Thursday, December 28, 2017

Silent Wings

Immediately upon encountering a Snowy Owl I wanted a better look and to know more about it. It began like this.

As usual at this time of year on Halibut Point I was looking out to sea, scanning the ocean and horizon for who knows what might come along or pop to the surface. Suddenly I felt I should turn around. Perhaps it was restlessness. I won't try to convince you, or myself, of a gravitational urge compelling a look behind me toward a rock topped by an indistinct fluffy form in the solar glare. But stare I did for a moment, with the quick recognition that the silhouette must mean only one thing in winter daylight, my first sight of a Snowy Owl hereabouts.
I hoped that if it was brazen enough to take up this close vigil it might stay put while I circled around for a proper portrait with sunlight coming over my shoulder.

Circle I did, with tripod and long lens, balancing an urgent voice to make haste with a seasoned voice to take care with the exposure. Even in the viewfinder, like peering through a keyhole, the bird seemed magnificent.

The owl seemed to turn itself around periodically. But I realized the torso and feet continued to 'face' me when the face disappeared. Using fourteen neck vertebrae compared to our human seven it was scanning to the rear without changing its outline. Then it would rotate its head three-quarters of the way around in the opposite direction.

How and why could a bird stand immobile in such an exposure? I noticed the feathers covering its oversized talons and beak, and the ample body insulation. The hooded leonine eyes stared back as insouciantly as the King of Beasts on an African plain. On its native terrain of the Arctic tundra the Snowy Owl has relatively little contact with humans.

My subject left its promontory for another. The serrated edges of its flight feathers enabled it to depart without an audible sound.

The owl's long tapering wings, and its coloration, resembled a gull. I supposed that the ducks it plucks from the water most easily in the dim light of dawn or dusk might be caught off guard by this likeness. With a reputed top flight speed over sixty miles per hour it can close quickly on airborne prey.

The owl looked back from the top of the quarry grout pile, then continued out of sight. I was left with a variety of impressions to sift. Owls have figured in the folklore of many cultures, often bridging the observable world to mysteries beyond it.

Since that day I've approached the shoreline cautiously in hopes of further encounters with a Snowy Owl. Once I was rewarded with a brief reprise of the bird on a salient boulder. It immediately took to the air where it once again gave an impression of linking dissimilar worlds.

I enlarged and sharpened the image of the owl against the clouds. The aspects of the bird were there to enjoy as for any soaring creature. But a distinctive aura seemed to envelop it, an economy of power and speed held in reserve similar to its laconic solitary vigil on the rock. The owl embodied the refinements of its particular evolutionary success. It flew off on silent wings.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Good Bird

One pleasant day at Halibut Point this fall a nondescript little bird showed itself momentarily within the brushy foliage across the pond. Since my camera with telephoto lens was already focused in the area I was able to snap a picture to study at home. Consultation with field guides indicated that it was a Philadelphia Vireo in migration.

Philadelphia Vireo
Some combination of uncertainty, curiosity, and possible pride led me to email the photo to Chris Leahy who has gently and generously clarified many points ornithological in the course of these Notes. Chris confirmed the identity and added, "Good bird."

We sat down for coffee recently to discuss what he meant by that term. I supplied him with a few photos of additional candidates.

Chris elaborated on the little fellow who started us on the topic. "A Philadelphia Vireo is not a rare bird, but it's an uncommon bird that occurs only during a couple of windows in May and September. It might be mixed in among a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers or Ruby-crowned Kinglets. You can never count on seeing one. It's unexpected.

"That's differentiated from a bird that is uniquely beautiful. Most people wouldn't be knocked out by a Philadelphia Vireo, a little greenish, grayish, yellowish thing. They'd wonder, that's a 'good bird?' It's a very in-crowd kind of jargon."
Black-legged Kittiwakes
Juvenile, left, and adults
Partly in the interest of semantics I introduced these pictures of Kittiwakes which had flown past Halibut Point one day earlier this month, quite far out at sea, rather dove-like with a rolling fluttery pattern that distinguished them from other gulls. Once again I was excited to identify them from the photo enlargements at home. But were they a 'good bird?'

Kittiwakes, detail
"Yes," Chris agreed, "that was a good bird for you personally. It's a matter of context. They're seasonal here and pelagic, spending most of their time out at sea where they're quite common. But if I pointed my scope toward the horizon I could probably see one on most days from late November to mid-March.

