Keeper of a Sanctuary

Suzan Bellincampi grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, but she’s become a well-known Vineyarder in recent years for her environmental work. Currently, as the director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, Suzan helps adults and children alike connect with nature through educational programs, camps, and festivals.

“I want to be an old Vineyard salt,” says the wisp of a woman whose drive is inversely proportional to her height. Her long curly hair, her broad smile, and her petite figure don’t fool those who know her. This woman is a dynamo. “Martha’s Vineyard is beautiful, stunning,” she says, “but I wouldn’t come here to wait on tables, no matter how beautiful it is. I need a mission.”

Suzan visited the Vineyard a few times after graduation from Rutgers University in 1992. With a degree in environmental science, she worked as an environmental consultant. Subsequently she joined the Peace Corps. From 1993 to 1995 she served as a forester and an educator in Niger, West Africa. “I was part of the old Peace Corps. I lived in a mud hut in a village where tribal people with scarred faces sharpened their teeth. When we needed water, we went to a well. We took nothing for granted. Two years of this taught me the power and the justice of nature. If it didn’t rain, the villagers didn’t eat. That was that,” she says.

“Returning to America was overwhelming. I had trouble transitioning from life in a mud hut to a place that offered six hundred different types of cereal.”

Suzan found a job on a schooner and, for the next three years, lived on a boat in Bivalve, New Jersey. The A.J. Meerwald is a restored oyster schooner – a teaching ship. “I got up before the sun and went to bed shortly after dark,” she tells me. “I shared a bunkroom with others. Some mornings we’d get up at 3 a.m. to catch the tides.” Suzan was approaching the age of thirty, still a wanderer. She knew she wanted to do more with her life than to catch the tides at such an early hour.

“Since college, I realized I was energized by estuaries and tidal flats – intricate systems – enchanting wildlife,” Suzan tells me. “So I took three weeks and crafted an estuary tour from New Jersey to Florida and back. I visited wetlands, searched for places with fisheries and fishing cultures and historic little main streets, and ate local shellfish. By the end of that tour, I knew that I wanted to return to environmental work in an ocean community on the East Coast. I’m about an avocation, a passion. I live to work, not work to live.

“The next step was easy,” she says. “My parents owned a summer house on Martha’s Vineyard. They subscribed to the Gazette. I opened the paper and saw the ad that called my name: “Environmental Educator Sought to Work for The Trustees of Reservations on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.” I realized I had changed a lot during the past ten years,” Suzan says. “I wasn’t seeking new horizons like a young college graduate or a retiree. The past decade cemented what I knew I wanted to do with my life. This was it. In 1999, I was hired. I had learned that no job was worth it if it didn’t align with my values. This one did. It was worth the sacrifice and the outrage of paying $2.69 for a jar of peanut butter when I could get the same jar for $1.99 off-Island.

“I was saved from ‘the Vineyard shuffle,’ seasonally moving from one rental place to another, only because my parents owned summer property. For three months, I lived in a shed on their property. It had no plumbing or electricity. After that, I lived for the next seven years in housing provided by the Trustees. I was lucky. Like so many others in their thirties and forties, there was no way I could afford to buy a house on Martha’s Vineyard. I couldn’t even afford to buy my father’s house when he sold it,” she admits.

“During my time with the Trustees, I was promoted to become the statewide director of training. Later the Trustees wanted me to relocate. ‘Nope,’ I replied. ‘Either I do it from Martha’s Vineyard or I don’t take the promotion.’ Reluctantly, they agreed.”

I ask Suzan why she feels such commitment to the Vineyard. “I renew myself again and again,” she says. “Each winter I try to learn something new. I’ve learned to knit, to keep bees and chickens, to gather my food, to fish and rake for oysters and clams. I have a self-sufficiency based on simplicity. I know I can do those things in a small town in Vermont or New Hampshire or Maine,” she says, “but I’ve developed a community here that shares my values. I love to open the phone book and to find one or two people I know on every single page.”

In 2006, Suzan found a new job, one with housing that gives her a backyard of 350 acres. She became the director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, a Massachusetts Audubon Society property. “I hear barn owls screaming by the light of the moon,” she exclaims. “It’s phenomenal.”

When I ask Suzan about her fears for the future of the Vineyard, she says, “On the first weekend when I came to the Vineyard, I learned how cool it was to have a beat-up old bike or a run-down cottage near the ocean. Today people are building bigger and bigger homes, McMansions. We don’t need bigger and bigger anything – we need small and simple and meaningful lives. I want us to try to hold onto the values that make this Island such a unique and amazing place. I, for one, am going to do my best to make that happen.”

Excerpted from the book Island Home: Why People Come to Martha’s Vineyard and Why They Stay by Elaine Pace (1st World Publishing, June 2008), which includes fourteen interviews with people who chose to leave the mainland to make the Island their home. Elaine Pace is a writing coach and a year-round resident of West Tisbury. She has served as an educator and an editor, but in her own words, her favorite pastime is “to help others tell their stories.” She may be reached at