One Last Thing: Natural Velocity

The longer I live on the Island, the less I want to leave.

My world here is small and slow, and I’ve grown to love it that way. Most of my existence is centered within a five-mile radius of my home in Edgartown. Vineyard Haven seems a world away sometimes, and forget about Chilmark! A short off-Island jaunt can be cause for alarm, and even some anxiety. I will cross Vineyard Sound, but only when absolutely necessary (and then there might be some kicking and screaming in protest). It’s become a game to see how long I can go without getting on that boat.

Part of my aversion to going off-Island is that for me, the speed of life fluctuates depending on my locale. When I must go off-Island, whether for a day trip or a longer stretch, I find myself always rushing, especially when it comes time to return home. This may be because I am usually going full throttle, in typical off-Island style, then frantically racing to Woods Hole to catch the boat. The best part of any off-Island trip – after knowing you’ve made the boat – is the ride back to the Vineyard.

In some ways, the transition from the high-speed, off-Island pace to the slow and relaxing ferry ride home feels like hitting a wall at full speed. Once on the boat, however, it’s as if I have suddenly become suspended between the fast and the slow, with nothing to do but reflect and watch the sea go by as I transition from the frantic pace of America to the unhurried way of the Island.

The nature of velocity and the velocity of nature intersect in our wild world. In my work as director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, I spend a lot of time thinking about the peculiarities of the natural world, and on a recent ferry ride I ruminated about the velocity of nature. Fast as a hummingbird and slow as a slug, speed figures into all lives and speed figures into all things.

At the top of the list is light itself. Nothing travels faster than light. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, or approximately seven hundred million miles per hour. Light from the sun reaches us in 8.5 minutes! Impressive if you consider that the distance between the earth and the sun is about 95 million miles, or about 6,786,000 round-trip ferry voyages between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard.

In the plant world, fast would be bamboo, of which some species are alleged to grow up to four feet in height in one day. At the other end of the spectrum, slow would be lichen, a plant so unhurried that its growth can barely be observed. Estimates of annual growth under optimal conditions reach about one millimeter per year.

Animals have their own momentum. The fastest in the world, the peregrine falcon, clocks in at 200 miles per hour when it dives. On land, the cheetah holds the record at 70 miles per hour. The killer whale tops the list of swimmers at 35 miles per hour. That makes my running at seven miles an hour seem quite leisurely. It makes me feel better that some other animals don’t come close to my pace. Dawdling very far behind me would be the snail, which eases along at 0.03 miles per hour, and slower still, the sea horse, at 0.001 miles per hour. The bee is almost my equal, flying at six miles an hour.

At those speeds, the peregrine falcon could make the seven-mile ferry trip from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven in just over two minutes, the cheetah in six, the whale in twelve. The snail would take almost ten days, and the sea horse would be in it for the long haul with a 292-day trip. For those of you looking to revisit your middle school math days: How long would a dragonfly take to reach Woods Hole from the Island if its pace is 36 miles per hour?

Once the boat reaches the southern side of Vineyard Sound, I rush to my car, anxious to get home, only to be slowed once again, as I quietly wait my turn while each vehicle exits the ferry. The mellow pace of my everyday life is one of the things I value most about living on the Vineyard. I try to keep in mind that life is not a race. You might miss the boat back to the Island, but luckily, those Steamship folks will run another ferry soon.

So I take my cue from the snail: I stay rooted in Island soils and live by the wise words I heard often during my time in West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. There, my Hausa friends often repeated the proverb “sanu sanu bata hana zuwa,” which translates to “slowly, slowly does not prevent going.”

Suzan developed this essay from her weekly All Outdoors column in the Vineyard Gazette.