Cape Cod – The Environment Of The Sea

THAT distinguished New England preacher, Horace Bushnell, once made a sermon, or wrote an essay, on the moral uses of the sea. The wisdom of men, he thought, would not have covered three fourths of the sphere with water, but would have made leviathan give way to the reapers, on a good round ball of meadow and ploughland. But, saying nothing of moderated climate and needed rain, he thought there were larger and wider needs for the sea. Brotherhood and enlightennent may grow out of trade, and exchange of ideas and goods is easy between Boston and Singapore, but difficult between Timbuctoo and Samarkand.

Moreover, the medieval shackles of the old world would gradually have lapped over into the new, if there had been no Atlantic Ocean, and there would have been no reserved continent on which man could try a fresh experiment in institutions. One looks for stagnation in the heart of the Alps or in the Kentucky mountains, but “the shores and islands of the world have felt the pulse of human society and yielded themselves to progress.”

No easy problems are these, and there is no thought of dragging the Old Colony deep into earth philosophy. Most of the Pilgrims had been farmers and artisans and many of them found themselves, or at least their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, digging clams, catching and drying fish and sailing vessels.

How deep the change went, or whether it struck really below the surface of their lives, may be a question. It is safe enough, we may be pretty sure, to bury the notion that the shores and storms and hills and boulders of New England made them into another kind of people from the company that sailed out of Delft Haven. Probably the Pilgrims changed New England more than New England changed the Pilgrims. The Mayflower Englishman was old in his heredity of character when he came to Plymouth Rock, and he has not changed so much in his three hundred years on this side of the Atlantic. The setting of his day’s work and of his season’s toil, is quite different from Scrooby and Austerfield, and he has shifted from the occupations of his fathers, throwing off meanwhile some of the austerities of Puritanism, as have his May-flower cousins in New York and Ohio.

All this is not to toss overboard our faith in what environment does to us, it is only announcing at the outset that surroundings are not everything, and whatever their deepest influences may be, they require a long time to exert them. The first of the Old Colony folk had been subject to other sorts of environment for millenniums, but what had happened to them thereby we cannot trace. We know what they were in 162o, and what kind of a land they came to. That new land made over their outer ways and in some fashion no doubt bore in on their thought and inner life.

We may remember that the motherland of the Pilgrims is little in square mlies, but big in coastline, that Britain has a place in the world out of all ratio to her size. If we remember that nobody in Great Britain lives more than two or three hours from the sea, perhaps we shall know why the Old Colony is so small and yet so large in America. When Tennyson wrote,

Broad based on her people’s will And compassed by the inviolate sea,

he brought a fact and not an argument. But it would be easy to make the argument, and to read the logic between the lines.

The compact drawn in Provincetown Harbor sounds like the work of democrats and freemen. If the men were such, and if their environment had somewhat tended to make them such, it was the insular environment of centuries that had been doing it. The east winds and the toil on Plymouth shore did not beat it into them in a day.

We have no idea of setting up a title to this last chapter on the Old Colony, and running away from it, as if the neighborhood of the sea had meant nothing from 1620 to 1920. It has meant much, and if we would comprehend how much, we might ask what the Pilgrims might have become or have failed to become, if they had not stopped on the shores. Suppose they had gone far inland. We might possibly read their history in the story of equally free and strong men who moved along the Great Valley of the South, and spread out into the secluded uplands of the Appalachians to fossilize for generations.

The Pilgrims did not settle on an island, but it might almost as well have been. On the Cape they could go but a few miles from the sea—rarely did they plant their houses a mile from the strand. In Plymouth and Kingston and Duxbury they lived upon the shore and back of them was a wilderness which only stern necessity made them enter. Their lives fronted the main.

They found the soils none too extended or good, and the factory era in New England was scores of years in the unseen and undreamed future. They were forced upon the sea. Perhaps there was more democracy in this, and certainly there was outlook on the world of the seventeenth century, a world whose magnitude had then but dawned on the race. They were a part of the outgoing into that world from that most effective of colonizing nations, whose sons to-day make nothing of ploughing or fighting at the antipodes.

One of the keenest English students of earth science thinks fishing is a training in democracy, “based on the equality of man and man in the jointly-owned boat, and the equality of man and woman in the common home from which the fisherman is absent so often and ,so long that dual control must be evolved.”‘ Lyde thinks constitutional government has everywhere grown out of the domestic organization of a fishing race, whose members are brave and enduring, lovers of freedom and space, individualistic and conservative. Else-where this writer characterizes the sea as the great nursery of democracy.

