The Power of the Pen [Guest Post by Barbara Oliver]


This post was written by guest blogger Barbara Oliver, a nonprofit communications professional on Cape Cod.

What can Twitter really do in a person’s life? Can it move you to re-examine your past, and to re-imagine your future? Or is it just a lot of nonsense about what people ate for lunch?

Can a tweet change your life?

I am admittedly a twitter slacker.  I was so enthusiastic when I first began to tweet that I convinced a few friends to do so as well.  Since then I have all too often let my twitter participation languish and dwindle. But a few months ago, as I checked out the public timeline, I zoomed in on the following tweet:

We’ll have a q&a w/ @elyssaeast about her fab book #Dogtown in the JAN @bostonmagazine. Art, witches, murder!

Dogtown?  Were they tweeting  about my Dogtown?

I replied, “Is your tweet about Dogtown in Gloucester, Massachusetts?”  She replied back that it was and that I should check out her book, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. I did.

I lived over a decade of my life in the city of Gloucester on Cape Ann, which lies on the northern coast of Massachusetts.  I commuted to Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts by train, I miantained a darkroom, created paintings, encouraged the kids I worked with to make art, had an art-to-wear business, waitressed at the old Harbor Cafe and Blackburn Tavern and made life-long friends.


Dogtown comprises an approximately 300-acre area of the Cape Ann peninsula, and includes both Gloucester and Rockport. The area was the epicenter of Gloucester’s colonial settlement and was increasingly abandoned as folks moved closer to the sea to live by fishing and trading. Over time, all that remained was a small group of impoverished war widows and eccentrics, along with their canine protectors. It was these last inhabitants that gave the region the name of Dogtown.

Some evidence exists that women escaped from the Salem Witch Trials to a relatively peaceful existence in Dogtown; some say occult practices secretly continue there today.   As nature reforested the abandoned land, it became a supernal wilderness of fauna, rock formations, vernal pools,  bogs, and quarries. To many “Cape Anners, “ It remains sacred land, where nature’s heart beats unimpeded.

So I began to read East’s book and it hooked me.  It explored Dogtown’s history, its natural beauty, the brutal murder that occurred there in 1984, and the citizens’ subsequent movement to reclaim their spiritual paradise.  And as I read, I was remembering the many years that I had lived in Gloucester.  Sure, I had hiked the paths of Dogtown, but but I had been blind to the history of the place.   Why had I not devoted more attention to this paradisiacal land that had inspired so many creative souls, including the artist Marsden Hartley and the writer T.S. Elliott? It had been right there all along — a mysterious, multi-faceted gem right under my nose.

Have you ever gone “back home” to discover it anew?

When people talk about trips “back home,” their stories are usually tinged with disappointment about commercial over-development and what’s been lost.  The miraculous thing about Dogtown is that while Gloucester has been somewhat over-developed, Dogtown remains largely untouched.

It all began with a tweet and now I’ve been called to new explorations of a big chunk of my past life with all of its associations and consequences.  I’m feeling, well, compelled, and on my next trip to Gloucester (which will be soon), I’ll be heading straight to Dogtown.

Barbara Oliver lives on Cape Cod and is the communications director of a nonprofit organization.

1 Thought.

  1. I just finished Dogtown a few weeks ago, it was a terrific book! I’m hoping this summer to visit in person, to look for all the places mentioned in the book, particularly the carved stones.

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