It’s vacation time. For us, vacation means three weeks at a very tiny cottage at Eastham, Cape Cod, which we have been renting for about 40 years now. If you know the peninsula of Cape Cod at all, its distinctive raised-arm shape, Eastham is on the lower, inner part of the forearm, as it were. Our cottage looks out upon the water enclosed by that arm, Cape Cod Bay; if we could see that far across the Bay, we would see Boston. On the other side of the peninsula is the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to Portugal.
The Cape is a remnant of the great glaciers, and it marks the farthest extent of the Ice in southeast New England. It sticks out invitingly into the Atlantic and the Pilgrims, in the Mayflower, landed at its tip briefly in 1620. The Indians were here, of course, fishing, planting, living.
We do very little on our vacation at the Cape. In early morning I sit on our tiny patio and absorb the view. This view, along a short, narrow sandy path lined with low bushes and small trees, leads to a blue triangle of water, Bay water. There are only the three colors: tan, green, blue. Shapes are simple. Sounds are attenuated. Birds come to the feeders I put up. They do not seem to see me sitting there. The sun, rising over the Atlantic on the other side of the Cape, begins to spill its light on the sandy path. The sunlight creeps along the sand toward where I sit with my coffee and my journal.
For years now I have kept a record of the best natural history experience of each of our Cape days. The rule is that each record can be only one sentence long. Here are some from last summer:
Sept. 9 - Bone-white, new-snow white, the slash of gull on sky.
Sept. 5 - Sodden, the chipmunk nevertheless forages for fallen bird seed.
Sept. 15 - I sit at evening, pinioned by a shaft of light. Oh! joy.
Sept. 16 - Remains of the hawk’s meal on our path: rabbit offal glitters with flies.
Sept. 17 – Whales! Whales! Whales at sunrise!
Eastham is the home of the headquarters of the Cape Cod National Seashore, a 40-mile long scribble of Atlantic shoreline set aside in 1961 by Congress, with the political help of the family of then-President John F. Kennedy, which had vacationed on the Cape for many years. Like so many other places which people love and find beautiful, much of the Cape has been heavily developed. But not the National Seashore. We shudder to consider what clam shacks, rental condos, driving ranges, souvenir emporia and t-shirt stands might have made their way along the shoreline.
Once in a great while, I may go into the water. When the tide is fully out, in front of our cottage, there is about a mile of parallel tidal pools to be seen, and there the sun sets in a glorious manner. People come out to watch, at sunset, and if the sunset is especially wonderful, applause can be heard.
Once, some years back, during a very low afternoon tide, I began to walk from the beach to the horizon. The tidal pools get progressively deeper as you go farther out, and there are hermit crabs in them, and schools of tiny fish which scatter at your approach, and once in a while a bigger crab.
This particular time, I just kept going. After about six or seven pool-crossings, I was joined by a young man, perhaps high school age. We just kept going, through the deeper and deeper tidal pools. At length the water was up to our waists—and then we ran out of shallow places. But we kept going—being two of us helped keep fear at bay—and carefully stepped out into water that was up to our shoulders. We looked back. The shore seemed quite distant, but familiar. Suddenly I felt, faintly but distinctly, something slither past my leg. He felt the same, almost simultaneously. A biggish fish, we thought, and turned to go back.
Of course, our little cottage will not be here forever. The gentleman who built the cottages, by hand, in the 1940’s, put them in two small groups about a mile apart. He cleverly arranged them in the low dunes so that although they are close to each other, nobody ever sees another cottage. Naturally, there is a front cottage in each group, the one nearest the water. From the patio of the front cottage in our group, you could toss a rock into the water at very high tide.
Herein lies the problem. The Cape is technically a barrier island, and as such it receives the full brunt of fall hurricanes and Atlantic winter storms. Its shorelines thus are constantly battered and its land—which is glacial till [another interesting word, meaning glacial debris]—is swept along the shores, taken away here, redeposited there. The front cottage in our group eventually could not hold out against this constant shifting, and our landlord had to remove it from its patio; he sold it to someone farther inland.
Our cottage though is the very back one in the group, so we figure by the time it is taken, we will be long gone.
But that’s okay. This Sunday we and our stuff and our cat (caterwauling all the way) will “go down the Cape” as they say here in Massachusetts, and there we will mark the end of Summer 2013.