When she captured thousands of monarch butterflies on a Super 8 camera in 1973, Shirley Mayhew of West Tisbury didn’t know she was recording history. She just knew she was witnessing something beautiful and exciting, as she recounts in her engaging narrative that accompanies the film clip, published in the Gazette and on mvgazette.com last week.
Nor did anyone know about the deadly effects of DDT in the 1950s when it was used widely to kill pests on plants. A generation later Rachel Carson spelled out exactly what we had done to our environment in her groundbreaking book Silent Spring.
Viewed today, Mrs. Mayhew’s monarch butterfly film clip tells a powerful story about our changing environment. Monarch butterfly populations are in serious, possibly irreversible decline, in part because too much of their preferred nesting habitat, milkweed, has been destroyed, especially in the Midwest. On the Vineyard we still have lots of milkweed. But there are few monarchs these days and no one knows if they will come back.
Beyond the monarchs and the milkweed a broad discussion has been unfolding on the Vineyard in recent months and weeks about the use of herbicides. In Chilmark, the town is locked in a court battle with a group of riparian landowners who want to use herbicides to eradicate invasive phragmites in Squibnocket Pond. The project complies with state law but runs counter to a town bylaw that prohibits the use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers around the coastal pond. The landowners have already won a round in court in their quest to override the bylaw, and the town will take the dispute to the state Supreme Judicial Court. It may not win.
Down-Island, a decision by the power company NStar to resume the use of herbicides to control vegetation under power lines has set off alarm bells in Tisbury where many of the power lines run through year-round neighborhoods and are located near saltwater estuaries. The Tisbury selectmen have sent a formal letter of objection to NStar. So far the power company has shown no signs that it will heed the objections.
Maybe the herbicides can be used without harm. But maybe not. In truth the long-term effects are unknown. And there are alternatives; the offending vegetation can be controlled through other means such as cutting and grazing.
It begs the question: Why take the chance?
Chilmark town leaders plan to file a home rule petition with the state legislature that would allow the town to promulgate its own pesticide regulations. Wouldn’t it be great if all Island towns joined this effort? As Islanders, we stubbornly resist regional action, but here’s a place where a show of Island unity would make a meaningful difference.
NStar leaders and the riparian owners around Squibnocket are invited to watch the butterfly film. And think about changing their hard-line stance on the matter of herbicide use. That would feel like a thousand butterflies aloft in a warm late summer breeze, whirring toward their next destination in a small miracle of nature.