Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Outer Lands

Our book today is ‘The Outer Lands’ by Dorothy Serling, copiously illustrated by Winifred Lubell. It’s a natural history of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Long Island. But oh! such a description falls well short of doing the book - or the subject - justice.

We here at Stevereads have traveled the length and breadth of this beautiful world, and we’ve seen enough of it to know that although a great many stretches of it are lovely, we can attest to a fact long attested to by countless other travelers throughout history: a precious few places are imbued with a kind of magic, a place-grace that seems to spring from the physical contours of the place itself. The gardens of Cyprus are one such place; the jungles of Kauai, the beautiful Aran Islands, the wonders of Donegal Bay, the lures of eastern Iowa along the path of the Mississippi, the islands of Venice.

Foremost among such blessed places is the narrow strip of Massachusetts coastal land called Cape Cod and the Cape’s two distant moons, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

If you’re lucky, the time you spend there is measured in bands of gold. We here at Stevereads spent 32 summers returning to the same snug, cluttered, beautiful little saltbox house just off the dunes at Falmouth, at which we slept the deepest sleep of our lives and from which we explored every last inch and cranny of the whole of the Cape. Then a time passed, and after that, we spent a idyllic year on the distant and perfect little island of Nantucket, experiencing the seasons in a way that has vanished with the advent of year-round ferries and super-mansions and the Internet (we also experienced the buoyant affections of a group of long-haired good-for-nothing kids and the stiff, malachite affections of two enormous Irish wolfhounds, but that’s a homily for another time), and after that we spent a series of perilously ill weekends in a frightfully beautiful house in Sandwich, eager for the experience but too sick to move much beyond the driveway. After that, there were ten exquisitely weeks in yet another gorgeous little saltbox cabin - this one smack-dab on the dunes - at Truro, in the company of a smart, troubled young man striving to find his art.

Then years passed, as is the way with wonderlands. The young man became a lauded writer, the tides rose and fell, but we never doubted the Cape would bring us back - such is the way with magical places. And it did indeed happen, just mere months ago, when a high-spirited young friend invited us for a weekend at yet another quaint old saltbox house, this one located at what used to be called Harwich Port. Our young host, technically ignorant of the Cape’s hospitality traditions (or perhaps not so, perhaps imbibing them all unconsciously from the dunes all around, or from the past), nevertheless provided the quintessential Cape extended weekend: leisurely planning, improvised scrambled-egg breakfasts, endless walks along the Great Beach, and enchanted talks in screened porches late at night over wine, talks punctuated by the curling crush of the tide, crashing out there in the dark, yards away.

That was the last, but not the last: the magic places of the world, OUR magic places, have a way of calling us back again and again. We here at Stevereads have no doubt it will happen again, quite without the sweat of tickets, travel, and travel agents. Once upon a time, we lived up the Cape lane from a gleefully, deceptively curmudgeonly old physician who was not so secretly writing about the Cape experience, trying to capture it in print. There were storms in it, and fogs, and stooping hawks, and darting sand pipers, and he ended up capturing it as well as anybody, but it was all shadowplay in the end. Nobody has ever completely captured the experience of living on the Cape, although many have tried.

Perhaps nobody can, and our book today doesn’t propose to. It’s goal is far more humble: it wants only to tell us all about the nature that still remains in the area when the book was last updated, in 1978. Fortunately, the areas in question are peripheries, containing neither ‘apex’ predators nor what loathesome analysts refer to as ‘exploitable bio-resources.’ So the wildlife is both a miniaturist’s dream come true and largely unchanged from that day to this.

In short, there are still jellyfish, still hawks and foraging raccoons, still unpalatable saltwort, and still darting sand-pipers. Only dedicated fishermen would be able to testify to near-catastrophic stock depletions; the rest of us get to pretend nothing’s changed in thirty years.

Miss Lubell’s profuse illustrations are charming, and so is Sterling’s steadfast, kindly attention to every living thing she encounters. There’s a great deal of information in this charming book, but it’s couched always in graceful, lightly playful prose. Here’s our author describing the lowly Sanderling, that signature shorebird:

“Seldom alone as they trot across the sand, they walk and run, wheel and fly in unison, like the members of a well-trained ballet corps. Hunting from dawn until sunset, the Sanderlings take catnaps on the beach during the day. Some squat on the damp sand while others balance on one leg, swinging around like weather vanes as the wind blows.”

Or this, on baby crabs:

“Although all marine young are odd-looking, the oddest are probably the crabs. Bright-eyed, long-tailed, with curved spikes growing from their heads, they resemble miniatures of the men from Mars in the pages of science fiction. The young crabs reach adult size in a year or a little longer. Some live to be two years old, but only a few reach the ripe old age of three.”

It’s true, “The Outer Lands” is not technically a perfect book, seeing as how it includes in its scope not just the Elysium of the Cape and the islands but also Long Island, which, as every intelligent Bostonian will tell you, is littered with dead gulls and used crack needles. But readers can simply skip those pages, like they would step gingerly over a mob-hit washed up on Coney Island, bearing in mind that New Yorkers really deserve our pity more than our contempt.

“The Outer Lands” is out of print and shouldn’t be, but for those of you planning a trip to the Cape - or only dreaming of it - the search for it will well be worth the time.


beepy said...

Oh, you're just attracted to that starfish on the cover.

Beepy said...

Ok, I've started my blog. Let me know what you think. And please, please, please comment with what you're reading and what you think about it, as well as what I've posted.

steve said...

I was kind of hoping for everybody's memories of the Cape here, people - AND lists of personal 'perfect' places! Chop chop!

Sam said...

Ah, the Cape! (And the Vineyard, too, but that's too much material for one comment.) What wonderful about the Cape is that it's size has allowed it to adapt fairly gracefully to development. You can still take endless walks on utterly empty beaches and see frolicking seals at sundown. You can still bicycle for a full day without much traffic on the incredible path that runs from the mainland to Provincetown, wending around cranberry bogs and ponds and herring runs and along the bayshore to the dunes of Welfleet and Truro. You can still descend into the estuarine salt ponds in Orleans to see shore and songbirds.

And then when you want human company you can play minigolf at Pirate's Cove in Yarmouth, or go go-cart racing in Harwichport, or t-shirt shopping (and chowder hunting) in Chatham. Martha's Vineyard has become, in ways, stressful in the summer months because its so ludicrously over-touristed, but never so with Cape Cod.

Steve, your descriptions evoke the place vividly, and the only thing you left out of your activities--probably because you thought they were implied--are the words "cruising" and "Provincetown."

(One of my favorite things about "The Outer Lands" is that it identifies all the varieties of seaweed. Also shells.)

Sam said...

Good news, Beepy--I'm a'headin there right now!

brian said...


How does one find your blog?

Beepy said...

Brian - it is

or you can click on my name.

steve said...

Ah, Provincetown! Where Sam and I first met! The good old Bronze Cellar - I wonder if vice has closed that place down yet?