recommends preservation of these island roads - and their visual experience - keeping them narrow and curving, encouraging the overarching colonnade of trees, setting buildings and telephone poles back behind screens of vegetation - but also allowing the opening up of vistas of ocean, pond and meadow that add dynamic visual delight as we move along the roads.

The experience of island roads is teased apart into objective categories that allow for analysis and assist planning. The foliage bordering the road can be categorized as intermittent, dense or overarching, or a combination of these. The views can be a fleeting glimpse, an expansive view from a single point or a continuous one from a long stretch of road. Take the view of the Keith Farm on Middle Road, for example, a continuous vista of open meadows dotted with geese, sheep and livestock, rolling to the sea. In the 1980s, VOLF worked with the Keith family to plan five houses for their children and place them to blend with the landscape. This open vista was preserved forever by a conservation restriction on the Keith's 48 acres which VOLF helped to implement.

"For thirty years," says Carol Magee, the executive director of VOLF, "we have worked as consultants with landowners to employ concepts from "Looking at the Vineyard" to help preserve public vistas while allowing for limited development."

"Looking at the Vineyard" encourages us all to think about planning in a new visual way and provides tools that may help solve problems we now encounter daily. Take the imposition of megamansions on the island's moors and plains, for example. Here's what the book recommends:

"The up-island moors are that part of the rolling, rocky terminal moraine which is open grassland with occasional low thickets. It is a soft, flowing landscape, quiet, rather old and worn - sometimes almost mournful. Stone is very much part of it, as are erratic boulders, old stone fences, old foundations. …The rolling of the ground is one of its strongest visual characteristics, yet the hills are not actually very high."

"Although many island views are broad, and give a sense of great openness and spaciousness, the scale of the natural features of the island is actually rather small. Hills are neither long nor high, and most trees are low. Where nothing else serves as a means of measurement, small hills, modest fields or low cliffs appear larger than they are. This illusion is an important aspect of the sensation of great space which is appreciated by many Islanders and visitors."

"A house which sits directly on top of one of the moors' low hills (and this is where many houses are mindlessly set) inflates its own presence and makes the hills seem to shrink. A large boulder or a clump of bushes belongs on such a hilltop, but not a house or a car, or even a large tree."

The moors are just one of eight distinct types of visual landscapes catalogued in the book - each with its own suggestions of planning controls. Another is the "salt lands" that surround our ponds and lagoons.

"The ponds, linked to the sea yet separated from its constant motion, are fertile nurseries for birds and fish, and still reflectors of the changing sky. Where this stillness is preserved there is a rare opportunity to feel part of the rhythm of life. The cycles of seasons and weather are clearly articulated in the changing vegetation and animal life, and the dunes of the barrier beach seem to grow and subside in the varying light. In moonlight the ponds are spectacular. The beach itself if of enormous visual scale dominated by the sight and sound of the sea, seemingly absolutely cut off from the land behind by the bluff or barrier dune."

Don't build on the beach, dunes and cliffs, the book suggests, set buildings back from these vistas and keep them low and unobtrusive. When reading these guidelines, the recent wrangling over large houses - visible from Cape Pogue Pond - comes to mind.

"Looking at the Vineyard" suggests that development be encouraged in certain areas - such as the "wooded plains" and "wooded moraines" - where it is screened from view and will not destroy our island's visual delight. The book also encourages more public access to the Vineyard's special places, and it recognizes that visual qualities are just one aspect of planning - others such as the need for moderate cost housing, transport, water quality and other environmental concerns are equally important.

By dissecting our subjective visual experiences of the island and rendering them objectively understandable - "Looking at the Vineyard" continues to provide tools that we may use to plan for our future. It is in many ways as fresh today as it was when published thirty years ago - and should be on the 'must read' list of every islander, especially those entrusted with preserving the island's unique sense of place.

(The book can be purchased at some island bookstores, or directly from VOLF by sending a check for fifteen dollars to Vineyard Open Land Foundation, PO Box 4608, Vineyard Haven, 02568. It can also be found in many island libraries).

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