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Saturday, June 9, 2018


I have recently returned from Cape Cod. I am not a native there, no, not even a "wash-ashore," which is what natives call those who move to the Cape. But Pining Lover From Afar...alas! That is what I am.

And this beloved place - can I venture to say my beloved Cape? - is changing so, so fast. Three huge nor'easter storms pounded the coast this past March and the Nauset shoreline in Orleans bore the brunt of the damage. I learned that about 2.5 feet of dune erosion is expected each year, but this year the storms took out a staggering 80 feet of shoreline and dunes in a few short days.

There is now no more long boardwalk nor windswept dune fence winding and lining the way to the shore on dear Nauset Beach. What a relief those cool slats were to small feet burned by the return trek through hot sand. No more friendly gazebo where little me shook out sandy shoes, oh, how many times? No more fried clams and curly, curly fries - the best lunch! - at Liam's, which (unlike the rescued gazebo, now situated safely behind the former beachside motel) had to be demolished. Goodbye, childhood!

My writer-friend who I traveled with said something beautiful, though: the beaches and dunes may be sweeping away here, but they will help form another shoreline somewhere else.

And there, at that "somewhere else," a child will be so happily unaware of how their little beach came to be.

Dorothy Sterling says in her natural history guide The Outer Lands, "for today, tomorrow, next week - the beach is never the same." I forget this all the time. That soothing and constant and expected pulse of crashing waves day-in, day-out is deceiving! The coastline will always be that ever-changing place. 

What do they say, that change is the only constant? So reassuring, so bittersweet.

Early on the first morning, further north in Wellfleet, I followed the wooded trail to Marconi Beach (dotted red line above). It hadn't rained the night before but there was a lingering mist that tinged the edges of the shrubs and made the pine needles glint in the sunlight coming up. 

So many textures and colors! The lichen and moss and tiny flowers all seem delicate but they are amazingly hardy. Storms and salt water and whipping winds and harsh sand and sun...and they keep on going.

And I thought of this part in Rachel Carson's The Sense of Wonder:
And then there is the world of little things, seen all too seldom. Many children, perhaps because they themselves are small and closer to the ground than we, notice and delight in the small and inconspicuous. With this beginning, it is easy to share with them the beauties we usually miss because we look too hastily, seeing the whole and not its parts. Some of nature's most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake. 
An investment of a few dollars in a good hand lens or magnifying glass will bring a new world into being. With your child, look at objects you take for granted as commonplace or uninteresting. A sprinkling of sand grains may appear as gleaming jewels of rose or crystal hue, or as glittering jet beads, or as a melange of Lilliputian rocks, spines of sea urchins and bits of snail shells.
Lichen and moss, pitch pine blossoms, and starflowers
Nauset rose! Rosa rugosa or salt-spray rose
And Mary Oliver, too:

Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
 If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.

Later in the week we spent some time at Nauset Light, in Eastham...

Nauset Light and old French cable cabin

...and came back at night to see her running! It hit me that I had seen many lighthouses, but never at night nor when at work. Can something be eerie and comforting at the same time? The long white arm of the light, sweeping out over the sand and sea, hitting the clouds, trees, back and forth, silently, silently...

And later still and further north, in Truro, to see the Highland Light which, unlike Nauset (which is run by the Nauset Light Preservation Society), is still a functioning lighthouse that is managed and maintained today by the Coast Guard. 

View from the east side of Highland Light
We learned that you can estimate a lighthouse's age by its paint scheme. The simpler the pattern, the older it is, generally. Highland Light was the Cape's first Light, appointed by George Washington in 1797. 

We discovered it now has an LED! It was on and blinking when we were there...hard to imagine this little guy can be seen as far as 18 miles away.

I guess in looks it's a little underwhelming compared to the old Fresnel lens, but at least there's no more need to haul buckets of hot whale oil or lard up rickety wooden ladders or later, kerosene up tiny iron stairs in the dead of a freezing winter night to keep that flame burning.... Or worse...the enormous vat of mercury that was used at one point as a float for the revolving lens. Mad as a lighthouse keeper...yes?

We also learned that Highland Light was the first to have a mechanical eclipser, which was used to create its own unique "blinking" signal of 1 second on, 4 seconds off in a 5-second rotation pattern.

And finally, at long last, and at the very end of our trip...

...I climbed up to see the wide expanse of the Provincelands dunes! These were once vast and mature forests but the trees were cleared away by early settlers for farming and animal grazing. I read that disturbing one (seemingly) small beachgrass plant could be enough to destabilize an entire area, which can ultimately lead to the dune "walking."

We crammed so much into the few days that we didn't manage to hike the full trails through the dunes to the ocean, sadly. But I'm telling myself I only came back so I can return again, and hopefully soon :)

Books mentioned in this post include:

Dorothy Sterling, The Outer Lands: A Natural History Guide to Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Block Island, and Long Island (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978).

Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965).

Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010).

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