If half of this could be proven true, the Pilgrims, responding to the inviting waters that washed their shores, came under an influence that strengthened the independence and rooted the principles which they brought across the sea with them. Moreover, a writer who knew New England as well as Lyde knows old England, comments on the degeneracy or half-savagery that is likely to go with the fur trade, while fishing “made the hardy fisherman and bold sailor of the New England coast. The fur trader debauched the Indians, profiting by a toil not his own. The fisherman, industrious and capable, more or less interested in his ventures, controlled the seas from the foothold in his boat, and mastered individual freedom on the land.”

The Pilgrims might elsewhere have found a lean and sandy soil, but there was another influence, or condition, of greater power—the Old Colony climate—and that was mainly ordered by the sea. While there is some sign that they felt its greater rigor as compared with England, nevertheless they thought it remarkably similar in its temperatures to the land from which they had come.

In Good News from New England, included in Winslow’s Relation, the writer gives an ac-count of the climate which we would not cut short. “Then for the temperature of the air, in almost three years experience I can scarce distinguish New England from old England, in respect of heat and cold, frost, snow, winds, etc. Some object, because our plantation lieth in the latitude of 42°, it must needs be much hotter. I confess I cannot give the reason of the contrary; only experience teacheth us, that if it do exceed England, it is so little as must require better judgments to discern it. And for the winter, I rather think (if there be difference) it is both sharper and longer in New England than Old; and yet the want of those comforts in the one which I have enjoyed in the other, may deceive my judgment also. But in my best observations, comparing our own condition with the Relations of other parts of America, I cannot conceive of any to agree better with the constitution of the English, not being oppressed with extremity of heat, nor nipped by biting cold ; by which means, blessed by God, we enjoy our health notwithstanding those difficulties we have undergone.”

There is much to admire in this story—it has in quaint phrase a scientific temper quite worthy of the present age. There is no attempt to explain what was to the writer inexplicable, not knowing the influence of the Atlantic drift and the westerly winds on the more northerly parts of Europe. Then too the oceanic character of the climate is brought out, that is, its evenness and mild temperatures, though the cause is not recognized; and finally there is full allowance made for the possible bias of personal impressions.

The winter of the settlement is thought to have been mild, with little snow, otherwise the little community might not have buried their dead as they did on Cole’s Hill, or have carried on so effectively the building of their cabins. Great storms would come, though not perhaps in their lifetime, a winter uproar, as in 1815, around the Buzzards Bay shores, when salt houses were destroyed, trees killed by salt overflow into fresh swamps, springs and wells made salt where not directly reached by the flood, and the tide eight feet above the common levels; or like the storm a century earlier when the Indians dug a tunnel through the snow in Eastham that they might carry the body of their beloved pastor, the Reverend Samuel Treat, to its rest.

But commonly nature does not put on her sternest moods on the Cape, save at the sea border, where every winter’s winds and waves lash the shore—and raw and biting blasts la-den with sand sweep across the open fields, and from earliest times have taught the Cape dweller to build his house low, planted in a hollow or behind a forest, with his apple trees and gardens.

The climate is oceanic, and much is compressed into that rather scientific word—refreshing summers, and moderate cold in winter. The Wellfleet oysterman, truly, no doubt, told Thoreau that no ice ever formed on the back of the Cape, or not more than once in a century, and but little snow lay there.

The greatest thickness of ice on the ponds back of Provincetown is about nine inches, and in some winters there is no ice harvest at all. There were eight inches on a small pond below Mashpee Lake in the winter just passed, but in the previous winter, which was cold every-where in our northern states, the Cape was not overlooked, for there were twenty-four inches of ice on Mashpee Lake, and automobiles freely roamed upon its surface.

Nor must it be supposed that summer heat never oppresses. Even Provincetown, if it must be said, is sometimes hot, behind its ram-part of dunes. The historian, Dr. Freeman, says of the favored position of some old salt vats, “the sand hills under which they stood reflected on the vats a strong heat.” In a land which men love, the climate is almost always called “favorable to longevity,” and Freeman bears it out, to a degree at least, by asserting, for about the year 1800, that Chat-ham, with 1351 inhabitants, was so healthful as not to justify the settlement there of a physician. This devoted son of the Cape sums up his loyal admiration thus—” The Cape is and was so intended by the Allwise to be a good land, surrounded by goodly seas, blessed with an invigorating and inspiring atmosphere, sup-plying all needful comforts to its possessors.”

