The Land Within: Further Thoughts about an Ecology of Place

Peter Anastas

Horizon at Gloucester c. 1905 Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) Courtesy Cape Ann Museum

Horizon at Gloucester c. 1905        Frank Duveneck (1848-1919)        Courtesy Cape Ann Museum

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 at Museum (1)Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris 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.

Gloucester Native Anna Solomon Publishes Novel Set in her Home Town

leaving lucy pear Anna Solomon

By Miriam Weinstein

When Anna Solomon began to weave together ideas and images for her second novel, Leaving Lucy Pear (published in July 2016 by Viking), her upbringing in Gloucester played a very large part.

“I loved growing up in Gloucester,” she says. And, although as an adult she has lived in Providence and now lives in New York City, “it is still my home, and it is still embedded in me. I feel I could write about it until I die.”

Indeed, the natural and the man-made landscape of the place, as well as its history, figure prominently in this story about motherhood, choices, consequences, and discovering one’s true nature. It begins in the 1920s when a well-to-do young Jewish woman leaves her newborn baby to be found under a pear tree on Eastern Point. It follows the baby, the woman who left her, and the woman who found her. So yes, this is very much a work of imagination. But locals will recognize the intimate descriptions of this very particular milieu.

Because of her Cape Ann connections, Solomon was able to tap into local historical expertise. Sarah Dunlap, co-author of The Jewish Community of Cape Ann, pointed her to historical archives. Barbara Erkkila, historian of the granite industry, described how it felt to be a child on Cape Ann in the early years of the 20th century. Erik Ronnberg’s knowledge of the history of the fishing industry helped her to work through a plot problem.

Solomon’s Jewish upbringing on Cape Ann also played a large role. “The Jewish community is a very, very tight and supportive local community,” she says. “The synagogue (Temple Ahavat Achim) for me felt like a second home. Because it was small, and people came from all over, there were many different kinds of Jews there. It showed me, at least as a child, a lot of ways to be Jewish.”

In addition to Leaving Lucy Pear, Solomon is the author of a previous novel, The Little Bride, and Anna Solomonco-editor with Eleanor Henderson of Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers.

Solomon will speak about Leaving Lucy Pear at the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library on Thursday, October 13 at 7 p.m., and at the Boston Book Festival, on Saturday, October 15, at 10:45 a.m., at the Boston Public Library.

(This review also appeared in the Jewish Journal).


Miriam WeinsteinMiriam Weinstein is a writer who lives in Gloucester. Her latest book, just released, is All Set For Black, Thanks: A New Look At Mourning. She is also the author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals, and Yiddish: A Nation of Words.

Telling Tales: A Gathering of Stories by Eric Schoonover


Telling Tales: A Gathering of Stories by Eric Schoonover

A Review by Peter Anastas

(Dogbar Publications, Gloucester, 2016, 142 pp.,  $15)


“We tell stories for as many reasons as we live. They celebrate the beginnings and endings of our lives. They are the hand that rocks the cradle, the hand that wraps the shroud. They give meaning to the long or short haul of our lives.” –from the Preface


In Telling Tales, Gloucester poet and novelist Eric Schoonover has given us a collection of essays as finely written as they are delightful to read.   Each essay explores an arresting theme and tells a particular story, so that in reading them we are doubly rewarded.

We experience the taste of dates in Egypt with their author, who shares his thoughts about the role of memory in our lives.  In an essay that dramatizes issues of class and companionship, we accompany Schoonover as a young college instructor, who travels from his Eastern American classroom to Washington State to join a fire fighting crew in the Palouse hills.  We’re with him in a car race in which a relationship is also explored, and we assist him in building “Tuva,” his Micro sailboat, which still plies the waters off Cape Ann (he also builds a bed for his grandson Jacob to whom the book is dedicated).  Most powerfully, we climb into the mountains of Switzerland, where Schoonover travels to scatter the ashes of his parents near the small Genevan village where the family spent several memorable vacations.

Yet for all their variety and Schoonover’s scintillating prose, these essays are seamlessly constructed, as befits the boat builder who wrote them.  The word essay comes from the French essai, which means “an attempt.”  In writing an essay one begins by setting down tentative thoughts about a subject.  In the process we may also be trying to discover what we actually think about that subject, and what we want to say about it once we begin to write.

Essays have generally been categorized as “formal” or “familiar.” Formal essays usually consist of an impersonal analysis of a subject, while familiar essays are generally written from a personal point of view and  tell us as much about the writer as his or her subject.

Our era may well be one in which we have witnessed the primacy of the familiar essay, through the popularity of personal essays and memoirs, the profusion of Op Ed columns, and, more recently, the explosion of individual blogs, in which writers write as much about themselves as they do about their subjects.  Yet the new digital technologies (not to speak of texting and Twittering) with their inherent demands to think and write fast, and therefore more superficially, have helped to create a literary culture in which care of construction and thoughtfulness of intent have often been eclipsed by the pressure to post or respond to other posts.  While this has arguably afforded more democracy of access and expression (everybody is now seen to be a writer), the inevitable consequence has been a sacrifice of depth.

For this reason Eric Schoonover’s Telling Tales is all the more welcome.   The personal voice is here in these wonderfully luminous essays, which are both autobiographical and a history of the sources and growth of a literary sensibility.  We come to understand who the author is through the gathering details of his life—fishing with his father as a child; experiencing his first misunderstanding by a teacher in the rural Western Massachusetts school he first attended, in a town where he was the only paperboy; teaching English and literature in a variety of settings; and traveling to remote places whose cultures fascinate him, with his family as a child and later as a mature traveler and writer

With this collection Schoonover has in effect restored the essay to its proper place as an invaluable yet ever flexible mode of expression and exposition, a means of coming at the world in multiple ways, while sharing with the reader what the writer has discovered during the journey.

In describing what he has set out to achieve in this rewarding book, Schoonover quotes Joseph Conrad’s own reason for writing: “I want to make you see.”   And we do see through Schoonover’s eyes some of the world he has experienced and remembered, just as we feel through language that rises to poetry what he has felt and wishes to share with us.

Telling Tales may be a slender book in terms of page length, but it is brimming with the kinds of wisdom, humor, insight and sheer intelligence that are certain to make a lasting impression on the reader.


eric schoonover

Eric Schoonover is a writer, boatbuilder and watercolorist, who lives in Gloucester in a small 1735 Cape Ann cottage with his wife, also a writer. He is the author of the award-winning The Gloucester Suite and Other Poems and a novel, Flowers of the Sea. His latest book, Telling Tales, has just been published.