Stonewall’s Anomalies

A unique site on the Vineyard, this cobble beach up-Island sits between the ocean and Stonewall Pond.

Except for the bridge on State Road over Hariph’s Creek, Stonewall is all that ties Aquinnah and outer Chilmark to the main part of the Island. Roughly a third of a mile long, the berm of Stonewall forms the bottom of a vast, varied, and productive estuary: Menemsha Creek, Menemsha Pond, Nashaquitsa, Hariph’s Creek, and finally, an aquatic cul de sac, Stonewall Pond – named for the barrier of stones that bounds its southern rim. Unlike Norton Point Beach in Edgartown, which (when unbreached) similarly closes off a deep embayment, Stonewall Beach projects an aura of permanence. It’s an illusion, of course: These stones were pushed scores of miles from their disparate sources, like raisins in a pudding of crushed rock and clay. Dropped in the sea when those lighter materials washed away, buffeted by the waves and finally flung into their current linear jumble, the rocks of Stonewall are frozen in a random snapshot on any given day.

Stonewall Beach is unique on the Vineyard – maybe unique, period. We have other cobble beaches: Publicly accessible ones, for instance, exist at Menemsha Hills and Cedar Tree Neck (though the cobbles of the latter are often obscured by sand). But in these cases, the cobbles front water on one side and on the landward side rises the moraine, the glacial erosion of which supplied the raw cobbles. Stonewall plugs a gap between pond and ocean where a low-lying area in the moraine has been inundated by a rising sea.

I’ve been told, and I don’t doubt it, that Stonewall Beach was mined by past generations of Vineyarders to build stone foundations. Today, this odd landscape performs a less pragmatic function: In the varied monotony of its composition, Stonewall captures the essence of the Vineyard aesthetic, which relies on subtlety, not splash. Like the reds and browns of our autumn oak forests, or the infinite gradations of green during a Vineyard spring, Stonewall rewards the careful observer with surprising beauty. Seen up close, these worn cobbles and the waves that rattle them speak of diversity and timelessness beyond our ability to comprehend.

Infinite varieties of color, of grain, of degrees of roundness: The essence of Stonewall Beach is clear only when seen close up, not a stone wall but a shifting wall of stones – each one plucked from its parent bedrock in some distant past; each uniquely shaped by the purposeless energy of waves. The diversity of Stonewall’s bones reflects the eclectic habits of the glaciers that converged to form the Island: Whatever lay in front of them was brought along for the ride.

Able to match certain rocks from the Vineyard with distinctive, localized sources on the mainland, geologists have partly answered the question of where the debris that is now the Vineyard originated: from multiple places across southern New England, all of them north of us, of course, but otherwise unrelated. Inching its collection along across millennia, the ice bequeathed us a sampling of an entire region. Pick up a Stonewall cobble. An inexorable chain of events formed and shaped that unique crystalline structure, bringing millions of years of history to your hand. How many more stones are here, all with stories of eons and infinite forces? How do our own stories compare?

An ancient portion of the earth’s crust, New England has seen the epochs come and go. Seas have turned into mountains; mountains have worn down to nubs. The result of all this history is a complicated matrix of bedrock types: sandstone, schist, basalt, the puddingstone found south of Boston, the resolute granite that long fueled Vermont’s now-fading quarry industry. Whatever, says the glacier. Come along with me. And so Stonewall echoes the composition of the Vineyard’s human, plant, and animal populations: all that was brought here – where before there was nothing – minus all that has left. Like us, these stones have lives. They just live them so slowly that we can’t perceive them.

Humans want to leave a mark, and the more austere the setting, the more we feel that impulse. It is not boredom alone that prompts a cairn, impromptu chair, driftwood monument, or even a sand castle; facing the ocean’s vast oblivion, seeing nothing but a narrow strip of sand or stretch of cobble to hold it at bay, we defiantly assemble our tiny spots of order. But although the goal of building may be self-assertion, the architects of beach structures also display a certain humility. The rules are to work only with what is at hand, so what we build looks almost natural. And, building on a substrate that is certain to change, we pile and stack despite the knowledge (or maybe because of the knowledge) that our work may barely outlast our departure, disassembled by the next high tide. There is something genial about these artifacts; this is not the assertiveness of the strip mine or the chain saw, but rather a gentler desire to lend our voices to a chorus much larger than ourselves.

Distinct from the human monuments – the hopeful but humble creations built by beachgoers – a particularly unflattering subset of human culture typically ends up on a beach. The wrack line’s contents reflect the ocean’s dual, unglamorous roles as a highway of commerce and the bottom of every drain. But far removed from the centers of what passes for civilization, lacking any substantial streams to sweep our castoffs seaward, Vineyard shores are relatively unafflicted by the bottles, cigarette butts, plastic widgets, and errant lumber that strand on so many mainland beaches.

Little lingers on the steep, dynamic front of Stonewall Beach, but even here, the sharp eye finds traces of acquisitive human aspiration gone awry. On the Vineyard, our beach detritus leans heavily toward the predatory: defunct nets that have enveloped their last flounder, buoys that have abandoned their posts, the odd, battered lobster pot. And line, lots of line, carelessly discarded or lost when a lure snagged not jaw but rock. Lethal in intent, the aim of fishing line is to retrieve your hook with a struggling fish attached. But monofilament can be lethal by accident as well, its random coils snaring the necks of birds.

I am no fan of beach debris, and especially of waste that kills wildlife unnecessarily. Yet among the relentless hardness of Stonewall Beach, these lost remnants of our predatory urge take on a peculiar beauty in these photographs. Somehow, the act of being cast away in a desolate spot turns debris picturesque. It is as if, pitying these forlorn, fractured items, useful once but aground for now and destined to be washed away again, we avoid the thought of the loss or failure that brought them here, and even of their aggressive purpose. In the context of Stonewall’s inhospitable pile, where plant life is unthinkable, monofilament, wire line, even a rope that has lost most of itself shed their artificial origins and come to look natural, perhaps the stems or roots of sea weeds. We see what we want to, and find ways to imagine what seems too absent. Stonewall, like any great place, enforces humility even as it solicits our dreams.