When I was living in Maine with the Penobscot Indians during the early 1970s, there was an expression I would hear over and over again. “You can take an Indian out of the woods,” it went, “but you can’t take the woods out of an Indian.”
The saying fascinated me. Like any good aphorism it was beguiling, though it wasn’t until later that I began to see it as a really beautiful example of what ecology is all about.
In effect, we do not begin to live in places until they dwell in us, become part of us, as we, in our external lives—our bodies, homes, possessions—make up the sum total of those places along with their own natural attributes: sea, rocks, trees, birds.
So it’s not enough, then, to inhabit the surface of your own life, as on the crust of the earth. You’ve got to dig in, and at the same time, let the place where you live into yourself, your consciousness. You’ve got to participate in its rhythms, the fluctuations of the weather, the color of the light, the smell of the air, the taste of it all. You’ve got to let the land dwell in you, which is how many Penobscots claimed they were able to survive living in cities or working in factories miles from the woods and rivers of their childhood.
When the first English settlers arrived in New England in the 17th century, they started cutting down the trees, clearing the land, buying and selling what did not belong to them to the horror of the natives for whom every tree and clod of earth was sacred. “The Earth is our Mother. Would you sell your Mother?” they asked colonists angrily interrupted in their orgies of acquisition. To no avail, for whites could no more grasp this organic concept of the earth any more than Native Americans could understand what it meant to regard the land as “real estate” or “property,” as a commodity of sale or exchange—something to be owned or used, “developed.” (Doesn’t this pertain today in the conflict between those who believe that a beautiful meadow or forest should be left alone to be enjoyed by everybody in its naturalness and those who are uneasy unless it is sub-divided, built upon, fenced off—owned?)
What I’m suggesting here is that the ecological movement, as it’s named and practiced in America, is always going to be a one-dimensional process and therefore an incomplete and ultimately abortive effort unless we confront the central issue, which is our relationship to the land and the land’s to us: our inter-relationship—how we live on the land and how the land lives in us; a dwelling-in and an in-dwelling, if you will.
Living here for nearly eighty years, it has been my sense that Gloucester people have an edge when it comes to an intimacy with the place you were born in, or have adopted as your hometown. Not only are we reluctant to leave; once away, many of us can’t wait to get back. Or if we’ve moved semi-permanently (no native ever goes away for good), we harbor the hope of returning as soon as we can.
Our nostalgia for the Gloucester we knew or have left isn’t like most of the nostalgia one encounters today, a yearning after something that really never was—lost happiness of childhood, or the places of our carefree years of youth. It’s a true nostalgia: a desire to come home, home to where our roots are, home to our family and friends, to the streets and neighborhoods that remain in our blood.
Still, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. Let me enter a caveat. The ecological balance of our life on Cape Ann—our own inner harmony as we attune ourselves to the changing seasons—is going to depend upon the preservation of our forests, wetlands and open spaces, the wisest possible use of the ocean, and the continued vigilance of an absolutely informed citizenry. An ecological consciousness is not enough. People have to come together, not only to protect their neighborhoods from encroachments that could destroy their character or make them unsafe for their children, but also the spaces around us from being closed up, our light and air shut off, our daily lives suddenly claustrophobic like the lives of many big city dwellers.
The existence of neighborhood associations is essential, as we have learned from many an attempt to protect our heritage from those who would steal it from us for their own profit. Who else is going to look out for our rights if we don’t daily? Politicians have to be held to their campaign promises of wise development and controlled economic growth. The city needs an up-dated Master Plan. We cannot develop in a piecemeal fashion—a hotel here, a school there—without a holistic sense of the needs of our entire community. We can’t even begin to talk of living in harmony with the earth if all we see around us—and allow—is loss and destruction in the name of progress. Gloucester—all of Cape Ann—belongs to each one of us, and we’re all going to lose something inestimable if we lose our habitation, our own home-place, even by the default of apathy.
All of the people Peter Parsons and I talked with while we were working on an oral history for Gloucester’s 350th anniversary expressed their love for this place. At the same time, they were very open about their fears for our city’s future, and the feeling of resentment they experienced toward the uncontrolled growth they were beginning to see around them. “It’s just not going to be the same,” many sighed—and that was nearly 45 years ago! They were not referring to the good old days. They were talking about the look and feel of Gloucester as they experienced it in their current lives, and, above all, the natural world that is now more threatened than ever by climate change.
One of the most perfect expressions of feeling rooted to a place came from fisherman Fred Hunte. In the clearest language, he described the intimate understanding of the natural world, coupled with the practical turn of mind, that’s required to live your life daily in it.
“I don’t go much by the Farmer’s Almanac,” Fred told us, “I look at the skies in the morning or the night, the way the sun goes down. Watch the gulls what they do in the air. You see the gulls up in the air? You see them going round in a circle high in the air? That’s a sure sign of a change of wind. Wind coming. Look at the sun going down in the west nights as you see these streamers going up to it. These streamers going up from the horizon, up to the sun, used to call ‘em sun dogs. That’s a sign of wind too. And if the sun took up bright red in the morning, that’s a sign of rain. When you been a fisherman all your life, you been out in a dory a lot alone. You’ve had to learn all that stuff, figure it out. You gotta watch it yourself. That’s survival for yourself.”
Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucester, is a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.