Cemented in Time

Neighbors demand the return of a tree whose time had come – and gone.

A certain dead cedar tree stands like a skeleton by the side of a path to the beach. Its outer skin has long since worn away, leaving only the sinuous, hard, gray bones. The tree stands gracefully, motionless, as if it has stopped momentarily to listen to the sounds of wind and sea. This tree exists in stark contrast to the living oaks and pines nearby, captured in a moment long past, while the other trees continue on in time.  

 The beach near the dead cedar is a stretch of the north shore that looks out toward the nearly uninhabited Elizabeth Islands. There is a wildness to this shore – many small coves with wind-blown trees, large erratics (boulders left by the glacier), and few people. The ocean is unusually clear here, and colder than on the south side of the Island, where the Gulf Stream warms shallower water. The north coast is more protected, more secretive, the sort of place where rumrunners or thieves once arrived in small boats in the dark of the night.

The tale of the dead cedar tree is a quintessential Vineyard story. It’s a story that could have happened only in a place like this, which attracts people of strong aesthetic sensibilities and which, particularly in the off-season, maintains its small-town feeling. In the past, a sense of tradition and morality were treasured aspects of life, ideas that were critical to survival on this patch of sand and rocks three miles from the mainland, and they shape our Island even now.

My friend Rose Abrahamson told me this story from the time when she lived at Pilot Hill Farm in Tisbury, which is an unusual and innovative subdivision created in the 1970s. Twenty-seven house lots were carved out of the woods and overgrown pastures surrounding the old farmhouse, its barn, outbuildings, and the nearby fields. The farm was, and still is, preserved and owned in common by the people who bought the lots.

This piece of land is a place of rolling hills and a private beach. Included in the mix of beachfront lots and woodsy acres are five youth lots, which were originally sold by lottery to Island residents at a much lower price than the regular lots. To reduce the taxes on the commonly owned land, the farm itself was kept active, with farmers (Rose says, “would-be farmers”) raising livestock and growing vegetables. Over the years, eggs, meat, and vegetables were sold at the barn, depending on the skills and expertise of the resident farmer.

Everything at Pilot Hill is run by committee. New committees, composed of landowners, are created as needed. When the youth lots produced some unusual building styles, such as the house that was constructed entirely of materials from the dump, an architectural-review committee was formed. Rose remembers that she never did see the inside of the dump house, but someone told her later, “It was better that you didn’t see it.”

There were covenants governing what owners could and could not do on their land. Even a tree couldn’t be cut down without approval. Rose and her husband Lester had always lived in city apartments, but they gladly joined various committees involved with running the farm and making decisions about maintaining the property. Rose says, “Lester was an irritant to some of the wealthy homeowners, the ones that got the waterfront lots. They wanted to spend money on this and that, and he was always trying to think of ways to not spend money.” She adds, “Lester was not to the manor born. But they respected him, too, and after they fenced in a field that Lester had liked to walk through, he pestered them until they finally put in a gate. It was named Lester’s Gate.”

The isolation of Pilot Hill can make it a lonely place at times, and Rose remembers, “In winter, I’d go out on the deck at night and the only lights I could see were from New Bedford. It didn’t matter that they were far away, I just needed to see a light. I was a city person.”

The winding dirt road to the beach passes through the old farm pastures and woods. The land is private, but over the years, joggers and birders have used the trails that thread through the woods. Early one summer evening in 1986, a man in a truck made his way down the dirt road at Pilot Hill toward the beach. It’s not likely that this was the first time he had noticed the weathered, sinuous trunk and bare branches of the dead cedar that stood like a sculpture. Most likely he had admired it many times, as others had, but perhaps his appreciation of it had turned to longing and then acquisitive desire, like Humbert’s for Lolita.

We can’t be certain of his motive, but it was certain that he took a saw and cut that tree down carefully at its base, and that he put the tree in the back of his truck and drove away, probably unaware that someone had seen him. It turned out that many people had a personal relationship with this old dead tree. As Rose remembers, “All of us who walked to the beach noticed how beautiful that tree was. It was very disturbing when it was cut down.” When word got around about the theft, someone recognized the description of the truck and the man and knew where he lived. Evidently he was one of the carpenters on the job of a new house being built on one of the lots.

The person who knew this man went to his house and told him how disturbed people were that he had cut down the cedar. And either because of empathy or shame, he took the tree back and cemented it into the ground. As Rose says, “He glued it back on. And after that, there was no one who went to that beach who didn’t leave a token – a pebble or a shell – at the foot of that tree or in the crook of a branch. It was like a resurrection!” Later on, a committee met to determine restitution, Pilot Hill Farm–style: the perpetrator was asked to reshingle the chicken coop.