The Rocks

A curly headed girl sits on warm granite peering into a tide pool. She picks up a periwinkle and turns it over to watch the smooth suction-cup flesh retract from danger. Putting it back in the water, she watches until it reaches and grabs on. How does something so soft and smooth cling to rough stone? Without any obvious senses, it starts sliding over the algae covered surface looking for a corner safe from little fingers and more dangerous predators. That girl was my wife in 1959, and the rocks were on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, overlooking the Ipswich Bay.

To some this is just another stretch of rocky New England coast, but it is a specific and unique place on Gloucester’s north shore. My wife has been coming every summer since she was born. It entered into her personal geography because her father had been coming here since he was a young boy in the 1920s. It’s the same spot that my children have visited every summer since they were born. 

And now my grandchildren discover tide pools and learn to swim in cold water here. The four-year-old goes exploring for treasure in the marsh grass at the top of the little inlet when the tide is out, collecting sea glass, wine corks, and broken shells streaked with orange and purple. At eventide, bathed and sporting their cotton pajamas, they lead us down to the edge of the rocks to watch the sun slip below the Ipswich hills. Each sunset is different so every night must be attended. On a bad night there is a cold, thick Atlantic rain, and the sky and sea are one wet grey. We watch from the front windows. On a good night a steady breeze blows away the mosquitos. On a great night the afterglow turns the sky from pink and powder blue to brilliant oranges, flaming reds, heavy blues, and finally blackish purple. 

These members of my family have a deep, native attachment to this place. It’s an attachment that is hard to describe. It’s as though the rocks are embedded in their identities. It is visceral. It goes back to formative memories. As much as I love the lane and the village, I don’t have the same connection. I’ve been returning for 35 years and know people in the community. I enjoy the village and going into town. I have watched the woods grow and marked boulders that were pushed about in last winter’s nor’easter. I’ve seen wild turkeys return to the neighborhood. I appreciate and enjoy the place, but I could transfer the same affection to another landscape. I am not fused to the spirit of the place, although I can sense it. This is a deeper landscape phenomenon, where a more primal human psyche involving memory and emotion connects to the spirit of place — the genius loci. 

How does this attachment to landscape develop? Often it occurs in childhood, although it does not have to. A key element of developing a place attachment is having fond remembrances. These memories may be of the physical place or personal associations with other people — family in this case. A sense of security and safety is essential, but excitement, like the excitement that comes with exploration and discovery, is also important. Rachel Carson wrote about nature and natural landscapes and called this the sense of wonder. 

1959 (family archives)
circa 1929 (family archives)

Sensory experiences also create distinction and attachment. The smell of wood smoke and salt air, the dance of a cormorant taking flight, the flavors of the kitchen, the dampness of timeless wool blankets — all come together in this place to create a distinct memory that impresses upon the youngest minds.

I can see this attachment developing in my grandchildren. It is a joy to watch my grandson climbing on the rocks where his great-grandfather played with his dog. Even though they never met, a landscape with roots like this is a connection across generations. I have every reason to expect that he will still be coming here as an old man, as it is a part of him.

Video: family archive

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