Standing up seven or eight feet above the ground of a small triangular park in Falmouth village is a glacial boulder. It is surmounted by an anchor lying about eight feet along the top of the rock. On the face of the stone is a bronze tablet, showing in low relief a sailing ship. On the border is a knotted rope, with a starfish at each corner, and under the ship is this inscription —-

Dedicated by the citizens and Public school children of Falmouth In loving memory of her Seamen

Here is the homage of a new century to daring ancestors and a romantic past. Yesterday the Cape belonged to the sea—does it belong today to the land? Has the Cape Codder, ceasing his far wanderings, set his face to the land? Having shaped the life of the Pilgrim and turned him into a fisherman, a whaler, or a master of world trade, has the sea lost its grip on the present sons of the Cape and left them land grubbers, devoid of distances?

Hardly is the land thus degenerate. If one looks up, and one cannot help looking up, the same water is there, yet never the same, coming from somewhere, moving some whither; the same colors, but never the same—blues, greens, purples, grays and what not, putting to shame anybody who cannot analyze a rainbow. The horizon is shut away in mist, or it rims the view as sharp and far away as it was in any clear day in the year 162o.

Here is the same beach, yet remodeled by every tide and revolutionized by every storm. You see the same cliffs, yet moved a little in-land, scarred and gullied in a slightly different pattern, undermined and collapsing now here, now there . Something of the moving picture is this Cape—beacon fires, refuge huts, and meeting-house steering have passed away, but lighthouses, the life savers’ well-built houses, and Scargo Hill and Manomet arouse the same thoughts of the sea and its toilers, of the ships and their dangers, of the waves and their escaping prey.

Not many structures are so alluring as a wharf. The laden fishing boat in Bergen, Great Grimsby, Plymouth or Provincetown, will call a crowd, and a good haul from the lobster traps awakens other than housewives and hotel chefs. It is the sea and a harvest gotten out of it that appeals—the benevolence and happy chance of it, as well as the toil and daring of it. Of course the devotee of brook trout and deer and forest trails will have his ardent say, and the sea lover is too sure of his shore and his ocean to care.

Common things get a new glory when they are mixed with the sea. The boat heading for New York, whether seen as of yore in the twilight outside the Cape, with all lights on, or more dimly from the Plymouth shore out in the Bay, aiming at the Canal, has more fascination than the equally brilliant, swifter moving New York train. The coal barges make one think of Pennsylvania mines, of the wharves of Philadelphia and Newport News, of the cotton mills of Salem, the shoes of Brockton and Lynn and the shops of Boston, but it is more than an everyday bit of trade and stern toil, it is the world’s interchange, the cosmic highway and the life of man.

This is the fascination of Mr. Lincoln’s homely heroes of Cape Cod. Rough they may look, plainly and profanely they may speak, but they are no longer common persons, they impersonate struggle, daring and achievement, they have gone down to the sea in ships, they have done business in great waters, they see far beyond the doors and dooryards of their low shingled cottages and you see with them. The toothless grandson of Johnny Trout, spending the peaceful holiday of his old age, sparkles with the vitality of the ocean and pours out upon you the remembered lore of Batavia and Melbourne. So it must ever be on the Cape, for here the voyagers of the sea have come to land and here the toilers of the land come down to the shore to breathe, and to look out widely.

The dweller on Old Colony shores can hardly have escaped being a lover of the sea. It is born with him, lives with him, and is handed on to his children. What this does for him can not so well be defined as dreamed of, for so it is with all love. We are quite aware that no less a person than Henry Van Dyke tosses all this aside. “The sea is too big for loving and too uncertain.” Indeed some ambitious per-sons have loved the sea, deluded people who have not discovered that it is a formless and disquieting passion—to devote one’s self to a “salt abstraction.” It is like loving a nation’s type of woman, Van Dyke thinks—better one of them. Hence, we suppose, one might turn to little rivers. But little rivers may dry away, or plunge underground. Rivers are temporary things in a continent’s unfolding, often made up of scraps, pirated by other rivers, mutilated by engineers, fouled with man’s refuse, persecuting one with mosquitoes, tearing the flesh with briers, and bruising the feet with stones.

One might say that God too is great, and inscrutable, for one would not like to call Him uncertain. Would the distinguished clergy-man think God too great to be loved? The soul if capacious enough may love what is great. And it hinges on what one means by loving. The Pilgrim lived, and his offspring live, by the sea. If they love it, does it mean to be drawn toward it, inspired by it, to be awed by its mystery, thrilled by its vastness, to have imagination roused by its depths, its spaces, its plenitude of life, mother of all life? Does it signify reveling in its infinitude of changing colors, to join with every breaking roller on its shore in our short sojourn by it—the waves that have not rested in eons, yet tidal to the predictable moment of rise and fall and least of all “uncertain ” ?

