Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Gull's View of Gannets

Gannets soar eye to eye with gulls, searching out schools of fish. Their bright white silhouettes pointed at front and rear, long tapering wings at the middle of the body, and stiffer flight mechanics distinguish them from gulls. The 5 to 6 foot wingspan helps them glide efficiently for a life at sea, ranging seasonally from the North Atlantic to the tropics.

During their fall migration moving south past Cape Ann gannets use the prevailing winds to circle around Massachusetts Bay. Their peregrinations bring some of them close enough to Halibut Point for us to witness their spectacular fishing methods from shore. Eyes set far forward close to the beak afford them better binocular vision than most birds, for calculating distances and pinpointing prey.

A gannet will plunge-dive from heights over one hundred feet to surprise fish under water. Air sacs within special bone structures absorb the surface impact. Its nostrils are located protectively inside the beak.

As it nears the water a gannet takes on an increasingly ballistic shape, wings reduced to aerodynamic guidance fins, muscle mass pulled in tight. It hits the water in an arrow-like profile with a minimal splash as aspired to by Olympic divers.

The gannet propels itself to chase fish with webbed feet and 'rowing' wings. It usually swallows its prize before surfacing. Gulls may be waiting to take advantage of its fishing prowess in depths that they cannot reach. 

Gannet hastily swallowing a fish
Here in New England we are at the northern edge of the gannet's winter distribution. Next month the population will begin migrating back to nesting sites on rocky islands and inaccessible cliffs of the North Atlantic rim, all under the close eye of gulls.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Gulls and Fish

Three types of gulls claim niches on the Halibut Point shoreline in winter. They have developed overlapping approaches to mastery of the air, land, and sea. Every day, balmy or stormy, they contend with each other for the necessities of survival.

The Great Black-backed Gull

The largest and most territorial of the gulls can give an eagle-like impression in size, plumage, and demeanor, particularly given both birds' proclivity for scavenging at the water's edge.

In the receding tide Great Black-backed gulls use their strong beaks to capture shellfish in rocky crevices. They defend these prizes vigorously.

The Herring Gull

Grey-winged Herring Gulls have an occupational presence similar to their larger relative, patrolling the shoreline and the ocean surface for anything edible.

Being smaller and more maneuverable than the Great Black-backed, they have their own edge in the search for food.

This one spotted a crab in water shallow enough for a plunging grab.

The Ring-billed Gull

Although they both have black-tipped grey wings the smaller Ring-billed Gull differentiates itself from the Herring Gull by spending most of its time on or over the water, with distinctive buoyancy.

Tern-like it stays alert for the opportunity of hunting fish on the wing. Better than its brawnier relations it can hover, twist and dive.

When big fish drive little ones to the surface the bird's moment materializes.

Within reason, a Ring-billed Gull will go where the fish are.

It may have only a split second before an overhead pirate tries to grab its prize. The pirate will undoubtedly be another gull.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Winter Mists


Looking East,

the rising sun makes a potion of light and

steaming ethers.

Precise silhouettes solidify elusive facts.

The ingredients of the day frame a moment

that Razorbills chart with purpose,

disappearing to the West.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Gloucester Archives Committee

Sarah Dunlap lives within sight of Halibut Point near the line that carved Rockport out of Gloucester in 1840. Much of her drive home from Downtown to Lanesville retraces 'the old road around the Cape.' The part of the route that crosses Goose Cove she knows is quite different from colonial days, before Washington Street's namesake became "first in the hearts of his countrymen." The present causeway began with the construction of a dual-purpose mill dam in the 1820s. The way around Goose Cove had been a tough pull for the stage coach up Holly Street and the steep switchbacks of Bennett Street from Riverdale to Annisquam. 

Sarah Dunlap examining records of The Highway Committee
Sarah has volunteered with the Gloucester Archives Committee for over forty years, pulled along by a stream of discoveries such as the ancient system of road maintenance recorded by the Highway Committee (1698-1873) in accounts of labor performed in lieu of taxes.

