"Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and
 precious life?"

Jeanna Shepard

Those last two lines from Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day are tacked, along with other snippets of inspiration, to a board behind my computer where I can glance up when I need a boost. As summer began, I found myself drawn to them again and again. I’m not sure if it’s the shadow of the pandemic or my (ahem!) advancing age, but more and more I feel like making every minute count. Especially summer minutes. Especially on a beautiful Island where there are so many different kinds of opportunities for experiencing life.

It’s easy for year-rounders to get grumpy during the summer; this is the time many of us double our workloads and it can be difficult to find time to play. If you’re a seasonal Vineyarder you may feel pressured too; sometimes it seems like all you do is entertain an endless parade of guests. (I say let them wander around by themselves for a bit!)

Who doesn't love a fresh pencil? Jeanna Shepard

But what if you picked just one thing and made time for it this summer? Maybe something on your bucket list – learning to ride a horse or learning to fly fish. Walking the entire perimeter of the Island (people do it!) or knocking off as many different hiking trails as you can. Maybe covering Chappy entirely on foot. Renting a community garden plot. Taking a class in paper-making or wool-dying or pot-throwing. Dance lessons, tennis lessons, a poetry workshop. Watching every film in one of the summer’s festivals. Sampling an ice cream cone at every single Island ice cream shop. (I’ll help you with that.) It doesn’t have to be anything grand, just something you’d really like to do.

In that spirit, I signed up for a drawing class a few weeks ago. (Specifically, Drawing from Nature at Polly Hill Arboretum). I realize that an art class may not seem like the most wild and crazy thing to some. But I’ve never taken one. (Honestly, never. Or at least not as an adult. Well maybe one flower arranging class!) And I’d really like to learn to draw. I think that urge is an evolution of my passion for plants and gardening – and the beauty of this Island. I’d particularly like to learn to draw (and paint) the flowers that I grow, partly as a way to capture their fleeting beauty and partly as a way to express my reverence for them.

Lizzy taught us to use our pencils as siting and measuring tools. Jeanna Shepard

Also, Polly Hill makes me swoon. Don’t laugh! I return to this magically preserved historic farmstead with its unique botanical collection again and again as the seasons change. I don’t need much of an excuse to spend an hour there. But this time I had a great excuse – the class was being taught by my friend, artist Lizzy Schule, who I know is an excellent teacher. Sold.

What I didn’t count on was a day so beautiful – warm and dry and bright – and a vibe so relaxed and absorbing that I would wind up enjoying myself more than I had hoped. The best part was the learning. From our “classroom” in the Far Barn (perhaps my most favorite structure on the Island), Lizzy began a lesson in measuring and siting by having us use our nifty Blackwing pencils (I mean come on, who doesn’t love new pencils?) to measure the height and width of distant conifers we could see through the open barn doors. With one eye closed, we held our pencils straight in front of us, elbows locked, and aligned the tip of the pencil with the tip of a tree. Using our thumbs we marked the length of the tree on our pencils and transcribed that to paper. I felt my brain tingling as it began to work out a scale of measurement and establish proportions.

We positioned our chairs within view of a structure we could sketch. Jeanna Shepard

Next we would take our folding chairs outside into the brilliant sunshine, walk across a wide trim lawn, and settle ourselves within view of a structure we would outline. We began to use our pencils for siting and measuring, and I managed to get something down on paper that was ever so slightly more three-dimensional and definitely more realistically proportional than any house I’ve ever doodled. But it was just a few scratchy lines.

And then, sadly, I had to go. I confess, I signed up for the class knowing I would have to leave halfway through it to go in to work for a meeting (I had explained to Lizzy beforehand). The date and time of the class (which you can sign up for, class by class, all summer) doesn’t really work with my schedule. But then again, hardly any date and time would! (I know what you’re thinking, but maybe do as I say, not as I do…) But I’m not letting that stop me – I’d like to go again, even if I can only stay for an hour. That hour for me was blissful and captured much of what I find so amazing about the Vineyard – being able to get outside and enjoy nature so easily in a beautiful spot while experiencing the gift of the talented people we have on this Island (especially artists) who are willing to share generously with us. I don’t want to take this place and these opportunities for granted.

Or as Mary Oliver writes in The Summer Day :


I do know how to pay attention,

how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down

in the grass, how to be idle and blessed,

how to stroll

through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?


And if Polly Hill can start collecting plants at the age of 50, then I can learn to draw at well, you know, my age.


Susie Middleton is editor of the Vine and cookthevineyard.com.


For more information about Drawing from Nature or other summer programs at Polly Hill, visit pollyhillarboretum.org. For a large selection of art classes, visit featherstoneart.org.