When I think of Gloucester as “enduring” my thoughts go back to times before reckoning—times when Cape Ann was under a half mile of ice, for instance, or when the Merrimack emptied into Massachusetts Bay instead of Ipswich Bay, or when the sea drowned the forest at Briar Neck and the mouth of the Annisquam River, and 10,000 years ago people ambushed caribou at chokepoints now under water. It’s hard to imagine the Gloucester that is gone, but to me the Gloucester that is still here is just as hard to imagine—how our salt marshes and barrier beaches could be so new, forming only around 4,000 years ago, and how our rocks could still bear the marks of the people who came here then and made them.
Evidences of times before reckoning are all around us, written in the landscape and heaved up sometimes from the earth. Standing on Plum Cove Beach or Squam Rock or Pole Hill and looking out, I slowly become aware of being in the footsteps of those others, hundreds of generations of them, and of seeing the same things—loving the same things—for surely this place was a paradise for them too. (What stone age marine adapted people would not have loved a rock bound island?) And it’s at those times, even when I am most alone, that I feel most connected with my species and most accepting of my own humanity.
I think Gloucester endures through the humanity of its peoples, expressed in their constructions of culture, layer by layer—a stratigraphy of hopes and fears and triumphs and follies. Digging down we can learn who we are. We are the shamans watching the night sky, marking ceremonial time. When the Milky Way touches the horizon, we bid the spirits of our buried dead ascend the trail of stars to the sky world. We are the terrified conscripts mounding earthworks at Stage Point in 1638, trying to protect Gloster Plantation from an Indian attack that never comes. We are the parents in 1880 with a backyard full of medicine bottles. We cannot afford a new cure —a transfusion of animal blood—for our child with diphtheria; unknowingly avoiding death by that means if not by the other.
To me, this is how our story as humans goes. We embody every contradiction. We are everyone, and no one. I feel this sometimes in solitude, as if there were no lines or limits. We endure in accumulations of times and places. Glaciers and forests and beaches may come and go, but we are here—our bones and our works are here in the ground—our living floors and dumps—our footsteps. This is history. Yet in other ways change and the unchanging cancel each other, and all times become the same time—a time beyond reckoning.
Mary Ellen Lepionka lives in East Gloucester and is studying the history of Cape Ann from the Ice Age to around 1700 A.D. for a book on the subject. She is a retired publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with degrees in anthropology. She studied at Boston University and the University of British Columbia and has performed archaeology in Ipswich, MA, Botswana, Africa, and at Pole Hill in Gloucester, MA. Mary Ellen is a trustee of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, serves on the Gloucester Historical Commission, and volunteers for Friends of Dogtown, Annisquam Historical Society, and Maud/Olson Library.