We watch it destroying lands, rebuilding continents, engulfing the works of man, and man himself—terrible, is it, rather than alluring—well, on the whole reckoning, the ocean, remorseless as it seems to be, has been friendly to humankind. It depends on the size of your loving, whether you want the distant view, and not a foreground, a trout instead of a cod, a swordfish rather than a leviathan.

So leaving all to love their river, their mountain, their lake, their forest, or their ocean, as they will, the Cape man seems to line up with that elder New England prophet, who, broad beyond his time, wrote, ” It is of the greatest consequence, too, that such a being as God should have images prepared to express him, and set him before the mind of man. . . . These he has provided in the heavens and the sea, which are the two great images of his vastness and his power.”

Dark-heaving, boundless, endless, and sublime. I gaze—and am changed at the sight.

It is easy enough to say that if one brings his idealism with him he will be inspired by the sea. But the sea like other things might be staled by custom to him that lives by it. A man might, as some are said to do, get all his firewood from the beach, and never wonder where the battered log grew, who sawed and spiked the plank, what ship lost the new lumber in the rolling of the storm, or who uncorked the empty bottle.

When wrecks off the shore were more frequent than they are now, moon cursing—(Cape Cod—moon cussing) was more common than it is to-day. Yet to-day, if you drag up a plank beyond the grasp of the wave and put your name on it, he is no proper son of the Cape who would not respect your ownership, and leave the piece until you found it convenient to bear it up the cliff. The “mooning” follows the traditions of that old-world and old-time period of piratical crews who used to decoy vessels on the rocks by false lights and cursed the moon when she disturbed their diabolical work. Laws and humanity have eliminated the savagery, for the Cape man would rescue rather than ruin, and if the wreckage be above a certain value he must advertise and seek the owner, before he can claim it as his own.

Wreckage is not so common as it used to be, in these days of steamships, yet a man, hardly now in middle life, recalls salvaging fifteen thousand feet of lumber which he hauled up the outer cliff with ropes and tackle. A couple of hundred feet of heavy hawser was another ocean gift of no mean value, and our friend’s father recovered a valuable tiger skin, racing to it with a Provincetown deacon, who, tradition allows, was very angry. Brussels carpets and cases of champagne have been drawn sometimes from this titanic grab bag. Was Cape Cod a bad place for morals, we ventured to inquire, “No, but when they go moon cussing look out ! ! ” All of which seems to mean that here human nature varies in its expression by force of circumstances, but its substance is as everywhere. Some think Cape people are especially “thrifty.” So to judge is not to display a wide acquaintance with villagers and countrymen, live they where they may.

The seaward compulsion of the Cape did not escape the acute mind of Timothy Dwight, who did not fail to see why the houses were built in valleys, and defended by forests. The children of Provincetown played as familiarly in the water as other children frolic in the streets, and little boys managed boats with skill. Every employment seemed connected with the sea. And the moral influence of it was peculiarly in Dwight’s province. There was the broadening influence of the sea, of sailing the ships and receiving strangers, for “while most of their countrymen have been chained to a small spot of earth, they have traversed the ocean.” Perhaps he would have agreed with a later writer that distances en-franchise, while altitudes enslave.

How many would live on the Cape or go to the Cape, if it were so much land and just such land, in an interior situation? A little farming, a little fresh-water fishing, a little hunting, no water power, no mineral wealth, forests for beauty but not for the lumberman-nothing—until we get the view of that visitor who counted the real area as triple the actual surface, reckoning in the adjoining sea, for its manifold production as compared with the fields, and, quoting Fisher Ames, “every cod-fish drawn up has a pistareen in its mouth.”

How much is there on the Cape that is not for the sea, or of the sea, or does not suggest the sea—the monument of Provincetown, memorial of a sea voyage—the lighthouses, the life-saving stations, the wireless towers, the old windmills built because there was little fuel, no water power, and there were winds of the sea—wharves, villages, low houses, kettle-hole gardens, drooping goldenrod, shrinking apple trees, pitch pine carpets on the sand—man and nature all attuned to the majestic overlordship of the sea.

Somewhat has been written of the supposed naive ways of the Cape people. Something like this has perhaps come to be expected by readers who never went nearer the Cape than Scituate or Providence or, perhaps, were never east of the Berkshires. This misconception has grown by what it has fed on for three fourths of a century. Some, at least, of discerning people who have gone up and down the length of Barnstable County for years have never observed that a trainload of Cape natives chatters more vociferously than other trainloads, and have never seen half the train “leaning out of the windows” conversing in shouts with the villagers.

