Our Great Ponds

These sanctuaries – dispersed around the Vineyard – are havens for flora and fauna as well as destinations for fun-seeking families and nature lovers. You might even say they can be refuges for the human soul.

What makes a pond great? How does a pond earn such a coveted superlative? How does one recognize greatness? An oyster, an oystercatcher, and an oysterman would probably all agree on the greatness of a particular pond, and I think we all know “great” when we see it. An expanse of blue water teeming with fish and fowl certainly qualifies, while the algae-covered tarn across from the 7-11 in my hometown is clearly a little sketchy. But how does one separate great from pretty good?

As with many things, the government attempted to end a potentially lively debate with a banal regulation. In the Commonwealth, greatness is supposedly determined simply by size: Any pond, freshwater or brackish, larger than ten acres can qualify as a “great pond,” including those large enough to be commonly referred to as lakes. Symptomatic of government, however, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s official list of great ponds contains some anomalies. For example, tidal waters (those permanently open to the ocean) like Lake Tashmoo are excluded; but Oak Bluffs harbor (formerly Lake Anthony before the opening was dredged around 1900) still makes the cut, though Tashmoo was once closed as well. And there are other ponds on the Vineyard (with no vexing openings) that are excluded, like Uncle Seth’s Pond and Duarte’s Pond in West Tisbury. So, whatever the DEP says, greatness lies in the eye of the beholder.

The ten-acre definition actually comes from Colonial times, specifically the Colonial Ordinance of 1641–1647, which also stipulated that “it shall be free for any man to fish and fowl there, and may pass and repass on foot through any man’s property for that end, so they trespass not on any man’s corn or meadow.” While access to great ponds is still guaranteed by state laws, individual towns set the specific rules, and it’s probably unwise to try passing and repassing today on multi-million-dollar pond-front estates. (This Colonial law, incidentally, was the same short-sighted document that created private beaches by granting coastal landowners property rights clear down to the low-water mark; apparently “fowling” was more important in the 1640s than a trip to the beach.)

Vineyarders tend to think of our great ponds (like almost everything else here) as somehow special, though in reality they’re pretty typical for coastal great ponds, if slightly better preserved (like almost everything else here). That preservation may be due in part to the fact that, until very recently, the low lands around the ponds were seen as largely worthless, featuring little but howling winds and lousy soil. In previous generations, people bought large tracts, mostly for hunting and camping, and often traded the land like a kind of currency. Those with the foresight, or inertia, to have kept their land now find themselves shouldering super-sized tax bills as waterfront property of any sort becomes coveted by those seeking the solitude and serenity that the great ponds provide.

And while solitude and serenity are much-prized commodities, the great ponds add much more than that to the Vineyard. They nurture the young of many species (including humans), offer up tasty shellfish, provide a perfect spot for kayaking, and add a beautiful visual element to the landscape, without which the Vineyard would be much poorer.

Like the ocean, the ponds wear a different fashion every day. They reflect many colors, embody many moods. Mist hangs over them in the morning; the midday sun imparts a deep blue, trimmed in white thanks to a stiff wind. Evening brings the warm colors of sunset. Bleak grays dominate in a storm, while the brighter grays and whites of ice, snow, and frost lighten up the gloomier months. Nights are ink black and spattered with stars, or washed with a thin moonlight.

Most of the Vineyard’s great ponds are strung out along the Island’s south shore, vaguely leaf or hand-shaped, with their fingers, i.e. coves, reaching with boggy fingernails toward the flat heart of the Island. The slender coves create more shoreline and lend an intimate feel to the upper ends of the ponds, different from the wide-open lower ends, nearer to the roar of the waves on the barrier dunes. The ponds’ watersheds extend up from the coves, through the wetlands, and along frost bottoms and streams. A drop of water that falls high up along Tabor House Road in Chilmark, for example, finds its way to the ocean through Tisbury Great Pond, perhaps through a breach in the barrier dunes. Gravity and wind have created such openings to the ocean since the creation of the Island, though impatient Islanders have been accelerating that process for generations to manage the level and quality of the water. Not so long ago, an ox and a gang of shovels made light work of a barrier dune, as a backhoe does today.

The primary feeling on the ponds is one of shelter. The turmoil of the surf doesn’t penetrate, allowing the ponds to serve as nurseries for a huge variety of creatures. A healthy pond will have an abundance of eelgrass, leading to high populations of many aquatic critters. Plentiful shellfish and finfish draw otters and osprey. The fabled food chain is everywhere in evidence.

The wild nature of the ponds is exemplified by the vibrant (and easy to see) birds on the surface: mallards and black ducks, Canada geese, swans, ospreys, egrets, herons. Even in winter, buffleheads and hooded mergansers bob like cheerful ornaments. Farm Pond in particular, far from hunters’ shotguns, seems an avian winter resort (a particularly visible one alongside Beach Road), with well-behaved guests in waterproof garb, scoffing at our meager winters. “You think this is cold…”

Human visitors flock to the ponds for many of the same reasons as birds. Like gulls, we forage for quahaugs and scallops; we fish like red-breasted mergansers, or paddle around like swans. We watch for cool avian sightings, like they warily eye each other. Like black ducks, we savor the solitude and quiet; on a day when the beaches are clogged with cacophonous humanity, the ponds host only a few kayaks and Sunfish, a dog splashing into the water after a stick, a few families netting unlucky blue crabs. Those who seek out the subtler charms of the great ponds aren’t likely to do so with boomboxes or Jet Skis (motors ten horsepower and over are generally prohibited), but with paint boxes and canoes – or with a camera. The serenity of the great ponds, long underappreciated, has now become invaluable.

Official list of the Vineyard’s great ponds, according to MassDEP

Black Point Pond (Chilmark)
Chilmark Pond (Chilmark)
Crystal Lake (Oak Bluffs)
Edgartown Great Pond (Edgartown)
Farm Pond (Oak Bluffs)
Homer’s Pond (West Tisbury)
James Pond (West Tisbury)
Job’s Neck Pond (Edgartown)
Long Cove/Long Pond (West Tisbury)
Oak Bluffs Harbor/Lake Anthony (Oak Bluffs)
Oyster Pond (Edgartown)
Paqua Pond (Edgartown)
Squibnocket Pond (Aquinnah, Chilmark)
Tisbury Great Pond (Chilmark, West Tisbury)
Trapp’s Pond (Edgartown)
Watcha Pond (West Tisbury)