Monday, September 07, 2009

the Cape at summer's end

Travelers in Venice have been known to comment that the fragile, surrounding wonder of the place makes them feel like they're walking around inside a dream. The northeastern shore of America has a place that elicits the exact same feeling - a place William Sargent succinctly describes at the beginning of his book Shallow Waters:

On the East Coast of North America the flexed arm of New England juts far out into the open Atlantic Ocean. This is Cape Cod, famous for its beaches, its history, its seafaring way of life.

Despite the impression given by the crushing crowds of summer tourists, most Americans (to say nothing of most people on Earth) never get to see Cape Cod, and most of those who do visit (usually in the canned, overpriced chunk of Hell known as the week-long family vacation) never really get to know the place. Cape people are protective about their hugely-visited twist of land, so they'd probably have it no other way - but the place itself is yielding of its marvels, to the patient, to the observant, and to the lucky.

I've been lucky with the Cape: I've known it for years and years, from Sandwich to Orleans, from Falmouth to Truro, from the inlets of Buzzards Bay to the sedate streets of Harwich, and from the Great Beach to Provincetown. I've known it in all seasons, in all weathers, in all frames of mind, and - greatest luck of all - in some of the best company. I've prowled its used bookstores, stalked its tidal pools, sailed its coastlines, napped in some of its pretty little houses, rowed its marshes, and drank in its sunsets, and yet every time I've ever spent any time there, I've encountered as many new things as known things, because nobody can ever completely know Cape Cod. That's another part of its endless charm.

Those used bookstores are, naturally, jam-packed with books about the Cape - a year of Stevereads entries would only scratch the surface of that cottage industry - and it's this time of year that, wherever I am, I start taking them down from the shelf and re-reading them. Because there's a secret to the Cape that those thundering hordes of summer tourists don't know: the place is at its most glorious in the fortnight after Labor Day.

All its seasons have their splendors, of course: summer is gloriously sybaritic, spring is a patchwork of subtlety, winter (my own personal favorite) is full of sharp beauty ... but it's this time of year, the last lingering days of summer, that most accentuates the magic of the Cape. The crowds have mostly gone, and the natural world of the Cape briefly reasserts itself before the cramp of winter shuts things down. The days are still warm and bright, but the evenings have that first sweet foretaste of bite in them.

Almost all Cape Cod books tacitly acknowledge the fact that you have to know all the seasons to really appreciate the place; almost all of them dutifully take in all four seasons as they spin their stories and anecdotes. Probably the single best-known Cape Cod book is Henry Beston's The Outermost House, but I have three others in mind today, starting with the aforementioned William Sargent's fact-filled love letter to Pleasant Bay (which I once got to know quite well while based in a cozy little house full of nautical nick-knacks in Orleans), where he spent an endless stream of summers and blustery autumns. Sargent's book is the most scientific of our trio today, full of pleasantly-presented facts and figures about the Bay's natural world that our author knew so well. He straps on wetsuit and gear and glides in amongst it, often with fascinating results:

Stopping to rest on a sandspit that juts into the main channel, I stir up sediments to attract minnows out of the green depths. Now I am surrounded by a cloud of silversides and confronted by a friendly puffer fish (Spaeroides maculatus). As I reach out to scratch his belly, which will make him puff up and rise to the surface, I start to laugh at the ludicrous sight.

Suddenly, I have the distinct feeling that my foolish antics are being watched. I look up. Only inches from my faceplate is the snaggle-toothed grin of a shark. Granted, it is only a three-foot dogfish, but I beat a hasty retreat back to the shallow eelgrass beds.

Sargent's book was published in 1981. Twenty years earlier, that Cape Cod institution John Hay (whose books are all well worth hunting down at your local library) wrote his own year-long account of life on the Cape, Nature's Year, and although it's got a few too many windy-philosophizing sections for my tastes (as does The Outermost House, come to think of it), it's also got lots of careful, loving detail:

The U.S. Wildlife Refuge at Monomoy is on a long spit of barrier beach and marsh extending south from the town of Chatham ten miles into Nantucket Sound. It is wild, unadorned with tourist cabins, and so an undisturbed refuge and resting place for migratory birds. At first you find warblers, gnat-catchers, orioles, vireos, and other land birds, working silently through low oaks, pines, and stunted, salt-sprayed shrubbery. Then the marshland sweeps ahead with open ground, and curving inlets behind a long beach where the surf pounds endlessly, the sands inlaid with the debris of the sea - whelks, surf clams, or scallops.

