by Martin Ray
My recent reminiscences on Dogtown College stemmed from recollections of a field tutorial on Tree Identification that I enjoyed under the auspices of the College, back in the early days of my landscape gardening career about 1979. Currently I am engaged in discoveries of natural and social history that I present in a blog series Notes from Halibut Point http://halibutpointnotes.blogspot.com/.
The idea for this endeavor came to me after seeing Cape Ann Museum’s 2013 retrospective on Marsden Hartley that combined his writings and paintings of Dogtown. I thought, I know a nearby place to get to know and share….Halibut Point. My weekly blog series in this place, Halibut Point, now numbers over one hundred. I would like to share this post from the blog, April 23, 2015, on the topic of Dogtown College:
In the last posting I remarked on taking an eye-opening class through Dogtown College. Three Board members of the group have helped me this week to recall its flavor and direction: Peter Anastas, Nancy Goodman, and my (now) wife Kay, who was treasurer.
Besides Tree Identification I remember participating in Natural History with Ivy LeMon – “the butterfly lady” – and Life Drawing at Jane Robbins’ Thousand Hands Gallery in East Gloucester Square. The cost was $24 for 8 sessions.
. . .
Dogtown College shimmered and pulsed on Cape Ann for a few years, beginning in 1979. It drew on many of the same community strengths, aspirations, and talents that energized other innovations of the period, such as the Cape Ann Cooperative School, the Food Coop, and the Gloucester Folklife Festival. All these expressed themes from the Sixties rooted in American arts and enterprise. They resolved to reach for the best and not wait for established institutions.
Physicist Steve Heims resided here then, pondering a more rewarding teaching environment than he customarily found as a college professor. He explored possibilities with his friend Jonathan Bayliss, a corporate and government administrator with deep literary interests. The conversation drew on discussions that Jonathan had had with Charles Olson and Peter Anastas on creating free universities based on Olson’s years as rector of Black Mountain College. Olson imagined a local center of learning called Dogtown College, the geographic and mythic Dogtown from which Maximus emerged in his epic poem, Dogtown the protean core of Cape Ann.
Dogtown College: a word-pairing delicious with ironies.
Mention of Steve Heims’ name these days invariably brings an affectionate response. Nancy Goodman recalls a brilliant man who “introduced me to the concept that advances in technology aren’t without consequences….I think of Steve as the visionary, more than the person to carry things out.”
A core of organizers got to work. Says Peter Anastas, “We never expected that we’d have a bricks-and-mortar operation. It was going to be like the free universities of the Sixties that were kind of floating, that never had physical locations. Josh Brackett jumped in. He was a terrific organizer. The first thing Josh did was put together a curriculum as a newsletter. We had a public meeting, a sign-up. Dozens and dozens of people came. It was amazing. People wanted to learn, and they wanted to teach.”
Nancy Goodman brought “a faith in people’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, if they’re given a rich environment to explore.” She had met Josh in the Clamshell Alliance opposing the Seabrook nuclear power plant. “Josh was the playful one, compared to Jonathan who was intellectual and very sincere. Josh was able to see the humor in things. He didn’t take it quite as seriously, though he was equally passionate.”
Peter Anastas: We felt that there were incredible resources in Gloucester. Why go out of town when you had somebody like Steve Heims, a theoretical physicist who worked at the highest levels of physics, to sit down with people, explain to us particle physics and relativity? People loved it. Jonathan Bayliss had been reading Melville for 25 years. He had been yearning to share everything he was thinking about. He’d been Leo Alper’s mayoral assistant. He gave a course on City government. I wanted to teach writing.
I had an incredible experience working with all these folks who were interested in writing. The course I taught – but I didn’t really teach it, I was a facilitator – we called it The Writing Voice. The attempt was to have people find their own voice on the page. Almost everyone who was involved in it came through saying they learned something about themselves and about writing.
At other times we had seminars on Jack Kerouac and Henry David Thoreau. Joe Garland was involved, talking about Gloucester history.
Coming from the academic world, we really had to learn a new way of being. I had been in graduate school where the professor was king. His opinions were the received opinions. In Dogtown we opened ourselves to being challenged, and it was a terrific learning experience.
We did a twenty-four-hour Charles Olson marathon at Hartley Ferguson’s apartment. We read Olson at different times. We left the apartment to go out and actually look at places in Gloucester that he had written about. People were exhausted, but they came away saying they had an understanding of Olson they’d never had before.
We got a lot of support from the newspaper. The newspaper seemed to be very interested in what we were doing. The kinds of people who became involved went beyond the arts, or writing. A lot of folks came and took courses who were never involved in the artistic community.
We raised money by having dinners, in the basement of the Unitarian-Universalist church. Chris Barton did the cooking. A wonderful person. She was running a vegetarian restaurant, The Garden of Eatin’. She cooked these enormous dinners. People would come and pay a small amount. We would have entertainment. It was a way to keep the community alive.
Eventually it wound down. We knew it was time. We knew we’d done what we set out to do. Like a lot of post-Sixties kinds of enterprises, the attempt wasn’t to try to create something to last forever. The attempt was to bring people together. When people felt the time had come to move on to something else, that’s what we did. And that’s how it ended.
Martin Ray, of Lanesville, is the creator of the blog Notes From Halibut Point.