The Human Nature of Cape Cod

Not_The_CapeReturning home from World War Two, John Hay found himself washed ashore on Cape Cod. He went to work for the local newspaper, wandered the tidal flats, dunes, and forests of the Cape, and wrote. As he did so, he slowly became connected to other creatures, the great weathers, and the natural world. He often said that he also found his way back to himself.

I believe I discovered John Hay while in high school, although it could be I picked up one of his books at the library when I was in middle school. Although I had never been there, I was in the midst of a period of reading about Cape Cod, during which I devoured books by her many naturalists. Having read one of his books, I searched for others; here was something unusual about his writing, something deeply touching, a sense of the world as sacred.

The summer after college graduation I hitchhiked East, where I finally explored the museums and galleries of New York City and Boston, then headed south to Cape Cod, and the fledgling National Seashore. The Cape was other than I expected; I simply had not anticipated the hordes of tourists, impossible traffic, and wall to wall commercialization. Where, I wondered, was the Cape John Hay wrote about?

Much later I read Henry Beston. Beston returned home from service as an ambulance driver in the First World, taught, wrote, and eventually, in 1926, turned a two-week vacation on Cape Cod into a year of living on the beach near Nauset. In his book about Cape Cod, The Outermost House, he wrote, ” The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and the mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.” He built himself a cabin in the dunes, and stayed a year, writing about the life of the natural world and the people of the outer Cape. The cabin was, for a long while, a writer’s retreat run by the National Parks Service; it washed away in a winter storm several years ago.

Still later, I read The Salt House, by Cynthia Huntington, in which the author meets her soon to become husband, and with him, spends a summer in a friend’s cabin on the dunes, and discovers herself as part of the natural world. Published in 2003, the book is a very contemporary view of life on the edges of the Cape. It is all about relationships: those between lovers, between friends, between artists and writers, and between people and the natural world.  Not too far in the background are relationships with other writers who resided on the Cape, and questions about the changing nature of the Cape as this once, not long ago, most marginal of places is forced fully into the Twenty First Century.

Since that first visit to the Cape nearly fifty years ago, I have had the great fortune of several returns. I have learned that John Hay’s Cape is best explored in the off season, and that such explorations require caution as deer ticks, the carriers of Lyme disease, are active even in winter. I have discovered the Cape is at its most elemental in winter storms, especially those that pass over it, bringing the temperature up well above freezing, and lashing the dunes with immense waves. These are the storms that leave feet of snow for the folks back home in Vermont, the ones Beston wrote many pages about. They can, and do, wreck ships, just as they did in Beston’s day, although with modern technology there is much less loss of life.

I have also discovered remnants of the Cape held dear by Hay and Huntington in the woods and ponds, and along the softer world of the inner arm of the Cape. There, even the storms are tempered as the great arc of the peninsula provides a barrier to the fierce wind and waves of the open sea. There one finds a quieter, more subtle beauty.

For many years I taught a college course exploring place. Inevitably, I had students read all three of these authors, and we spend a few weeks thinking about the Cape as place. There is something elemental about the Cape, a rootedness in the natural world first recognized by the Wampanoag, the Indigenous people who lived there before contact and continue to be rooted in land and sea. The cape’s embeddedness in the natural order drew natural history writers, perhaps beginning with Thoreau, who were, and continue to be, fascinated by its wildness. Even now, as East coast sprawl threatens to engulf it, and politicians seek to sell off all national parks, the Cape remains unconquered. May it always be so.

14 thoughts on “The Human Nature of Cape Cod

  1. I love that the Cape is a destination, and not merely a place to stop as you are passing through on your way to somewhere else. My wife and I married at the very tip of the Cape, surrounded by supportive witnesses, all of whom had to travel a distance to get there. Now we love the off-season… fall, Thanksgiving, the lead-up to the holidays. Sometimes it feels we are the only ones around. There is a deeply restorative energy in those dunes.

  2. I love hearing stories about the first 4 years of my life when my family lived on the Marblehead Neck. I marvel at my mother spending childbirthing years potentially cut off from the mainland should storms arise on the causeway. She still keeps 2 brass hurricane lanterns beside the mantle in her California house. I do remember the Audubon sanctuary was a block from our house, too.

    1. Priscilla, for years I had hurricane lamps, as we had frequent power outages. In New Mexico that was our only light source!
      Oddly I had very few stories told about me by my family. I wonder what I was like as a child….
      Marblehead sure has changed!

  3. Very fine post! I will look up the writings of John Hay. People tied to place is an incredible thing. Does it take a lifetime to be tied to place, or like Gauguin or Breston can you find the place you have been looking for? Is being tied to place always a good thing? Take care. Bob

      1. Thank you for introducing me to Beston. I plan on ordering a book online. Take care.

  4. I enjoy reading about place, particurlarly within a sacred sense. Thanks to you The Salt House, and Trace are both on my Amazon wishlist. Have you thought about writing your own book?

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