But the single best book on Cape Cod was written before Hay. Readers of The Atlantic Monthly i the 1940s were regularly treated to colloquial, winsomely inviting essays written by Wyman Richardson about his cozy little Farm House on Nauset Marsh and the homely adventures he and his kith and kin had there over the course of many seasons. In 1947 those essays were collected into a book called The House at Nauset Marsh, and that book, too, is eminently worth your time to search out, especially if you yourself have never been lucky enough to get to know the Cape. It perfectly captures the tone and feel of a more hands-on less developed Cape that's now almost entirely faded under the pressure of modernization, and the spell it casts starts on the first page:

You can got to Eastham, on outer Cape Cod, and live in the little old Farm House at the drop of a hat. The pump, the kerosene lamps, and the open fire are always ready without fear of frost or storm. You can drive up the land, stop the car by the kitchen door, and unload your gear. You can look out the south windows over the nearby grassy hills, over the bright blue waters of Nauset Marsh to the darker blue glimpses of the sea beyond the dunes, and draw a deep breath.

Through natural history observations, family outings and mishaps, and even a little philosophizing (but always done with a refreshingly flinty Yankee sensibility), The House at Nauset Marsh draws you in and encourages you to take many of those deep breaths. Reading this book is the closest you can come to imbibing the salt-air relaxation of Cape Cod without actually being there. In fact, so deeply does the book work on you that its tired, happy ending will make you homesick for a place you've never been:

First one person and then another yawns, stretches, and departs for bed, until at last only the Old Man himself is left. Finally even he gets up from his chair, takes his last weather observation, checks up on the kitchen stove, and puts out the lamps. Being the last to go, he can enjoy the luxury of leisurely undressing before the warmth of the dying fire. By slowly turning around and around, he thoroughly toasts himself. At last, however, he can procrastinate no longer. He puts up the fire screens, dashes rapidly into his bedroom, and takes the desperate plunge between the ice-cold sheets.

Through the open living-room door, he can see the dancing lights and shadows and hear quiet sounds as the fire burns down. From the pantry comes a barely audible scratching, indicating that the pantry mouse is busily engaged in finding himself some supper. Outside, there is a slight rustling as the breeze stirs the cedars, while the sudden barking of a dog suggests that Mr. Fox is bothering someone's chickens.

Rest now, little Farm House. Your flock is safely in bed and sound asleep. Thank you for the wonderfully good times you have given us.

Good night.
The nights are already arriving earlier, and soon the Cape will be almost empty of tourists. The waves will pound a little harder on the shores of Nauset Beach, and the humble creatures of Quanset Pond will dig deep into earth or lair and sleep the worst of the winter away, hoping for spring. I've walked the beaches around Provincetown and Longnook Beach and Megansett Harbor in the cold pit of winter, dogs going before and after me, the rime of salt ice on my face, and I've loved it. But still, there's a magic to this time right here - the Cape at summer's end - that no other season quite affords. A part of my heart goes there these days, no matter where I happen to be - and good books like these help with the rest.


Sam said...

Yikes, what a beautiful post! I too am a devotee of Cape Cod literature, and I'm thrilled to learn about the Sargent book.
I think 'Nature's Year' is not Hay's best (even the best naturalists have a tendency to start carping about such things as motorized automobiles and electric lights, and that happens a lot here). I suggest his splendid book 'The Run', about the herring run in Brewster. The tight focus concentrates his philosophizing; it's one of my favorite nature monographs.

I'll be up there soon, in an unwinterized house--it may be cold!

steve said...

Well, I grant you that "The Run" is a wonderful book, but come on! ALL of Hay's books have a tendency to wander into drippy sentimentality! It's one of the signature dangers of Cape Cod literature!

Still, if you want some company in that unwinterized house, you know where to find me!

Anonymous said...

Would love to read your take on Henry Thoreau's Cape Cod, it being perhaps the first book to celebrate the Cape merely for being.

By the way, yours is absolutely the best blog I've ever come across. No exceptions. The energy and vividness of your prose, its force of personality and head-over-heels gleefulness, and its uncanny fluency over such a wide range of subjects, leave me wondering how it is that you're not better known.

My compliments to you.

Sam said...

I can't resist reporting, ere this post vanishes into the 'Older Posts' limbo, that I just read a new Cape Cod book that has jumped to the top of my list: Where Land Meets Sea, by Clare Leighton. The prose is beautiful and impassioned (it has an outsider's heightened awareness--Leighton is a Brit) and the book has the author's gorgeous woodcuts as well. A must buy if you ever spot it.