We spent much of the week huddled in tents near this lonely beach. It seemed like “the last camping trip of the summer “but it turned into “a few days huddled out of the rain at the start of autumn.” Not an ideal way to spend the last trip of the summer — alternating between restaurants already laying off their summer tourism staffs and lying in the tent wondering if the rain will cave in the roof.
Hurricane Florence didn’t improve matters. While the great vortex of storm was hundreds of miles to the southeast, the rain and storm cloud and lightning it kicked up seemed destined to pass indirectly over our campsite. The beach was abandoned the whole time we were there — thick with seaweed and driftwood, all the detritus that bad weather washes onto land.
Just around the corner from the beach, though, the harbor was placid and calm, easy and peaceful. You’d think nothing at all is wrong. More that that— these little sailboats, recreational sailers all, not working boats — would convince you that this was a boring little New England harbor, just around the corner from the dullest and loneliest beach in the world.
But I want to be cautious about calling this a dull little harbor with a terrible beach. Because, you see, this is Salem, Massachusetts — the site of the infamous witch trials of the early 1690s, and the launch-point of the tremendous successes of the America-Pacific spice trade.
Salem sat at the intersection point of two critical resources — access to the sea in a deep water port; and access to vast quantities and variations of timber (in the form of New England’s forests). With these two things, it was a major center for American ship-building (the U.S.S. Essex, one of the first six frigates in the US Navy, was constructed a mere fifty yards from our campsite).
The ships of Salem’s harbor started out as pirates (independent operators) and privateers (nominally-sanctioned by the government), first against the Dutch and then against the British. As the wars ended and America gained its first measures of independence, the privateers converted to long-range operations, and sought out treasures and foreign luxuries for their new fellow-citizens.
Cargoes of foreign pepper and cinnamon (a Sumerian word, imported almost directly into English across nearly six thousand years of common use as a trade item) commanded price increases of more than 700%; cargoes of porcelain, silk and other finished products brought similarly-high returns on investment. Sailors and sea captains risked their lives in wooden ships to travel around the world in search of imports for a hungry and newly-independent American market. For a very brief period between American independence in 1783 until about the first U.S. Census in 1790, Salem counted among the largest cities in the world — if you counted all the sailors on all of its ships as residents and citizens (early US Census officials apparently ruled otherwise, saying that you had to be present to be counted; by the 1860 Census, Salem had dropped off the list of the US’s most populous places… and this harbor had largely silted up).
By the time of the naval duel between the Monitor and Merrimack off Hampton Roads, VA in 1862, Salem’s era of maritime prosperity was over. The city still has a fishing industry, still has a boat-building industry, still has a small port — but it’s not the mercantile hub it used to be at the start of America’s political independence. The city was beginning to shift its point of view from the sea to the land, from shipbuilding to furniture manufacture, from being a partner in world trade to being a local community. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and even Hartford eclipsed “Witch City”. It would not be until the early 20th century that Salem would embrace its witchy history; and it was not until Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible would use the setting of Salem and its witch-trials to create a thinly veiled exploration of the problems of the anti-Communist movement.
There’s a pedestrian-only ‘street’ near downtown, not far from the Peabody Essex Museum (as odd a collection of oddities and objects designed to a-muse and be-muse, including a complete Chinese house from the early 1800s from the neighborhood of Shanghai, where most of the Salem clipper ships went). It’s crowded with shops where you can buy all sorts of occult books, merchandise and equipment — I saw several of Gordon’s guests’ books on the shelves, alongside pantacles, wands, sigils, Goetic seals, and various other equipment and fripperies of the wealthy, occult-minded goths. There’s a certain sensibility of dress among those in the witchcraft industry of Salem — you can tell the tourists from the working witches pretty easily — but it’s also surprising how much of this kind of “I live and work in Witch City” fashion sensibility you can find on display even in the grocery store. Even the working-class mom shopping for her large family can have a few nods to a gothic or punk or witchy sensibility in her everyday fashion choices. No one really bats an eye. Tattoos and unusual piercings, a piece of jewelry, often point or hint at a Salem sensibility, rather than declare it overtly.
Not bad for a town where they used to hang witches.
More than anything, though, it seemed to me that Salem has this weird, working-class cosmopolitan vibe. The city knows it used to compete with the big boys, but that its time on the world stage is probably over, at least for the moment — that it will take a return to the age of sail for it to shine once again, and by then the seas may be a lot higher (and Salem’s main streets to be underwater). It knows that, for better or worse, that it’s a place of pilgrimage for every witch in America — and uncomfortable as some residents are with that identity, that there are plenty more who will stock its shelves with occult talismans and memorabilia in the hopes of making a buck or twelve-ninety-five off of the visitors.
But there’s no center to this pilgrimage. There’s no holy shrine, no sacred monument. You don’t get any witch-cred for circling seven times around Gallows Hill, or kissing the names of the hanged in the memorial park, or gathering stones from the grassy plot in front of Laurie Cabot’s shop. You can tour the museums, take photos with the Samantha statue, browse in occult bookshops and take home a talisman or sixteen and tell your friends, “This sixth pentacle of Mars? I got this in Salem, Massachusetts — where they hanged the witches.” But it doesn’t make you a better witch. You might get a tarot reading in Salem, or have your astrological chart cast. You might hunt for ghosts with an evening tour, or join a public seance group, or go to the Witch Museum, or visit the gallery at the Satanic Temple. But it won’t make you a stronger witch, or a more skilled at your craft, or at The Craft.
What a visit to Salem ought to do, really, is remind you that your practice as a witch, or a druid, or a magician, or a ‘practitioner’ — whatever that word means to you, whatever shape it takes — is no safe harbor. Whether it was ergot-poisoning or teenaged-girls running amok or political infighting between town and country, the witch trials of 1692 should remind you that anyone can find themselves in the wrong group at any time; and that clipper-ship trade with China should remind you that a narrow window of culture, environment, technology, materials science and bravery can make you one of the richest people on earth — and drop you into obscurity just as quickly, remembered more for your tragedy than your successes.
So we must remember: that our practice (or lack of practice!) is not likely to save us in the event of real villainy. But if our mastery of technology, culture, imagination, and will should bring us some measure of success — even for a little while, even for disreputable reasons — then it is worth the time it takes to prepare our craft, hoist our sails, and venture into the world so wide, the teeth of ocean, and the terror of strangers. Who knows? We might get lucky. It might be our moment.