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5.1.11

The Vineyard as Creative Muse

One foggy July day at Lucy Vincent Beach, my four baby-sitting charges and I built a sand castle. It was my first summer on the Island. Salty chill, clay bluff curving above, black rocks jutting up, echo of a distant bell buoy – it was a deliciously moody day. Sifting for pebbles and bits of quahaug shell to decorate our drawbridge sent me dreaming.

Nearby, a young man surfed out of the fog. He walked over and crouched down to drizzle sand turrets onto our castle, then disappeared back into the pea soup without saying a word. Out of these elements, a short story was born – and my first brush with the Island’s creative muse. I was fourteen.        

At twenty-one, my best friend was a Vineyard oceanographer and science writer. The summer Island was a place for literary figures to converge, and he moved within their sphere. We went to the same parties as Vance Packard, Lillian Hellman, William and Rose Styron, James Reston, and Alfred Eisenstaedt. The year was 1977, and the writers discussed politics, human rights, the environment. These were tremendously heady gatherings, considering I only dreamed of writing books at the time. I was too shy to say a word unless I’d had enough champagne, but at those Edgartown parties I began to sense that a writing life for myself was not only possible, but necessary.

That summer I explored the Island, observing everything and living the environment. We bodysurfed off Squibnocket; climbed dunes and scanned the horizon for whale spouts; searched the Aquinnah cliffs for fossils; night-fished for bluefish, marveling at the green fire of bioluminescence flashing in their wakes; and watched the Fourth of July fireworks from a skiff in Edgartown harbor.

We visited Captain Roy Campbell aboard his tugboat Whitefoot in Vineyard Haven harbor, and I remember Roy squinting at me, testing my worth. He drilled me on combustion and marine engines: Which would be worse, white or black smoke? I didn’t know, but he smiled at me like a Zen monk. (The answer is black smoke, but in some cases white smoke.)

At Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, I loved wandering the edge of the coastal salt pond, watching great blue herons, oystercatchers, least sandpipers, common terns, and black-backed gulls, with clouds of barn swallows swooping overhead. Gus Ben David, then the director, pointed out nesting platforms he’d built for breeding ospreys, whose numbers had been dwindling.

I took it all in, and wrote it all down. In novels the Vineyard is not only a setting; it’s a character. And in the midst of an environment like this, a novel can start to write itself.

Fast forward to today

Martha’s Vineyard still pulls me back – a place to write and revise my fiction. The ferry from Woods Hole delivers me to my own private haven: thickets of bayberry and beach roses, nature and the past, the feeling of being away from travails and worries left behind on the mainland. It’s a gentle homecoming to a place I love but have never called home.

Time has both scarred and burnished the Island. My favorite wildflower meadow is now full of houses. The magnificent cliffs at Gay Head and Lucy Vincent have eroded. “No trespassing” signs are more apparent along Island paths.

But old stone walls covered with lichen still mark the land. Tree frogs – pinkletinks in Vineyard parlance – peep loudly from vernal pools every spring. Migratory birds continue to come in large numbers, flying at night and falling out by day, to rest and feed in the Island’s wild places.

The ospreys return in March and stay through the summer. Gus Ben David’s longtime devotion to saving them has paid off; no longer endangered, their numbers have increased and there are more than a hundred nesting poles on the Island. They glide, spot prey, and hover with quick wing-beats. It is heart-stopping to see one dive fifty miles an hour into the waves, rise, and fly off with a glistening fish in its talons.

Working here, I’m sometimes nostalgic for long-ago Island times that shaped me as a writer. Those literary evenings stay with me. I didn’t know the writers well, or for long. When I encountered William Styron years later at a dinner at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, I felt bold enough to tell him that meeting him on Martha’s Vineyard had changed how I approached the world. Although I’ve lost touch with the oceanographer, I still treasure his way of viewing the Island: through the prism of science, observing, taking note, quantifying beauty.

Up-Island, I write in a room overlooking a salt pond, dunes, and the ocean beyond. Windows open, I smell the Vineyard’s particular spice: beach plums, rosa rugosa, salt air, sea wrack. Some evidence of nature’s past still covers the terrain of my notebooks, preserved there even though much has succumbed to time and circumstances. But for what remains and what is gone, I feel the same – I want to write about it all.

Luanne Rice, New York Times bestselling author of twenty-nine novels, writes about nature and the sea, love and family. Her most recent novel, set largely on Martha’s Vineyard, is The Silver Boat (Pamela Dorman Books/Penguin, April.)

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