The Committee operates from a room in the basement of City Hall. Most of the people they help are digging for information on their family trees. Sarah's original quest related to the history of her own house, from its beginnings on the early Woodbury tract through its stage coach tavern days, to Mrs. Shakespeare's inn for summer visitors of the Folly Cove art colony. Along the way she learned that she and other Archives volunteers shared Gloucester ancestors from the 1640s. According to co-worker Sandy Williams, "everyone who comes in here for genealogical research is related to me through Esther Elwell," a local woman charged with witchcraft in 1692. 

Sandy Williams (L) and Mary Williams (R) preparing
digitally searchable records to Oak Grove Cemetery
Sarah recalls that the plight and potentials of the Gloucester archives came to light when bibliophile Greg Gibson "happened to look into some of the vaults. Things were in great disarray. You opened the door and things would come tumbling out on you, Christmas decorations, boxes of old papers, original documents. He put an ad in the paper asking people to come help." 

A look inside one of the City Hall vaults in 1994
Mary and Alan Ray (my aunt and uncle) formed the Archives Committee as an adjunct of the City Clerk's office in 1987 from those who responded to Gibson's alert. They asked their neighbor Sarah Dunlap, who had a degree in library science,  to come help. Sarah chuckles at the nomadic beginnings here and there in the basement of City Hall. "It started out in the hallway. Every time the door opened we'd have to hold down the papers. The cold air would come blowing in on us. We finally got this room back in the 1990s.Initially I joined them one day a week, then two, then five." 

Mary and Alan Ray in the Archives Room, 2001
"We would write down every day what we had done. Mary would go home and enter it in her computer. We would read the next day what she had written to make sure it was right. She produced what we now call 'The Bible', the guide to City records." Eventually they collaborated in publishing the encyclopedic Gloucester Massachusetts Historical Timeline, 1000-1999 as an annotated index to the trove of books, documents and clippings that had been stuffed in the vaults. 

Sarah Dunlap holding 'The Bible'
Members of the Archives Committee played a central role in correcting the misconception that had arisen in the art world about Fitz Henry Lane's name. They have hosted research efforts such as Penn State University  scholar Dan Beaver's investigation of colonial land distribution patterns in relation to English systems of ownership. Archivist Stephanie Buck is culling from the Assessors' Valuations of the late 1700s to mid-1800s, which list each taxpayer's property, the proportional ownership of vessels registered in the port of Gloucester, that is, who owned the shares. This work has unearthed interesting material, for instance, regarding local linkages to the transportation of slaves under investigation by Lise Breen.

The earliest Valuations, written on hand-made, hand-sewn paper, received high priority in the preservation efforts of Katelynn Vance who has been hired to bring professional guidance to management of the archival programs of both the City and the Sawyer Free Library. Her work is in part supported by grants recognizing Gloucester's archives as among the most ancient and complete in the Commonwealth. They were moved from the wooden Town House (present-day Legion Memorial Building) to the vaults of the first brick City Hall in 1867 where they survived its destruction by fire two years later. 

Record of Indenture dated July 27, 1749
Joel Ingersoll, son of Joel Ingersoll, deceased, bound to  Ebenezer Collins to learn the trad of cordwainer (shoemaker) for 9yrs 10 months (until he is 21.)
Among the archival treasures are the records of the Overseers of the Poor from 1739 to 1852. This Town committee arranged apprenticeships for boys and girls of indigent families, to be supported and trained by local tradesmen, farmers, or fishermen in exchange for work. The circumstances of the contract were termed an 'indenture,' copied twice on a sheet of paper that was cut in two along a toothed (dentured) line. The contractual parties each held half of the indenture that uniquely fitted together.

Sarah Dunlap has observed that "they took very good care of their poor. There were all sorts of notes in the records: 'Need not be taxed because he's poor.' 'Should not be taxed--supporting a poor mother.' 'Need not tax because he's lame.' There was also a Town Farm, an alms house, but it was a harder place to go and live.

"It's been an exciting thing to get up and do every morning. We were always coming across some little detail. Something really fascinating, like when the term Dogtown was first used. We've learned about the history of the place where we live."

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Find A Grave

There's a satisfaction to discovering the people and patterns that lead up to our own days on earth. The old houses, fields and quarries of Halibut Point pique my curiosity about their origin stories.  Like growing crystals the stories accumulate bits of evidence to extend their shape and intricacy. When brought to light they accrue fascinating colors that rivet us with that most relevant of powers, currency in the imagination.