"I'd say it's more of a 'cool' bird than a 'good' bird. You can tell them as far away as you can see them by their bounding flight, which is quite different from the similar-looking Bonaparte Gull. It's a version of dynamic soaring, like gannets do, flying upwind by getting the wind to push them up and then flying forward as their own weight pulls them down. It's a way to move without using a lot of energy. I always get a little charge out of seeing Kittiwakes. So yes, they're cool."

King Eider, eighty yards offshore
I presented my recent photo of this King Eider at Halibut Point into our caffeinated 'good bird' sweepstakes. It was my first sighting. Glamorous. Although a breeder in the Arctic tundra it had an exotic 'escaped-from-the-Tropics' appearance. Here on Cape Ann it is indisputably a 'good bird' both as an aesthetic pleasure and a rarity. An event.

King Eider and Harlequin Duck
Ingenuously the King Eider had paddled up to a group of Harlequin Ducks, the reigning spectacular birds of our winter shoreline. It approached without the least air of self-importance.

Serious birders come from all over the country to see the Harlequin Ducks that congregate around Halibut Point. We are a drive-up, open access observatory for this beauty of the North Atlantic. Chris recalled the excitement of his first sighting, on an expedition from Marblehead. In those days the most likely success in Eastern Massachusetts would have been in the surf below Hammond Castle in Magnolia. "I was about twelve or thirteen when I saw my first Harlequin Duck. That was definitely a good bird. A bird that is rare, beautiful, that you've never seen before--a trifecta of 'cool,' a good bird."

Some shift in the natural order has brought wintering Harlequin Ducks south by the score to our coastline in recent years. Those of us who frequent Halibut Point look forward to the sunny days when their multicolored plumage shines to best advantage. But we never pay attention to numbers, lest their precious abundance give way to the dark irony of 'trash bird' categorization.

The King Eider retains its monarchical, elite status in local waters. If you're lucky enough to see one you have to look at its finery section-by-section, since the whole is incomprehensible. It sets the standard for a good bird...unless you've just now been enthralled by a chickadee at your feeder.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Village Improvement Society, Part Two

Looking up at the Sea Mark atop Pigeon Hill, c. 1915 1
Allen Chamberlain devotes an entire essay in his history of Pigeon Cove to a five-acre parcel atop the Hill known as the Sea Mark, which has passed back and forth from public to private to public ownership several times between the colonial era and the present as its value as a navigational landmark has been more or less appreciated. Public or private, it was pastureland during most of the years of settlement, which helped emphasize the silhouettes of two monarchical elms at the crest that guided mariners in the days of sail. 2

Looking down toward the sea from the top of Pigeon Hill, c. 1912 3
Andrews Point juts into the ocean at left,
adjoined to Halibut Point just off the photograph.
Pigeon Hill has made excellent pasture land because it is a drumlin, a large mound of glacial till within the surrounding thin-soiled landscape and moraines. The gargantuan glacier capped this drumlin with an 'erratic,' the largest boulder on Cape Ann estimated to weigh 2,000 tons. In the nineteenth century Amos Rowe, one of the founding members of the Pigeon Hill Granite Company, discovered that it split as easily as quarry stone and cut it up into thousands of feet of curbing. 4 [An irresistible digression.]

The Pigeon Hill promontory was acquired by granite entrepreneur Ezra Eames in 1838. The Town of Rockport bought it from his heirs in 1929 to construct a standpipe for the public water supply at high elevation. Ezra Eames' name will turn up again in this story.

Granite watering trough (1862) presently in front of the Old Castle c. 1715
As we have seen in Part One, the Village Improvement Society (VIS) came to recognize part of its mission in preservation agency. It accepted stewardship of the Old Castle in 1929 from the three children of VIS founder Abbie Story. The Society welcomed for display a 4-ton granite watering trough that had originally stood in front of the old ox barn on the north side of Granite street next to the Keystone Bridge at the entrance to Pigeon Cove. 5

The initiatives of the VIS continually  featured the names of public-spirited citizens of Pigeon Cove. Charles H. Cleaves (attorney and ubiquitous photographer) and H. Chester Story (son of Abbie) anchored a fundraising committee in 1915 to purchase as open space the 10-acre Austin W. Story estate (Pea Grove Woods) on Pigeon Hill, "containing practically all the virgin growth of hard wood trees remaining in the village. To do it all the cash in the treasury and every resource known to us was used to raise money." 6 Over time two more parcels adjoining the Pigeon Hill pastures were added.

