Power of place

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 29, 2010

For a large tract of land in a popular town in a popular state, Dogtown's untouched mystery seems surprising. Despite the fact that it's more cared for than ever (the land is now held in trust by Gloucester and nearby Rockport; there's a reservoir within its boundaries too), this isn't your typical nature preserve. The trails are poorly marked. The map (if there's one in the box when you show up) is confusing and minimal. Few people visit.

East overtly and implicitly suggests that the land's history — the complicated colonial history that led to the settlement's ultimate abandonment, the refuge Dogtown provided to outcasts and rebels over the centuries, the horror stories of murder and assault — has made it irredeemably wild and somehow untamable.

"Its elevation (between 150 and 180 feet above sea level) and awkward and sometimes impassable terrain add to its aura of remove, but the region's colonial ruins easily give one the impression that Dogtown is separated from society by time as well as geography," East writes. "The area is an island within an island, riddled by a labyrinth of sixty miles of trails that appear and disappear, depending on the season, and that seem to multiply into endless wilderness. It is easy to get lost in Dogtown for extended periods . . ." (Don't I know it!)

East does a wonderful thing with Dogtown, starting with a boatload of well-researched facts, and a chronology of the region that makes sense and adds to the reader's understanding of her subject. But she also explains why she was drawn to the stories, and why her interest persisted. This is a very personal narrative — even in the pages where East isn't talking about herself — one that speaks to the question of not only how people affect a place, but how a place can affect people.

"This type of random, unexpected violence can affect a community for decades to come," East writes of the schoolteacher's murder. "Yet the impact of Anne Natti's killing also served to sear even deeper into the collective conscience the already prevalent perception that Dogtown was a dark and dangerous place. As a result, Anne Natti's murder became all the more poignant and haunting. I had followed the brush not to a place that was of Hartley's making, but to one that called up the community's turning point, loss of innocence, and darkening perspective about this land."

Of course, if a place has the power to conjure darkness, it also can invoke light — in this case, perhaps, an appreciation for America's hidden patches of nature, or for New England's juxtaposed landscapes. One can approach Dogtown with a challenge: I know what you are, what you want me to feel, but I won't be scared.

"Clearly people imposed their own narratives onto this place . . ." Thanks to East, now I have too. I can't wait to go back.

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at dfulton@phx.com.

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