The 1702 Gott house resulted from a grant of common land by the colonial townspeople of Gloucester. It still stands as a private homestead within tracts that have reverted to public ownership at Halibut Point. It has been occupied for over three hundred years by descendants of Samuel Gott, weaver.

Headstone of Joshua Gott, 1798-1873
Seaside Cemetery
Sharron Cohen photo
When I sought details about the Gott family tree my Lanesville neighbor Sharron Cohen acquainted me with the free website Find A Grave, which maintains records from cemeteries all over the country. Sharron has photographed most of the gravesites in Lanesville's Seaside/ Locust Grove Cemetery complex, the closest to Halibut Point. Sure enough, there on Find A Grave I found a Memorial Page for Joshua Gott, complete with one of Sharron's photos. The house and the headstone substantiated a link to the otherwise lost-to-view Gotts.

A similar but much cannier search of Find A Grave turned up the only known portrait of Albert Baldwin, namesake of Cape Ann's most notable granite sloop.

Albert Baldwin, 1834-1912
Baldwin's Memorial Page well conveyed the character and circumstances of the young Massachusetts entrepreneur who prospered in New Orleans during and after the Civil War with ties to Col. Jonas French and Gen. Benjamin Butler, administrators of the military occupation of New Orleans and founders of the Cape Ann Granite Company.

Baldwin tomb
Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans
Sharron came upon the Find A Grave about eight years ago while pursuing her own family genealogy. She gleaned information from the website and began adding whatever novelties she could, especially photographs. The character of the monuments and their inscriptions began to interest her. She roamed beyond her ancestral plots to other memorials with interesting architecture or attributions. Back home, on frequent walks with a friend, she took it upon herself to ensure that a Memorial Page existed for all the nearly 6,000 gravesites in Seaside/Locust Grove Cemeteries. She gave these reflections on her "obsession."

   I believe the dead should be acknowledged. This is my specific way. I think the dead should be available to their families. I can't explain it as anything logical or rational. It's a touching presence. I don't know why, but it's there.

   I don't even believe in an afterlife. It's not like I believe the dead are still living. It's just that I think that their lives, and the story of their lives, and the very idea that they once lived, should be given enough importance to be respected.

   At Seaside there is a man who gardens his son's grave. Elsewhere there are shrines, diverse collections of mementos--toy cars, AA-coins that you get for staying sober, beads, leprechauns, dogs, little chachkies. There's something really touching about that, the memory piece.

   To me it's a marvelous puzzle, and it's interesting. Part of this is treasure hunt. Genealogy is like playing Solitaire, solving crossword puzzles, any of those things you do to stop you from thinking but to focus you on something...the puzzle of who these people are, the puzzle to find the next document. Some of it is a game. It's a game that seems to have at the end of it some value.

   There's a Potter's Field there. I got the records from the Cemetery Department and entered them on Find A Grave. It's what appears to be an empty section. That whole area is chock-a-block with people. There are no markers except the one in the middle. I know about it because I was asked to find Minnie Dunbar, who is right here [points on map.] Minnie Dunbar didn't have a stone. I started filling this map in. I came to "Unknown man killed on railroad tracks." People who don't have names. There's "Child found in the harbor." I made some Memorial Pages for them, just because I thought they deserved some mention.

To produce these stories gives me an incredible high. Bringing them to notice again. Everybody has a story. Everybody.

Sharron Cohen

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Allen Chamberlain

One of the most meticulously researched and readable reference works on Cape Ann's early history was published in 1940 by Allen Chamberlain under the auspices of the Pigeon Cove Village Improvement Society, which later merged with the Sandy Bay Historical Society (SBHS.) The SBHS reprinted the book Pigeon Cove, Its Early Settlers and their Farms in 1999.

Appreciating such a book naturally leads to curiosity about the author. The Foreword to the 1999 edition does offer a biographical sketch lauding Chamberlain's career as a Boston newspaper reporter, his prominence in the Appalachian Mountain Club, and ultimately his local impact "active in Rockport town meetings, advocating conservation measures." (Obituary, Gloucester Daily Times, June 25, 1945) But I have never found in the SBHS archives any personal writings nor accounts from his contemporaries to fill out a portrait of Allen Chamberlain. I especially wanted a photograph for what it might suggest of his character.

