You don’t have to travel as far as Kauai to find some captivating corners; several are closer to home yet can seem further away. Exhibit A: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to LA, but until yesterday, I had never visited the Massachusetts island of Cuttyhunk.
Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard get all the press, but there is another string of smaller islands off Cape Cod: the Elizabeth Islands. Two members of the island chain are open to the public: Cuttyhunk and Penikese (which once housed a leper colony!). And all the islands, public and private, lie within the boundaries of the town of Gosnold, after the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who, having named Martha’s Vineyard (for his daughter) and Cape Cod (for the, uh, Cod), apparently deserved to have something named for him (is that how it works? I don’t know. I’ve never named anything other than scripts, pets, and children, and the jury’s still out about whether anything will ever be named for me).
Anyway, the town that bears Gosnold’s name has two most excellent distinctions. First, it is Massachusetts’ smallest (population 75 in the 2010 census, down from 86 in 2000). Second, it was the last place the World Series Trophy stopped on its epic tour of all Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns after the greatest sports victory in human history: the Boston Red Sox World Series triumph in 2004. How do I know this? Because I’m a big Sox fan, of course. (Gosnold’s population at the time equalled the number of years the Red Sox had gone between World Series trophies. Coincidence? I think not!)
And speaking of human history, I happen to be the only person ever to have written a short story, “Cuttyhunk,” about that trophy visit without ever having set foot on the island (though someone who had attended came up to me after a reading and said I’d gotten it right, which felt good). So when my cousin Leo, who serves as Gosnold’s Moderator, invited me to attend its annual Town Meeting, I jumped at the chance. I have, after all, had some interesting Town Meeting experiences.
I met up with Leo south of Boston and we drove down to New Bedford and boarded the ferry, where we were joined by the Town Administrator, Town Counsel (both part-time positions), several town voters, some tourists, lots of luggage, and the U.S. Mail. Yes, the mail. Leo and I made the mistake of initially choosing the designated “mail table,” where two postal workers sit and sort during the hour-long trip across Buzzards Bay to Cuttyhunk. Then Leo said, “Oh, it’s Monday, right,” as if that explained everything. Maybe Monday’s mail day? I never followed up on that particular point, so I’m not sure exactly how often the mail comes.
I did, however, strike up a chat with Jonathan, a member of the crew guarding the mass of luggage and provisions in the stern (for all you landlubbers, the “bow” is the front, and the “stern” is the rear, of a boat. Also, left is “port,” right is “starboard,” and the bathroom is a “head.” See how helpful this blog is!). Jonathan told me that ferry service drops from three times a day on summer Fridays to only twice a week during winter (which on the ferry schedule lasts from, wait for it, October 12-April 15). He also told me they’d never lost any luggage overboard — straps and tarps keep things stable in rough weather. But today few straps were needed, and after an hour, we arrived at the harbor in Cuttyhunk.
There was little time to look around after landing; masks came off, and I was whisked up the hill in a golf cart driven by one of Gosnold’s three Selectmen (I very much prefer the term Select Board, which Arlington adopted; just as fireman and policeman have changed to less sexist terminology, so should town government.) It’s pretty much legs and golf carts for movement on island, which suits me just fine. And soon we were on the lawn of the Avalon, Cuttyhunk’s largest Inn, and getting ready for Town Meeting to start. But before getting to that, let me relate some choice passages from the intro to and conclusion of the “Warrant” for Town Meeting (basically an agenda setting the time, place, and items up for a vote).
The Town Meeting is a beloved form of government in New England (the first Massachusetts Town Meeting was held in Plymouth in 1622, nearly 400 years ago!), and it’s my favorite form of direct democracy. There are two kinds: the representative Town Meeting, for larger town like Arlington, where you are elected and serve until you resign, retire, are defeated, or (ahem ahem) gallantly withdraw after an unprecedented tie vote, thereby graciously preventing any potential strife and teaching your daughters a wonderful lesson in the process.
Now, where was I? Oh right. The other form of Town Meeting is an open format, where every registered voter is eligible to attend. Sunderland, my mom’s former town in Western Mass, used that, and so does Gosnold. The number of voters who attend ebbs and flows — today there were 46 — but the language used in the Warrant remains wonderfully archaic. To wit, (from the intro) “To either of the Constables of the Town of Gosnold, GREETINGS: In the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts you are hereby directed to notify and warn the inhabitants of the Town of Gosnold qualified to vote in town affairs and elections to meet at the Avalon in said Gosnold on Monday, June 14, 2021, at 10:30 in the forenoon.”
Why yes, the Warrant says “forenoon” instead of morning. How cool is that? (And honestly, we do say “afternoon,” so why not?). And I love that Town Meeting is preceded by a warning. (Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Vote Here!). But it gets better — after listing the items up for a vote (called “Warrant Articles”), the Warrant concludes: “Hereof fail not and make due return of the Warrant with your doings to the Town Clerk at the time and place of holdings of said meeting. Given under our hands at said. . .” I mean, you can’t tell if we’re at Canterbury Cathedral in the 11th Century or Cuttyhunk in the 21st. And that, actually, may be the point. Town Meeting remains a beautiful blend of old and new.
After a Pledge of Allegiance led by some of the island’s 6 schoolchildren (one interesting dynamic is that Cuttyhunk, which graduated its last resident student from 8th grade in 2019, saw an influx of people looking for safety amid COVID and actually had to hire additional teaching staff to handle it), Town Meeting got going. I won’t go into the details of the 24 Warrant Articles — there are always some expected controversies, some unexpected ones, and several items where you expect controversy but which end up sailing through unchallenged. Leo, who has served as Moderator (essentially running Town Meeting) for more than 20 years, did a great job, and the debates, when they happened, were thoughtful and interesting.
But what fascinated me was the actual voting process, both on the Articles and the elections (Gosnold tends to do its town elections during the Meeting, while most other communities have a separate Election Day). In Arlington, while some items were handled by acclimation or voice vote (the scattered “nos” always had the loudest voices — I wonder why), in most cases you raised hands, with a recorded vote if the show of hands were challenged or exceptionally close; and more recently voting via electronic device so that every representative’s votes were promptly and publicly known. But in Gosnold, it was the opposite.
And when you consider the nature of an island community, it becomes clear why. On particularly contentious issues, you may not want your year-round neighbor to know your different views on the Municipal Light Board (which was actually 2021’s most debated topic). And I get it. What I loved was the means of this secret balloting: slips of paper handed out, marked, and then given back to town officials as they walked through the crowd with little wicker baskets while each voter in attendance’s name was called. Low tech? Sure. Perfect for Gosnold? Absolutely.
And once Gosnold’s 46 voters had gone through the 24 Warrant Articles, that was that: the whole Meeting had taken only 2 1/2 hours, and Leo and I got an early ride back on the water taxi with the guy who had brought over the sound equipment. But the Gosnold gathering had taught me some wonderful lessons, best summarized in the final lines from last year’s Select Board’s report (this year’s copies literally missed the morning boat, which was annoying but at least permits my pun): “We are all so lucky to have this special place as a touchstone in our lives. Let’s continue to take good care of each other.”
And to that I say, Amen.