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Volume 38 Issue 20 • Sept 11 - 17, 2008
now in our 37th season

Spell of the Yoho

by James Everett Grieder

I’ll probably be ostracized for mentioning it in public: Tuckernuck.

There used to be a ban on wearing our TILA (Tuckernuck Island Landowners Association) t-shirts and hats that have a silhouette of the island on it, for fear of people asking questions about it. When there’s grumbling about taxes paid to the Town by Tuckernuckers with little to show for it by way of services, someone inevitably mentions that that would bring more oversight to the island: end of conversation.

We’re definitely a possessive lot, and there’s a certain spirit to the island that encourages this attitude. My grandmother, Ruth Chapel Grieder, recently gave me a copy of something that her mother Della wrote about Tuckernuck back in the 1940s:

“All those who stop over long at Tuckernuck want to own a piece of the island. Those fortunate enough to establish residence, soon are hoping to add to their holdings. Long continued dwelling thereon may lead to the delusion of oneself – and others – that one already does, or may in the future, possess the entire island.

“Equally bewitched by another form of the same fantasy are those who, looking backward in time, ascribe complete ownership to some remote ancestor.”

Truer words were never written – call it the Spell of the Yoho. And surely those who ascribe to the last bit about their putative ancestor are of course wrong. It was in fact my ancestor, Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard, who owned the entire island.

Tuckernuckers have a reputation for being hostile to "furriners", and it's one that is well-deserved: we jealously guard our little slice of heaven, from outsiders and even more so from each other – the fantasy Della mentioned is a strong one. There's no arguing the fact that people walking on the island are likely to be on the receiving end of some unfriendly stares, and possible waterboarding. That being said, there is a reason for it: fear.

There is a fear of possible vandalism, a sad fact of life everywhere but even more prevalent on an island that is unoccupied much of the time. For every "x" number of visitors there's one or two who allow their dogs to run loose on the beaches (and often by extent, the island), or leave garbage or a smoldering fire behind; what's more, almost every year we find evidence of someone trying to gain access to our cottage. These inconsiderate visitors cast a shadow on the rest of you.

We’re also on the lookout to protect residents of the island who can’t speak for themselves. As noted in the Federal government’s Northeast Coastal Areas Study of Significant Coastal Habitats:

"In late summer a thousand or more roseate terns (Sterna dougallii), a U.S. Endangered species, feed here in preparation for their southward migration."

Whale Point is where they typically nest, along with least terns and piping plovers. The shorebird monitors have essentially thrown up their hands at the whole ownership thing, due to the belligerent response of some — not all — of the visitors to Whale Point. Although beach fires, open containers (66-3), camping (64-1) and unleashed dogs (55-4D) are prohibited by Town bylaws, obviously enforcement is problematic.

If you're going to camp on Whale Point, have a few beers and hamburgers and let your dogs run around, please try to be aware of the endangered critters in your midst, take your trash with you, and — most importantly —make sure that your fires are out when you leave.

Fire is a huge concern on Tuckernuck. Given the near-constant wind and the amount of tinder available, even a carelessly dropped cigarette can morph into a life-threatening situation very quickly. The Town has given us a couple of older brush breakers, and Bam LaFarge runs drills on Sunday mornings to remind everyone how to use the equipment, but that’s about it for fire response. Basically, whoever turns up if there is a fire (knock wood) is the fire department. Hopefully, they've been to a drill or two.  In the end, the best course is fire prevention; unfortunately, public access increases the chances of an unintentional fire.

There is another fear as well, besides that of damage to property and loss of life: the fear of change. When I sit in the yard at the Pond House I see (roughly) the same view that my ancestors saw. I can see the house where my great-grandfather James Everett Chapel was born; I can see where his father Erastus Chapel used to haul out his dory after coming home from duty at the Life-Saving Station at Muskeget; I can see the house that he built with the help of his friend and fellow seaman Arthur P. Dunham, who is my wife's connection to the island.

My wife's family owns Grandfather's House, which is named after James Cochran Dunham, my great-great-grandfather. From her house we can see James Everett Smith's house, who also owned the house on Union Street that we live in now (where my grandmother and father grew up, and where my son was born in our bedroom). I can see the hill where two small children from the Smith house are buried, one after dying from being smothered, the other after crawling into the fire. I can sit in the yard where my wife and I were married, and see the room where my grandmother used to stay while she visited her grandparents. I can also see where Jethro Dunham, my first direct ancestor to actually live on the island, built his house after serving on a privateer during the Revolution. It eventually burned down, but before it did Jethro ran back in to save his favorite book. He never came out.

Tuckernuck — to a greater extent than Nantucket though I'm a native here — powerfully informs my sense of self. The stories that are told, and retold, are living breathing things, in part because the island has been jealously guarded against "progress." Being able to spend time in a place that is so much a part of one's personal history is a rare thing indeed in a country defined in part by the restlessness of its citizens, and I'm well-aware of how blessed I am. Lord knows I don't deserve it, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to fight to preserve it for my son to experience.

Like many folks from “the big island” of Nantucket, we're land-rich and cash-poor. We're faced with the challenge of maintaining historic homes on an island even further removed from the necessary materials, and without the infrastructure to facilitate the work. It's a challenge, but one that I wouldn't give up for love or money.

So the next time that you're walking our beaches and someone stares you down, please don't take it personally -- we're more afraid of you, than you should be of us.

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