The Sandy Bay Historical Society has preserved several boxes of Chamberlain's notes as he fleshed out threads in ancient Town Records, Probate Courts and deeds. I was tempted to think of him as pale, wizened, and near-sighted. But alongside that speculation were his vigorous efforts to preserve and manage recreational lands on Halibut Point, as presented in The Village Improvement Society, Part Two.
I tried the online research tool Find-A-Grave that Sharron Cohen introduced me to, which sometimes includes photographs, genealogical information, and descendants of the deceased. Neither she nor I could discover a record of burial for Allen Chamberlain, although the newspaper obituary mentioned a memorial service at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. Perhaps he had requested that his ashes be scattered in the White Mountains he loved. Then Sharron suggested contacting the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), whose archivist responded with enthusiasm. 

Allen Chamberlain, left, with companions on Mt Washington, 1914
"We have lots of info on Chamberlain. He was only president for the year 1906, but he was probably one of the most involved conservation advocates of his day within the AMC. He was a journalist and used his writing abilities in aid of all the big conservation topics of his day....He was a fascinating character!" 

Allen Chamberlain, 2nd from left, and companions in Randolph NH, 1914
A memorial tribute in Appalachia, the AMC magazine, conveyed his robust nature.
    Allen Chamberlain was one of those rare and fortunate persons who combine careful learning and intense zeal with a gay spirit and delightful manner. As an old climbing comrade said of him, "Allen is the man I would have chosen for companion on a desert island; he was adaptable, philosophical, resourceful, energetic, and had a well-stored mind."
    ....Ten years of his life were spent ardently promoting the passage of the Weeks' Act, under which the White Mountain National Forest and many other national forests, totaling millions of acres, were established throughout the eastern states. Himself interested in outdoor recreation and unselfishly seeking to make opportunities available to others, he wrote forcefully in support of the creation of the national parks system. His work in molding public opinion had a happy outcome.
    ....But no list of offices held can give a picture of Mr. Chamberlain's actual part in the life and development of the Club....Many camps and gatherings were made more enjoyable by his competent woodsmanship and agreeable humor. His whole life has been a furtherance of the ideals for which the Club stands. 

Allen Chamberlain, 1867-1945
A search in the Registry of Deeds reveals that Allen and Grace Chamberlain purchased the house at 121 Granite Street in the Pigeon Cove section of Rockport in 1931. The Chamberlains may have been drawn here by acquaintance with their Pigeon Cove neighbor Oliver E. Williams, summer resident at the c. 1680 Garrison (or Witch) House, who assisted Allen with archival research. Oliver Williams resided during the rest of the year on Boston's Beacon Hill, which was the subject of Chamberlain's monograph Beacon Hill--Its Ancient Pastures and Early Mansions (1925). 

The Chamberlains' home at 121 Granite Street,
photographed by Bob Dixon in 1977for the Second Edition of Pigeon Cove,Its Early Settlers and their Farms (SBHS, 1999)
Ironically, this homestead of the fierce North Village preservationist no longer stands at 121 Granite Street. It has been replaced by a seaside mansion.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Engaging Artistry

Artistry - not artists - has been the central exploration of my book Cape Ann Narratives of Art in Life. Some of its twenty-eight participants are easily recognized for their work in the fine arts or the performing arts while some have developed other types of personal creativity.

What is artistry? And what is an artist? The Cape Ann Museum will host an interactive panel discussion on Saturday, January 13 at 3:00 to bring together four of the 'profilees' from my book, representing different points of view on the subject. Questions from the audience will be welcome. The Museum and its events are open free to CAM members and Cape Ann residents during January. Reservations are not required.

The program features these members of our community who will speak about artistry in their life experiences.

NAN WEBBER, founder and director of Gloucester High School Thespians and Rockport's Theatre in the Pines


BRIAN KING, singer-songwriter and founder of the band What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?


ANNE DENEEN, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church


STEPHEN BATES, musician and sculptor