Decades before Martha’s Vineyard became famous as the island of the rich and famous, my family and friends would take the rare outing to the beach just south of what is now The Nature Conservancy’s Katama Preserve.
It was always after Labor Day, after the tourists – and their business – had left. We needed the break, we had the time, and there was just enough warmth left in the season to squeeze in a bit of what the “summer people” had been enjoying.
We all met at the bunker. It was one of many concrete “pill boxes” built all around the island during the Second World War. It was originally built inland, probably on top of a dune, to give the best vantage point for the soldiers looking for German submarines or other unauthorized activity. It now lay face-down at the edge of the sea, unrecognizable, and the kids busied themselves diving off it into the surf.
As the afternoon cooled, we gathered around the grill for food and warmth. Inevitably, one of the younger kids would ask how the bunker got where it did. Just as inevitably, this would ignite a kind of nostalgic competition among the adults – just how far the water was from the bunker at various stages in their lives, This in turn led to the stories of life during the war. This is what we listened to the most closely: the deprivation, the making-do, the coming-together as a community in the face of a common threat – and always the humor. Beach erosion itself was never mentioned; it was simply a fact of life. The pace of erosion was the sea’s tangible timepiece against which we measured our lives.
Today the remains of the bunker are far out to sea. The waves pay it no notice at all. Labor Day weather comes closer to Columbus Day, and the summer people stay longer too. Families gather in no particular place, and the stories are no longer told. In “normal” times, Katama erodes, on average, about 10 feet a year. We are told that with climate change, we will experience more Nor’easters, probably more hurricanes, and this will be one of the most rapidly eroding shorelines in Massachusetts.
Perhaps because I was born and raised here, I don’t mourn the loss of land so much. It’s just what would have happened sooner or later anyway. What I do mourn is the loss of our stories and of island culture generally. There was a time when the environment changed at a pace that culture could keep up with. Stories held the two in synch.
I tend to feel sorry for myself about this, or at least I did up until last March. That’s when the Conservancy held an event in New York, along with the Global Islands Partnership. I was honored to be one of the guest speakers, along with Ronald Jumeau, UN Ambassador from the Seychelles. We talked about the disproportionate threats of climate change to islands.
Afterwards, the ambassador and I were speaking by ourselves when the representative from the Maldives came up to us to say how much he hoped the best for our respective islands. After he walked away, Ambassador Jumeau told me, “That is a selfless man. Do you know the story of the Maldives? Those islands are so low that a basketball player could see from one side to the other of the country, if you removed all the vegetation. He is not just losing his island’s species or culture to sea-level rise. He is losing his people, his entire country. And there is nothing that can be done. And still, he wishes us well.”
Today, there are still vestiges of the working-class Vineyard I grew up in, and old stories and practices of fishing and farming can still be found, if you know where to look, in the nooks and crannies and among the old families. But, socially, we have changed. As an Islander, I’ll be interested to hear how Maldivians retain their culture as they continue to literally lose their land. They will have some stories we can learn from.
As for the Vineyard, I have a kind of perverse hope. I hope that with the common threat of climate change, we will again experience the coming-together of our community, a different community for sure, but one just as intimate, generous, heroic, and humorous as before. Besides, the Vineyard is a natural showcase – indeed the seasonal home – to some of the world’s leaders in industry, media, entertainment, and government. If we can adapt here, we can be a model of climate adaptation for islands and coasts around the world. Then we’ll have some stories to tell.
Tom Chase is director of conservation strategies for The Nature Conservancy Massachusetts
Photo by: Flickr user StarrGazr (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.)
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