The Brewsters along the railway are not bewilderingly numerous, and no one should count on seeing all Provincetown out to meet the train. These good people do not jostle for the papers as hungry chickens reach for food, nor keep you off the sidewalk, nor behave otherwise than as the average Pilgrim descend-ant, or cultivated New Englander, or Americanized Portuguese should treat his casual neighbor.

If Shaler wrote truly of that “deep and peculiar enlargement” that comes to dwellers by the sea; if Lucy Larcom knew in very truth that one reared by the sea requires a wide horizon for the body and the mind, shall we find the Cape supporting these well-settled notions of the scholar and the story writer? Thoreau, it may be quite safe to think, did not conclude that all the people of the Cape, of Falmouth, Barnstable, Chatham, Orleans and the rest, were as ignorant and provincial as some of the queer characters which he liked to encounter, and did find, in his out-of-the-way itinerary, nor would he, we fancy, subscribe to the conventional admiration of his odd genius, which assumes that he said the last word about the dwellers on this foreland.

Barnstable County folks probably do not need a defender, nor do they perhaps care so much what is written about them. They will proceed with intensive farming, will catch fish, manage hotels, live at leisure on their income, send their children to normal schools and colleges, and do their share of work and thinking in that fine old New England of which they are a part.

Suppose a Cape Codder did visit New York City, and did therefore “have something to talk about to his neighbors all winter.” And suppose he was devoid of ambition and went to his burrow every autumn with a half-barrel of pork, five hundred pounds of salt fish, some potatoes and a few cords of wood; or suppose he is “different” being slow to change; grant all these things—could not one find these types in Maine, or Vermont or the Empire State? Why must we feel compelled to discover on these fascinating shores a people who never existed, whose quaintness could be matched on any other shore and outdone in the recesses of any mountain region.

It is not easy to wean the Old Colony man from his native shores. He may go where he will at the call of duty or opportunity, but the pictures of memory stay with him and he often hears the call to return. And he comes back to rest, to meet the old neighbors, to rebuild the paternal cottage, to refurbish the mansion of his sea-going ancestor, to amuse himself with the cranberry bog, to experiment in modern farming, to roll over the roads that in his boyhood were down in the sand. Perhaps the call is stronger, and he returns to finish his days. It is not the old friends, for many of them are gone—it is not the lakes or forests, for others are as beautiful—it must be the lure of the ocean, the sea blood has never gotten out of his veins.

Let not a belated lover of the Cape, but another, better fitted, say it, “A Cape man finds nowhere else so glorious a home, so full of such sweet memories. The Cape colors him all his life—the roots and fiber of him. He may get beyond, but he never gets over the Cape. He will feel in odd hours, to his life’s end, the creek tide on which he floated inshore as a boy, the hunger of the salt marsh in haying time, the cold splash of the sea spray at the harbor’s mouth, the spring of the boat over the bar, the wind rising inshore, the blast of the wet northeaster. He will remember the yellow dawn of an October morning across his misty moors, and the fog of the chill pond among the pine trees, and above all the blue sea within its headlands, on which go the white-winged ships to that great, far-off world which the boy had heard of and the ‘grown man knows so well.”

We have heard a historian question whether the Plymouth Pilgrims were a great and formative force in American life. But a plain and not unobservant American, if no historian, believes still that it was not so much a matter of numbers or constructive statesmanship in colonial and federal days as of high and pervading sentiment. It was what the Pilgrims were that mattered—how they thought and lived told the story. It is not so important, perhaps, if the men of Boston and the other people on Massachusetts Bay fill more pages in political and military history than the plain men of Plymouth, Sandwich, Barnstable and Provincetown.

When the Mayflower anchored in the outer haven of the Cape, and her tired voyagers waded to shore, and when, after cold and stormy search, they landed on the Plymouth side of the Bay, they fixed the destiny of a continent. They lived and died on the borders of Cape Cod Bay, and thither others came to fill up their shrinking numbers. All these were forerunners of Massachusetts, of Rhode Island and Connecticut, of all New England. In time New England passed into New York, and from New York to Ohio, and Wisconsin. Within the memory of our older men, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Oregon have felt the pulse of the Puritan energy.

In morals and religion, in constitutions and laws, in trade and education, old England laid hold of the outstretched Cape, and thence began its march to the western sea. No other continent entangles itself in the sea with a land just like the Cape. It is long and narrow and crooked; it is of low relief, of frail materials, changeable and poor, exposed to wind and wave—it is land, but land ruled by water, its sands and storms, its herbs and trees, its men and its daily tasks controlled by the sea.