MARTHA’S VINEYARD QUIET PLEASURES. By Phyllis Meras with photographs by Betsy Corsiglia. Globe-Pequot Press, Guilford, Conn. 96 pages, $16.95 hardcover.
This latest in a long line of Island photo essay books is a welcome bridge in what has been a genre of polar opposites: On the one hand, we have the out-sized, expensive coffee table tomes, and on the other hand the souvenir pictorial guides that only visitors on a two-hour bus tour (“If it’s Tuesday it must be Hyannis”) could possibly admire enough to plunk down their $5.95. Martha’s Vineyard Quiet Pleasures, with essays by Phyllis Meras and photographs by Betsy Corsiglia, is every bit as well-written and scrumptious as the coffee table behemoths, but it’s a fraction of the body weight and, commensurately, the price. This may render it the first book in its category to appeal to positively everyone.
Ms. Meras and Ms. Corsiglia, both talented Vineyarders of many decades’ standing, approach the topic of Island fabulousness by dwelling on the simple joys, from icy mojitos served in mason jars, to a gaggle of geese on an Indian Hill farm, to a full moon igniting a royal blue sky over the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs.
Generally it’s the photos that dominate this category of book, and it’s a not-terribly well-kept secret that the big boy hits the coffee table without ever being read. Perhaps that’s because, with the typical book weighing multiple pounds, the potential reader just naturally shirks the responsibility of perusing a ton of words. Also, with the photos as the stars, one suspects the essayist was hired to provide mere filler. In fact, the writing may be every bit as superb as the photographs, but that doesn’t change the syndrome of the undigested coffee table book.
In Quiet Pleasures, the beguiling size (seven and a half inches square) removes this obstacle, and the reader is able to devour the essays in one sitting. Ms. Meras, a contributing editor to the Gazette who has been living and writing in West Tisbury for over three decades, in her introduction tells us that there’s every indication that the Vineyard has undergone a convulsive and irreversible change: in the past 20 years, seven thousand new houses have been added to the terrain. And yet the quiet pleasures continue to spill out all around us in undiminished abundance, from all the herbs in all the gardens for us to sample, to all the miles of pathways through all the still-open woods and fields for us to tread.
No matter how long anyone has been coming to — or living on — the Island, there are always new discoveries to be made, whether it’s an unfamiliar road or a hidden embankment of wild watercress. Ms. Meras is a treasure trove of these discoveries: the Mae Fane Land Bank Property, for instance, is awash in fragrant lavender. Squid Row in Menemsha is good for activities other than fishing — try a coffee break on the dock with your dog. A windfall of wild apples “beside an overgrown foundation at the end of an overgrown dirt road” might lead you to muse about “who planted [the apple trees] and nurtured them long ago.”
As for Oak Bluffs’s Ms. Corsiglia and her pictures, well, it’s no exaggeration to say that Vineyarders have been in awe of her eye and her art for all the 20 years she’s lived here and recorded Island images. Almost anyone can point and shoot a pretty picture of any part of Martha’s Vineyard, but for Ms. Corsiglia, light and textures and an indefinable jazziness all seem to line up as if waiting for this special occasion to be photographed. There’s a Camp Ground shot of balustrades, flags, dappled light and blossoms that takes this Queen Anne slice of paradise to a whole new level. A series of shots in a chapter headed Beneath A Full Moon is particularly rich and mystical. An array of sunflowers rearing above a wavy fence and a line of light-bejeweled scallop shells along a Lagoon shore are among the many photos worth book-marking for repeated viewings.
Now that summer is upon us, and we make yet another promise to ourselves to try this season to stop and smell the rosa rugosa, there may be no better way to savor the moment than to pick up a copy of Quiet Pleasures and let Meras and Corsiglia guide us back to our shared Eden.