From the Editor


Fall is a particularly nostalgic time on Martha’s Vineyard, which is a particularly nostalgic sandbar any time of year. The obvious explanation is that another season of lazy afternoons has passed and another purgatory of premature dusks and howling midnights is only one brief season away. What’s more, each passing summer is a reminder of others gone by: Vineyard memories that can easily be confused, as John Updike warned, with “my children’s childhood, which time has swallowed.”

Sure, your average year-rounder will likely tell you that September is the best month: good fishing, warm water, no crowds. Unless they say it’s June, for the same reasons minus the warm water and plus the peonies. They aren’t lying necessarily, but they likely arrived as summer people and morphed into shoulder season folk as they perceived the high season changing. Like a compass on a ship full of iron, therefore, they are not to be trusted without some careful calibration.

I have no problem with innocent nostalgia. How could I? There are late summer days on certain beaches where the sight of fathers younger than I am giving their children’s surfboards a little push from behind is borderline unbearable to witness. But both here and over in America there’s a brand of nostalgia afoot that doesn’t smell like suntan lotion lingering on warm skin. There’s a lot of appealing to mythical pasts that either didn’t exist at all, or existed only for a select few. Or that may have seemed sustainable with a global population of less than four billion, as it was fifty years ago, but is untenable with a population twice that size. A lot of “you should have been here when,” in other words, is code for “I wish they weren’t here now.”

Here. This place we love. Originally the word nostalgia was not so much associated with the past as with a place, specifically one’s home. Coined in 1668 out of the Greek nostos, which means “homecoming” and algos, meaning “pain,” it meant acute homesickness, particularly among soldiers. It was considered a disease brought on by everything from strange food to love, and it was treatable by leeches, stomach purges, and being subjected to pain.

The shift in meaning from longing for home to longing for the past was logical enough. One is only homesick when one has left home at some time in the past, after all. But the past is not a physical place to which you can return. The past is a series of stories that groups tell themselves to justify and explain their current place in the world. And even assuming all the individual “facts” in these stories are true, which often they are not, the selection of which ones to remember and retell is a matter of choice: one family’s delirious first day in a new home on Martha’s Vineyard is, after all, often another family’s dolorous last. The past, in other words, is not writ in stone.

Unless it is: there’s a relatively new plaque at Mill Pond in West Tisbury that appropriately celebrates the role of the mill in several centuries of the town’s history. But it says nothing about the thousands of years of fishing for sea-run trout and river herring that were disrupted by the construction of dams along the Island’s rivers. Nor does it say anything, of course, of the pond’s continuing role in depressing the population of both species. Or of some Islanders’ desire that the future both here
and across the Sound will include a healthier approach to our rivers and streams.

But that latter observation is as it should be, I suppose. We don’t make plaques to the future. The future isn’t made by the nostalgic. It’s made by the hopeful.