Walking on Cape Cod

By Michaela Keck

Photo credit: Michaela Keck
Pho­to cred­it: Michaela Keck

Cape Cod has been on my list of trav­el des­ti­na­tions for quite some time. What con­nects me to the Cape’s out­er­most beach­es of Mass­a­chu­setts are Hen­ry David Thoreau’s walk­ing activ­i­ties between 1849 and 1857, which he pub­lished in his book Cape Cod. Anoth­er Cape Cod mem­o­ry I cher­ish are the breath­tak­ing paint­ings of the lumin­ists Fitz Hugh Lane, Mar­tin John­son Heade, or John Fred­er­ick Kensett, some of whose works can be seen in the Boston Muse­um of Fine Arts. This March, I rent­ed a small and cozy cot­tage in North Truro for almost a week, antic­i­pat­ing to final­ly sub­sti­tute my men­tal and imag­i­nary rumi­na­tions with actu­al walks along the beach­es of the Cape. The sec­ond day, a snow­storm hit the coast so that in spite of the many lay­ers of wind­proof cloth­ing, I soon retreat­ed to the warmth of the cot­tage, curled up in a com­fy chair, and watched the snowflakes dance out­side the windows.

Also, I began read­ing Hen­ry Beston’s The Out­er­most House, a book pub­lished in 1928 and based on his year­ly sojourn in his “Fo’castle,” a two-room cab­in that he built for him­self some­where on the dunes of East­ham beach, a spot that has since suc­cumbed to the onslaught of the waves. A clas­sic of nature writ­ing, The Out­er­most House from now on com­ple­ment­ed my sub­se­quent dai­ly walks and beach expe­ri­ences of the diverse sand- and dunescapes, inspir­ing me with its poet­ic lan­guage. It also sharp­ened my own obser­va­tions of the birds and plants of Cape Cod as well as my expe­ri­ence of the cease­less work per­formed on the Cape by the ele­ments — the wind and the waves, the rain and the snow, the sun and the moon.

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Pho­to cred­it: Michaela Keck

Beston opens his book with a con­densed geo­log­i­cal his­to­ry of the Cape — link­ing it to a tem­po­ral and cos­mo­log­i­cal order beyond human time and reach — before zoom­ing into its par­tic­u­lars of region­al diver­si­ty. As I lat­er found out, I had acci­den­tal­ly begun my explo­rations in the vicin­i­ty of his for­mer two-room abode on the dunes next to the East­ham marsh. The fact that his cab­in was swept away by a win­ter storm in Feb­ru­ary 1978, after it had already been moved inland, also acute­ly reminds me of the con­tin­u­ous alter­ations of the shape and size of the Cape brought about by the ongo­ing bat­tle between the incom­ing waves and the out-push­ing sand. As a thor­ough land­lub­ber, I am quite igno­rant of the change and course of the tides. There­fore it was by hap­pen­stance only that my hikes on the Great Island Trail and to the many north­ern and east­ern light­hous­es were undis­turbed by the incom­ing high tide, even though the beach­es had notice­ably nar­rowed in breadth by the time I returned in the afternoons.

What delight­ed me prob­a­bly as much as it did Beston in the 1920s were the vari­eties of the col­ors of the sandy dunes and beach­es, rang­ing from “old ivory here, peat here, and here old ivory dark­ened and enriched with rust” (1–2). These var­ie­gat­ed col­ors depend very much on the changes in tide, weath­er, atmos­phere, and light. The day after the snow­storm was a glo­ri­ous day which I spent walk­ing the Great Island Trail at the west­ern shores of Well­fleet Har­bor. There, “a pool of the loveli­est blue” (49) of the now clean-swept sky enhanced the beau­ty and inten­si­ty of the inter­min­gling ele­ments of water, sand, and wind. As I trudged along the trail’s marsh­es, I was taught a les­son about the dif­fer­ent sounds of the gen­tly lap­ping waves of the inland bay and the crash­ing and boom­ing surf of the out­er beaches.

How­ev­er, the break­ers that tum­ble onto the out­er beach­es of Great Island were tame com­pared to the pow­ers of the mas­sive break­ers of the Atlantic Ocean. Beston describes these in his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly poet­ic man­ner as agents of their own:

Top­pling over and hurled ahead, the wave crash­es, its mass of glint­ing blue falling down in a con­fu­sion of seething, splen­did white, the tum­bling water rebound­ing from the sand to a height almost always a lit­tle above that of the orig­i­nal crest. Out of the wild, crum­bling con­fu­sion born of the dis­so­lu­tion of the force and the last great shape, foamy foun­tains spurt, and ringlets of spray. The mass of water, still all furi­ous­ly a‑churn and seething white, now rush­es for the rim of the beach as it might for an incon­ceiv­able cataract (52–53).