The conservation and historical acumen of the VIS was greatly enhanced when Allen Chamberlain moved to Rockport. Among his other books he had written Beacon Hill--Its Pastures and Early Mansions in 1925. He and Chester Story collected blacksmith shop tools and paving cutter's equipment from those waning industries as permanent exhibits in the Old Castle. Chamberlain undertook a painstaking survey of ancient deeds and documents to authenticate his 1940 monograph on the evolution of Pigeon Cove's development. 2
Chamberlain was also a past president of the Appalachian Mountain Club and prominent member of several New England recreational/ecological organizations. Along with Charles Cleaves he led the effort to preserve as parkland several tracts of land on Halibut Point during the 1930s.

Gott Avenue c. 1935. Cows grazing at the present-day parking lot of the State Park.
The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) became the effective sponsor of land preservation on Halibut Point, at a time when the Rockport Granite Company had closed and upscale coastline at Ocean View had faltered. The undeveloped tracts and abandoned quarries of the old Gott and Andrews farms lay quietly dormant. A generous donor provided funds for the purchase of 12 acres alongside the quarry land, running down to the sea. This tract had been sold to Ezra Eames for its granite potential by the heirs of Joshua Gott in the mid-nineteenth century. Eames' granddaughter Maude Weatherell sold it to TTOR in 1934. The granite extraction on this land had been limited to splitting boulders and exposed ledges.

The pasture gate beside the 1702 Gott house
Allen Chamberlain, Charles Cleaves, and H. Chester Story formed the TTOR Local Committee for this Halibut Point Reservation. They monitored its condition and set their sights on acquiring adjacent parcels for preservation. Between 1936 and 1941 they did garner an additional 28 acres for TTOR between Gott Avenue and Phillips Avenue, part of which is pictured below, at a cost of $1,000. For reasons that are no longer understood TTOR sold this land in 1954 for the sum of $13,200. The transaction was approved by the State Supreme Judicial court.

Looking across the pasture toward the ocean,alongside the stone wall pictured in the photograph above.

In 1935 Louis Rogers, formerly Treasurer of the Rockport Granite Company and presently a liquidation agent for its mortgage holder, tried to interest the State Legislature in purchasing 52 acres of Halibut Point for $42,500. Despite the support of the Commonwealth's Commissioner of Conservation and the urging by Cape Ann's State Representative and State Senator, the Legislature was unable to allocate the funds. Twenty years later Dr. Richard Webster bought the property, which the State eventually did take by eminent domain as a park in 1981.

1. Postcard courtesy of Robert Ambrogi's website
2. Allen Chamberlain, Pigeon Cove, It's Early Settlers & their Farms 1702-1840. The Sandy Bay Historical Society (SBHS) in 1999 reprinted the original publication by the Village Improvement Society of 1940.
4. Lemuel Gott, History of Rockport, 1888.
5. "VIS Historical Notes," SBHS.
6. SBHS files.
7. This and the following photographs by Charles Cleaves, courtesy of The Trustees of Reservations.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Village Improvement Society, Part One

Halibut Point projecting into the Atlantic Ocean
at center-right of this engraving 1
When Pigeon Cove merited its first map by aerial perspective (above) from a hot air balloon in 1886, Halibut Point was still largely the Babson Farm, one of the few rustic remnants in view. Much of Rockport's North Village was being transformed by industrial-scale granite quarrying, coastal estates, and summer boarders. These interests brought both prosperity and uneasy co-existence.

The virtues of community preservation, self-improvement, and gracious living were all on the minds of the neighbors who gathered at the home of Abbie and Henry Story on the evening of May 13, 1889. They were members of a Chautauqua Circle, a nation-wide network championing culture at the local level in the spirit of the lyceum movement a generation before. The Storys' daughter Bessie played music for the assemblage. Miss Maggie Dwyer, an actual graduate of Chautauqua College in New York State and for many ensuing years the Pigeon Cove reporter for the Gloucester Daily Times, read a tract on the French Revolution. 2

Within a few weeks of that seminal evening the Village Improvement Society (VIS) got under way with lofty purpose and a sense of fun. Shade trees were planted. Ice cream socials raised funds. Maggie Dwyer kept everyone informed, taking minutes for 44 years as secretary and reporting activities in the newspaper such as this 1894 entry. 3

           This evening the mum supper takes place at 7:30 at the home of Mrs. Henry Story for the benefit of the Village Improvement Society. An excellent supper is to be provided by the members and a small sum will be charged as a supper fee, providing the parties keep mum while eating their supper. If not, they are to pay for it. For the first offense they are to pay a fine of five cents, the next time four, and so on. An excellent entertainment will take place after the supper.

