Shack Happy

Built on a cove of Edgartown Great Pond, “Forever Wild” is a standing tribute to the three generations of Wilds who have owned the property since 1941.

A hand-written sign on your right says, “15 mph, please.” The fields on your left stretch farther than you might imagine an island could. The sky overhead seems to sing from some church on-high, and when the quiet road gets even quieter, a clump of trees swallows you behind a colorful sign that reads: “forever wild.” A shaded Buddha greets you, as does an artful crop of large stones. A broken paddle points to “The Shack.” It’s overgrown, native, and – in short – wild.

To enter this hallowed ground is like stepping into a pair of soft moccasins. The native landscape, the handmade signs, the proximity of the sea, and the quietude confer on you a sense of well-being and protection – a well-being that has been cherished and preserved since the early forties by three generations of one family, the Wilds, who came from Mamaroneck, New York.

Within the abundant nature of Forever Wild, an old hunting shack hides. It is softened by bushes, shined by years of affection, and nestled next to Edgartown Great Pond. Lauren Lowenthal, a vivacious Vineyard enthusiast, is one of the luckier lovers of Forever Wild. She has eagerly spent summers living and working in the shack since 2005.

“The whole place just makes me happy, so happy,” says the writing instructor and former screenwriter, who winters in Manhattan. “It is charming, whimsical, and elegant all at the same timeand authentic, for sure.”

After visiting friends in Edgartown and staying with them in houses on Water Street for twenty years, Lauren dreamed of her own little house she could rent on the water – that wasn’t “furnished from a catalogue,” as she puts it. She got even more than her dream. She got to carry on a tradition, the tradition started by the Wilds almost seventy years ago, of a natural and relaxed life in a remote setting.

Michael Wild, the second generation to own, preserve, and live at Forever Wild, was the kind of guy who was revered by all who knew him, or knew of him. The unofficial “mayor of Edgartown,” he worked for the Conservation Commission (before it became the Martha’s Vineyard Commission), drove a tour bus, dabbled in movie production (he was the location scout for Jaws), sculpted, painted, and waved a big hello to everybody – big shots, small shots, and everyone in between. Adored as a humanitarian, Island historian, and bona-fide naturalist, Michael Wild liked to be funny and thrived on being slightly outrageous – original, you might say. His calling card read: Talent Scout, Location Scout, and Dump Runs. Michael died in 2000 to Island-wide sorrow, but his name lives on (one example: the Michael Wild Great Pond Science Fair Award given out at the regional high school annually), and his good nature continues around the land he loved and lived on almost his entire adult life.

The shack was originally built for duck hunting in the thirties. In 1941, Michael’s mother and father, dedicated naturalists, purchased three farms to make one. A nurse and salesman, they tried their hand at year-round farming for a few years but sold off the larger farm once they decided they were better suited for a seasonal and simpler outdoor life. (Today Forever Wild is surrounded by Herring Creek Farm.) They returned to New York for the winters and used the shack as their summer home. In the natural luxury of shack summers, they cooked outside, bathed outside, basically lived outside, and used an outhouse. Electricity was installed in 1963. Prior to that, a pump for water was the only luxury at Forever Wild.

Michael’s daughter, Cleo, continues on her ancestors’ footpath, adding her own touch to the land. The Island-born twenty-something lived in the shack the first two years of her life. For the next several winters, her mother, Marsha Winsyrg, took her to live in New York, while her father stayed in Edgartown and lived in the shack. Cleo summered on-Island with a gaggle of free-spirited cousins who lived outdoors all day and piled into the shack by nighttime to sleep. “We couldn’t help but be outside; it was so small inside,” she says, remembering playing cards, picking blueberries, swimming, crabbing, boating across the pond to the barrier beach, feeding carrots to the horses on the farm next door that her grandparents had once owned, and just generally “being kids.”

By third grade, Cleo was back on-Island as a full-time Vineyarder. She split her time between her mother up-Island and her father, who continued to live at the shack. At the time of her father’s untimely death, Cleo was nineteen, and within a year, she moved into her father’s little home, which she keeps much as Michael had enjoyed it. Eventually she readied it for rental, when she was prepared to do the Vineyard shuffle and live elsewhere for the summer.

After renting for these last few summers from Cleo, Lauren feels as if she is somewhat part of the family now. Though they hadn’t met, Lauren appreciates how Michael’s personality lives on at Forever Wild. “I’m living here according to how Michael lived,” she says. “I never knew him, but I’m very grateful to him for this place.” With this, Lauren points to the décor that predates her arrival: Michael’s nineteen fishing rods that still rest in the rafters overhead; a foot-long boat model precariously set on a tiny shelf above the kitchen table; five, bright pink, rubber fishing lures attached across a beam; an old bird cage; a neatly placed bottle collection that rests on another beam. Each detail put there by Michael reveals itself casually. “The whole house is like an installation,” Lauren asserts with respect and enthusiasm.

The art on the walls was done by family: Michael’s father, Michael’s sister Rebecca Wild-Baxter (who also has a house on the ancestral compound), Cleo, Cleo’s artistic mother Marsha, and Marsha’s cartoonist husband Paul Karasik.

The bedroom hosts an old sleigh bed hand-painted by Michael’s mother. Lauren notes the lovely view from the bed, which reveals, above the door, an aqua-blue inside wall painted with folkloric icons of the Agricultural Fair. Through the window opposite the door comes a delightful breeze – Forever Wild is simply cooled by the air.

More than a place to admire, Forever Wild is a place conducive to work for Lauren. She arrives the last week in June and works throughout the summer with kids, ages eleven to eighteen, who want to improve their writing. In addition to becoming better writers, under her instruction, students acquire schoolwork skills and begin to make strategic college choices. They are instructed in the art of critical and analytical thinking as well as time management, and they learn the value of detail and nuance. The kids are drawn to Lauren, a bit of an iconoclast herself, for her original ways and her constant encouragement of authentic writing – and living. She meets with her students outside at the round picnic table painted the house’s signature aqua blue, or inside at the kitchen table under Michael Wild’s fishing rods, preferably after her daily hour-long swim in the pond.

Her charges, mostly sons and daughters of vacationing families on the Island for the summer, often arrive in the hope of writing a good college essay. But with the combination of sea breeze from the cove, the preponderance of nature at every turn, and the independent lifestyle evidenced by the shack and its furnishings, they get a lot more. They get a taste of what it might mean to be, well, a little wild – maybe even forever.