In the Off-Season: March

Contemplating the wind: a mighty and mercurial force of nature.

April may be the cruelest month, but March, at least on the Vineyard, is the windiest. The month’s winds average a respectable bicycling speed of fourteen miles per hour. And with them comes weather – lots of it varied and sometimes tumultuous, as northern and southern air vie for control. But at some point during the third month, south begins to win out.

Spring, however, has a violent birth, with the Vineyard suspended in an untidy zone of friction between the seasons. One day a storm passes to our north, dragging a cold-front saber blade. Arriving cold air hoists warmer, wetter air aloft in front of it; cooling as it rises, the lifted air loses its grip on the water vapor it contains, and a chilly rain soaks the few inches of soil that have thawed. Feathers sodden, birds shiver forlornly. Around sunset, the clouds exit ahead of gusts from the northwest: strong, then urgent, then strident, counter-attacking against spring. How could the world feel more hostile? The house creaks as it absorbs a gust, then rocks perceptibly to an even stronger one. Branches scratch at the gutters; lying in bed, you can’t wholly quell the image of feral, grasping claws.

Or the storm passes to our south. The top few inches of ocean are heaved ashore by northeast winds, the result of the storm’s counter-clockwise spin. Salt marshes flood as a storm surge packs Nantucket Sound. Wires whistle, the storm door rattles, and an ominous wet spot appears on the bedroom ceiling. The assault feels endless.

But on another March day, the first blackbird moves northward in cautious stages, urged along by a southwest wind that promises everything good. Suddenly a flannel shirt feels like plenty to wear. All around, with amazing speed, plants remember what it’s like to grow. Buds swell. A few hardy species form their first fresh leaves. The odd purple hoods of skunk-cabbage flowers pop up in the swamps. Cold days may follow, and even snow. But those southwest gusts have put us on the path toward summer.

The nature of wind

I don’t think humans can avoid thinking of wind as a living thing, though of course it possesses neither malice nor kindness. Air moves from point A to point B in response to the very basic physical law that fluids want pressure to be uniform. And uniform the atmosphere is not: Though the actual differences are slight, air masses vary in weight and density depending on their temperature and water content. And on scales ranging from small to very, very large, air flows from areas of higher atmospheric pressure to areas of lower.

A handy example is that soothing amenity of coastal summers, the sea breeze. Warm air rises over sun-heated land, and cooler, denser air runs ashore from the ocean to replace it. On a vast scale, the same sort of process accounts for the basic outline of the planet’s weather. Cool polar air tends to slip under sun-warmed air of the lower latitudes, which must rise or move to make room. What might be an orderly process is disturbed by the rotation of the earth; friction with the ground bends moving air into loops and eddies that we experience as weather systems. In March, rapidly lengthening days help warm air expand into the northern hemisphere. The colder air protests, and we experience the dispute as dynamic weather.

Tropical systems generally weaken as they approach us over cooler northern water, and even strong storms often miss us by enough to do no serious damage. Continental storm systems, while larger than hurricanes, are generally less intense, and the battering that routine coastal storms administer to the Vineyard barely registers once you’ve lived here awhile. But when major storms do hit, they are a potent ecological force, and given the Island’s exposed location, have played a major role in shaping the natural Vineyard. (As global climate change empowers more frequent strong storms, and as a warming ocean lets tropical systems travel farther north before collapsing, the effects of wind on our landscape seem destined to increase.)

Wind-driven waves and storm surges bite off shorelines, flood marshes, and relocate vast quantities of sediment, smothering some life on the bottom while creating habitat for more. Ashore, storms blast fluky openings in the forest, some on exposed ridges, some where topography funnels the gust. The punctured forest canopy brings light and water to understory shrubs, and to plants that excel at dispersing into new locations (for example, berry-producing shrubs that broadcast their seeds via the guts of fruit-eating birds). The downed wood may look messy, but wind-throw creates woodland openings and turned-up dirt that support a fair portion of the Island’s biodiversity.

The direct and indirect effects of wind do more than just dent the landscape. By accident or design, countless species of wild plants and animals travel to or around the Vineyard on moving air. For many plants, riding the wind forms the primary strategy for dispersing. A milkweed seed, for instance, buoyed on its halo of fine fibers, can drift upward on a column of rising warm air, catch a breeze hundreds of feet above the ground, and produce a new milkweed plant miles from its point of origin. In an elegant convergence, spiders invented the same approach. The tiny young of some species spin sufficient airy silk to rise on thermals and disperse on the lightest breeze. Migratory insects like the monarch butterfly make instinctive use of favorable winds. And flying insects of all kinds are subject to wind-driven travel whether they want it or not. The result is a steady flow of migrants and potential colonizers to the Vineyard.

Wind also moves birds, to the unalloyed joy of the Vineyard’s zealous cadre of birders. Tropical storms bring seabirds normally found in the West Indies. Coastal storms in late March often sweep northbound migrants out to sea over the southeastern states, flinging the lucky ones, a day or two later, tired and hungry but alive, onto the Vineyard weeks ahead of their normal arrival date. Autumn cold fronts blow in waves of traveling songbirds. Wind steers vagrants here from as far away as California and even Europe. It’s an invisible link, and an unpredictable one. But moving air connects the Vineyard populations to the mainland and embeds us in hemispheric patterns of wildlife movement.