Abbie F. (Mrs. Henry) Story
Its first initiative for civic improvement involved hiring boys to clear rubbish from the beach in the summer of 1889. Maggie used her newspaper pulpit to remind folks that "there would have been no need of instituting this commendable movement had others in this neighborhood been filled with the spirit that animates this new society and taken a little more pains in disposing of their rubbish--not to say filth." 5

The VIS directed further charity to the boys that summer by constructing a beach house "for the convenience of the public, and in order to encourage the use of less primitive costume by the boys while bathing." 6

Among the other good works in its first decade were purchasing land for a public park, a watering truck to dampen road dust, backyard gardens for 'little Covers,' and vegetable growing contests. Boys were enlisted in April 1894 to destroy tent caterpillar nests, with five cents offered for every dozen belts of eggs gathered. 1,837 belts were turned in. A six-year-old girl named Mattie Dorman brought the most, 70 dozen belts. 7

By 1899 the Society sensed the strength and clarity to advocate publicly for restraint in quarry developments. 8

           Little by little the woods are disappearing, both on account of the lack of care and of the constant encroachments of the stone industry. With greater force each year the truth is being driven home to the lovers of nature that the places of natural beauty are disappearing and their places taken by yawning holes in the rock. While we recognize that this is to a certain extent necessary, yet we do believe that it is both desirable and advisable that something of beauty be wrested from the devastating hand of commerce.

Bessie Story, the young lady who sang in her parents' parlor at that first meeting, grew up to marry C. Harry Rogers, President of the Rockport Granite Company. The Rogers worked to strengthen both organizations and keep their civic compasses in parallel. In 1925 Bessie Story Rogers offered to the Society in the names of herself and her brothers the Pigeon Cove property known as the 'Old Castle' in memory of their mother Abbie Story.

The Old Castle, Pigeon Cove 9
The Old Castle has stood on a promontory over Pigeon Cove since at least 1715. The Village Improvement Society refurbished it as a civic center and to house its growing collection of artifacts.  One of the bronze bells pictured below came from a neighborhood schoolhouse, the other from a quarry train. A flintlock musket hangs over the fireplace.

Old Castle interior today
Maggie Dyer continued to report on the pulses of change in Pigeon Cove, the coming of the round-the-Cape trolley, the demise of the grand hotels and the granite industry. Roger Martin had the foresight to collect reminiscences of Village life at its full ripeness. 10 John and Betty Erkkila have published a trove of poignant photographs. 11

The automobile improved society out of the village era. At the end of the last century the assets and spirit of the Village Improvement Society merged with its 'metropolitan' cousin the Sandy Bay Historical Society serving all of Rockport. Next week's essay will be devoted to VIS's legacy of preservation in open space and local history.

1. George H. Walker lithograph, 1886, courtesy of the Boston Public Library.
2. John Cooley, "Voice of a Village," 75th anniversary brochure of the Village Improvement Society, 1964.
3. Gloucester Daily Times, March 30, 1894.
4. Photograph of Abbie Story presently on display in the Old Castle.
5. Cape Ann Breeze, July 13, 1889.
6. Ibid, August 9, 1889.
7. Gloucester Daily Times, April 16, 1894.
8. Ibid, June 9, 1899.
9. Charles Cleaves photo, Sandy Bay Historical Society.
10. Roger Martin, Rockport Remembered: An Oral History, 1997.
11. John and Betty Erkkila, Souvenirs of Pigeon Cove, 2014.

I am indebted to Leslie Bartlett and Gwen Stephenson for perspectives and resources in researching this story.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Cape Ann Narratives of Art in Life

How does art permeate the artist? How does artistry influence all of our lives? How are art and craft related? These questions can be considered in portraits of action.
I am pleased to bring into print this anthology of stories from the creative lives of twenty-eight local men and women. The stories are presented in their unique voices, distilled collaboratively from interviews over the past three years. Color images of their work accompany each narrative.

I was first drawn to Halibut Point by the example of painter/poet Marsden Hartley's sojourns to Dogtown. My blog Notes from Halibut Point has explored its natural and social history, interwoven with photographs. These experiences have made me more alert to the wealth of artistry in our community. Parallel to the Notes I began a broader exploration of the ways artistry enriches each of us.