Indeed, as the days passed, I began to envy Beston for the lux­u­ry of watch­ing the surf for hours and expe­ri­enc­ing the changes in weath­er, sea­sons, and tides.

My hike along the Great Island Trail end­ed with a pair of swans tak­ing off from one of the small ponds in the marsh­es — a rare sight indeed! I also spot­ted sev­er­al bald eagles, fly­ing in groups of twos and threes. I could dis­tinct­ly dis­cern their white heads as they cir­cled above my head, no doubt pry­ing for some din­ner in the moors that sur­round Race Point Road, which today is a con­crete path for cyclists and walk­ers. In fact, the encoun­ters with the ani­mal life was astound­ing. Although it can in no way vie with the expe­ri­ences of Beston’s patient and inti­mate obser­va­tions of birds, eagles, otters, deer, and oth­er ani­mals, I very much enjoyed the singing of two pairs of north­ern car­di­nals in the trees just at the entrance of the cot­tage; and on my walk towards Race Point Light, I watched a pacif­ic loon groom itself most thor­ough­ly. While I tried to make the best of my ama­teur­ish lit­tle cam­era, the loon went about his busi­ness rather undis­turbed­ly, man­ag­ing to turn his behind to me when­ev­er I took a pic­ture. It was also on this walk that I saw quite a num­ber of whales. It was a dark, rainy day, which made their spouts easy to spot, and as I was on my way towards the light­house, one whale came up so close that I could even see the shine of his black fin.

Beston does not write of whales. His focus is on his encoun­ters with a wide vari­ety of birds. These encoun­ters are not all hap­py ones as they speak of a world of increas­ing human detach­ment and pol­lu­tion, even envi­ron­men­tal disaster:

George Nick­er­son of Nau­set tells me that he saw an oil-cov­ered eider try­ing to dive for food off Monomoy, and that the bird was unable to plunge. I am glad to be able to write that the sit­u­a­tion is bet­ter than it was. Five years ago, the shores of Monomoy penin­su­la were strewn with hun­dreds, even thou­sands, of dead sea fowl, for the tankers pumped out slop as they were pass­ing the shoals — into the very waters, indeed, on which the birds have lived since time began! (101).

Beston’s book gen­er­al­ly involves an acute sense for the dis­re­gard of (Amer­i­can) soci­ety towards nature, its forces and inhab­i­tants. Often con­tem­pla­tive and somber, there nev­er­the­less runs through the book a sense of won­der­ment, joy, and fas­ci­na­tion as well as a sense of com­pan­ion­ship with the inhab­i­tants of Cape Cod and even with the Cape itself. At times, his anec­dotes include a sub­tle humor, for exam­ple, when he tells the sto­ry of the “lone coast guards­man” who “fell flat on a creature’s back, and it drew away from under him, flip­per­ing toward the sea, with a sound ‘halfway between a squeal and a bark’” (169–170). It was enough to star­tle me when I spot­ted the round-shaped head of a seal close to the beach on one of my day­light walks!

After Beston’s eulo­gies of the beau­ti­ful nights and night skies on Nau­set Beach, I could not with­stand the idea to also under­take some stargaz­ing. One evening, after I thought it suf­fi­cient­ly dark, I ven­tured out onto the north­ern beach­es dressed in man­i­fold lay­ers of wind­proof cloth­ing in search of a promis­ing spot. To my great dis­ap­point­ment, how­ev­er, I found it rather dif­fi­cult to get away from the lights of the light­hous­es, and I even­tu­al­ly end­ed up lying on my back with my arms block­ing out the lights.

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Pho­to Cred­it: Michaela Keck

The High­land Light, the light­house where Thore­au stayed dur­ing his sojourns on the Cape, was all desert­ed. So was the small muse­um by its side. I cycled up there one late after­noon when the rays of the sun illu­mi­nat­ed it rather dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Like the oth­er light­hous­es, it was moved con­sid­er­ably inland to save it from being sub­merged by the sea. I also found some “trea­sures” washed onto the beach­es, such as the big piece of ancient wood which, as I also learned from Beston, must have come from the “ancient sub­merged forests which lie just off the present coast” (57). Indeed, to me the peb­bles of the north­ern beach­es that the sea grad­u­al­ly grinds into a rough sand were in itself a kind of trea­sure that I hope to re-vis­it some­day — with or with­out Beston’s book in my luggage.

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Pho­to Cred­it: Michaela Keck

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Michaela Keck teach­es Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Insti­tute of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Old­en­burg. Among her major research inter­ests are eco­crit­i­cism and nature writ­ing, women’s lit­er­a­ture, and visu­al cul­ture. For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, see http://www.staff.uni-oldenburg.de/michaela.keck/.