Employing the wind

Wind shapes the Island’s human community too. Before railroads and other motorized transport, a prodigious marine highway carried most goods and people along the Atlantic seaboard. Off-Island goods of any substantial size arrived by wind power or not at all. With the Cape Cod Canal decades in the future, Vineyard Sound was one of the world’s busiest waterways during the days when ships were powered by wind. Steamship Authority ferries and barges, of course, have deprived wind of its primacy as an engine of commerce. But that’s not to say that moving air isn’t still good for business.

Four ports – Menemsha, Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown – support a recreational sailing fleet that is as much a fixture of the Vineyard as clams and beach sand. An active Island boat-building industry inserts some distinctive designs into the mix of small craft. Interesting waters and reliable (well, fairly reliable) summer winds lure both seasonals and year-rounders onto the water. And the diligent reader of boat transoms soon learns we are a destination for cruisers too, some of them from other hemispheres. In recent years, windsurfing and kite boarding have joined conventional sailing as flamboyant elements of the Island’s summer culture.

March winds blow across empty harbors; the windiest month, ironically, marks a nadir for sailing. But a nadir implies an increase to come, and you can bet that when the first balmy wind kicks up this month, it’ll waken the pulse of every Vineyard sailor (a few tough ones may even take to the water by month’s end). In recent years though, wind has also been raising pulse rates about more pragmatic matters. The economic potential of wind energy has emerged as a factor at once promising and divisive for the Vineyard.

Debate first galvanized around the massive Cape Wind project, proposed in 2001 and since then inching asymptotically toward final approval. The project’s developer, Energy Management Inc., would site 130 turbines, their blades stretching 440 feet into the air at the top of their arc, on a shoal in Nantucket Sound, between Edgartown and Hyannis. Proponents estimate the project would generate about 28,560 megawatt-hours per week, harnessing industrious air molecules rather than converting coal into greenhouse gasses. A firmly entrenched opposition cites possible impacts to wildlife, threats to navigation and fishing, alterations to a view that helps support a vast regional tourism industry, and the defacement of a relatively untrammeled spot on the globe as drawbacks. Nobody is happy. And more wind controversy is blowing in.

The Massachusetts Ocean Plan, made official at the start of 2010, dissects state waters (out to three miles from shore) in an effort to steer the ocean’s multitude of uses into the best possible places. Integrating data on everything from average wind velocity to whale distribution, the plan designates two areas south and west of the Vineyard for energy production. Meanwhile, a nascent energy cooperative, Vineyard Power, seeks to develop a medium-scale home-grown wind farm to power the Island. Smaller privately owned turbines sprout like fungi. Island town officials and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission scramble to develop siting and permitting requirements for a wave of proposals expected to come.

Perhaps passions are roused by windmills in part because wind is such an elemental force and one so deeply ingrained in the culture and consciousness of the Vineyard. But even as the abstract idea of wind power gains momentum, the specifics of making it happen inspire as many viewpoints as there are Islanders to opine. Everybody, it seems, supports wind power; they just want the turbines someplace else, or fewer of them, or different ownership, or a different financial structure. The issues are real, and the debate over how, where, and whether to tap wind as a resource is of that particularly wrenching type in which everyone is right and everybody’s motives are good. But differing goods conflict, and division over wind threatens to fracture the Island community deeply and along unfamiliar lines.

The history of the Island is largely the history of groups in conflict searching with varying success for an accommodation. We’ve had no choice; our resources are as finite as only an island’s can be. What better Island emblem, then, could you ask for than blustery March, the windiest month? It’s the month that’s most like us – mercurial, varied, even violent, drawing its unique energy from contrast or even struggle, but always pointing toward the future. The month of the spring equinox is a moment to feel the inexorable roll of time, change, and seasons.

How wind has shaped the Island

It isn’t just March that’s windy on the Vineyard, of course. Windiness is woven into the fabric of the place. Indeed, working with water and gravity, wind actually helped build what is now the Island. Heaps of post-glacial rubble, too fresh, sterile, cold, and isolated to be anchored well by plants, rolled and washed and blew from the moraine left by retreating ice, settling on the unglaciated flats to the south to form what is now the Vineyard sandplain. Sand dunes too, a dominant feature of our shoreline, grow and move thanks to the force of wind moving and then dropping countless individual grains of sand.

But of course our winds don’t only build. Stripping leaves, dousing the landscape with unfriendly salt spray, snapping branches, bashing whole trees over, and turning up soil, a rogue’s gallery of storms have pummeled the Island in historical times and long before. In 1635, a hurricane estimated by weather historians to be at least Category 3 intensity slammed southeastern Massachusetts. Writing not far away in Plymouth, William Bradford described “such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts, either English or Indians, ever saw....It blew down many hundred thousands of trees, turning up the stronger by the roots and breaking the higher pine trees off in the middle.”

Storms find us: the gales of 1815 and 1869, the catastrophic “Long Island Express” of 1938, the hurricane of 1944, pugnacious twins Carol and Edna in 1954, Donna scuffing the East Coast like a circular saw in 1960, and Bob in 1991 – an indifferent hurricane that nevertheless stripped or desiccated the Island’s foliage and trimmed scores of feet off the south shore. And that’s not to mention the countless nor’easters, named and unnamed, that have rivaled hurricanes in fury. All have left their imprint on Martha’s Vineyard.