I have been fortunate to engage deeply with the 'neighbors' profiled in Cape Ann Narratives of Art in Life. Many other people on Cape Ann could be also be honored for their achievements in making life here more beautiful and meaningful. I believe that the exemplary stories gathered within these pages are indicative of the cultural vibrancy of our community and of potentials that exist within each of us .

The book will be offered for sale at $30.00 during a SIGNING PARTY at Trident Gallery, 189 Main Street, Gloucester, 3:00-5:00 Sunday afternoon December 10. At 4:00 I will give remarks of acknowledgement to the profilees and to the team which coalesced to grace the printed book with elegance. I hope to see you there.

 Cape Ann Narratives of Art in Life will be available from local vendors and by mail order from the publisher at Trident Gallery Editions.
On January 13th the Cape Ann Museum will host a panel discussion by some of the book's participants, who will exchange individual perspectives on art and craft.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Shoreline Charm: Sanderlings

Sanderlings and a Herring Gull

I'm used to admiring shoreline birds for their bare-legged resilience, their aeronautics, their adaptations to hunting underwater. Then I encountered a flock of Sanderlings migrating through Halibut Point this month. Picturing them next to a sturdy Herring Gull introduced the matter of charm.


Being diminutive and scarce favors the appeal of a Sanderling, as do its fine proportions. In truth there are smaller, tern-like gulls that I find more charming than the ubiquitous Herring Gull.

Sanderlings tiptoe around the tideline with scarcely any disruption to good order. They nibble. They accomplish their community life with a minimum of jostling or recrimination.

Part of their charm derives from the slightness of their resistance to a vast environment. They manage to be successful anti-heroes in a demanding world.

Sanderlings specialize in gleaning  tiny morsels where the churning surf plays out its final energies. They harvest edible bits and pieces cast into the shallows.

In this swirling environment they coordinate their eyes for opportunity and safety.

Their movements in unison are choreographed more by temperament than by negotiation.

Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstone

Sanderlings live a split-second existence at the interface of rock, water and air. They translate among these elements with quick switches of their walk-run-fly modes.

Sanderlings suddenly take to the air. The mystery and synchronicity of their departure contributes to their allure, perhaps another aspect of charm.

They are the whitest of shorebirds. They disdain camouflage. They touch the earth on legs and bill resolutely black.

Sanderlings seem both astonishing and inevitable in their niche. They will pass through again in the spring.

As the spritely Sanderlings moved south the first Purple Sandpiper appeared at Halibut Point to consider winter residence on our shores.

Purple Sandpiper

We will praise this chunky bantam for enlivening harsh days along the sea but charm has flown off with the last of the Sanderlings.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Autumn Winds

Kite, Halibut Point

The Autumn wind is a pirate
Blustering in from sea
With a rollicking song he sweeps along
Swaggering boisterously.
--Steve Sabol, "The Autumn Wind"

Gannet, looking toward Plum Island

The mild fall weather was broken last week by falling temperatures and an assault of northwesterly winds rising to 'moderate' gale on the Beaufort Scale. Thinking it might bring out the best in the character of ocean birds I went to the shoreline and tried to keep the camera steady.

Gannets are the overlords of the fishing flock. Most days they soar with the breeze and plunge on target from great heights. In a gale they bring their business down to the whitecaps, patrolling the troughs of the waves. To their long list of physical distinctions I would now add "torque resistant":  they didn't twist apart in their sprint-speed maneuvers.

Red-breasted Mergansers

The wind shifted northeasterly and visited tumult on the shore. Some southward-moving birds that might have stopped at the waters around Halibut Point kept flying toward relative calm on the leeward side of the Cape Ann peninsula.

Strong-swimming mergansers chase fish much as cormorants do. They also demonstrated enough strength of wing to fly directly into the gale on their way around Halibut Point.

Wind is air in a hurry. It moves obediently from higher pressure (such as heavier air over cool land masses) toward lower pressure (such as replacing warm ocean surface air that rises to the upper atmosphere.) The wind has seasonal patterns and many idiosyncrasies imparted by physical geography, the earth's rotation, solar rhythms, and even organic life. The wind is an agent of energy. 

Last Light--Halibut Point, Folly Point, Hog Island
 Toward the end of the second day the gale played itself out. The swells abated into ripples that the waning wind flicked ashore. We'd seen the prologue to the season that sends some birds south and invites others down to our latitude for a winter respite.

Thursday, November 9, 2017