Cape Cod – The Land – Pt. 1

It  had its Age of Romance in a half-century best placed, perhaps, in the years between 1790 and 1840. Then certainly the picture of it was charming: a picture unblemished by the paper-box architecture of a later period, or the alien hotels, the villas, bungalows, and portable-houses of today. Then roads, with no necessity laid upon them to be the servants of speed, were honest native sand, and, gleaming like yellow ribbons across hills and meadows, linked farm to farm and went trailing on to the next township where houses nestled behind their lilacs in a sheltered hollow, or stood four-square on the village street. As if by instinct, the early settlers from Saugus and Scituate and Plymouth, accustomed as their youth had been to the harmonies of Old England, hit upon a style of building best suited to the genius of the country. And if, consciously, they only planned for comfort and used the materials at hand, the result, inevitably, bears the test of fitness to environment. Their low slant-roof wooden houses were set with backs to the north wind and a singularly wide-awake aspect to the south. The watershed of the roof sometimes ran with an equal slope to the eaves of the ground floor; but as frequently, yielding barely room for pantry and storeroom at the north, it lifted in front to a second story. And in either case the “upper chambers,” with irregular ceilings and windows looking to the sunrise and sunset, were packed tautly into the apex of the roof. Ornament centred in the front door – a symbol, one might think, of the determination to preserve, in the enforced privations of pioneer life, the gentle ceremonials of their past; and however small or remote, there is not such a house to be re-called that does not thus offer its dignified best for the occasions of hospitality. The doors are often beautiful in themselves: their panels of true proportions framed in delicately moulded pilasters with a line of glazing to light the tiny hall; frequently a pediment above protects the whole from the dripping of eaves. And before paint was used to mask the wood, the whole structure, played upon by sun and storm, wore to a tone of silver-gray that made a house as familiar to the soil as a lichen-covered rock. The square Georgian mansions came later, with the prosperity of reviving trade after the Revolution. They were built to a smaller scale than those of Newburyport or Salem, or Portsmouth; and the Cape Cod aristocrat seems to have been content with two stories to live in and a vast garret above to store superfluous treasure. There was not a jarring note in the scene; and the old houses, set in neighborly fashion on the village street or approached by a winding cart-track “across the fields,” with garden and orchard merging into pasture, suit to perfection the gentle undulating configuration of the land, which is never level, but swells into uplands that recall the memory of Scotch moors or some denuded English “Forest,” and sinks away into meadow, or marsh, or hollows overflowing with the warm perfumes of blossomy growth.

And everywhere there is color: in hill and lowland, in circles of swampy bush, in salt creek and dune. Even the motorist, projected through the country with a slip, a flash, a change too swift for the eye to note its intimate charm, is caught by the cheerfulness of green and blue and dazzling white, and more blue, the blue of salt water, clasping all. One may concede at once that it is a country adapted to the pleasure of summer folk, if they be not set upon taking their pleasure too seriously where there are neither mountains to climb nor big game to hunt, and the soft air does not invite to endeavor. But the wind sweeps clean from ocean to bay and picks up in passing resinous scents of the pine; sands reflect magic lights of rose and pearl; the townships to the north, as Robert Cushman reported of Plymouth, are “full of dales and meadow ground as England is”; and the long sweep of the outer shore, south, east, and north, is extraordinarily varied and broken; deep inlets cool the air of the warmest months, islands that yesterday were not and to-morrow may be destroyed by the tides interlace the coast with shallow lagoons where children sail their boats, bluffs carry the eye out to the clear distances of the ocean, and there are harbors where, on a misty day, buildings loom like “tower’d Camelot. Tides rise and fall in the salt rivers that wander through marshlands to give changing beauty to the scene; lakes tempt the fisherman; and for more ambitious sport one may put to sea and return at night, whether lucky or not, with the fine philosophy engendered by a ravenous appetite and the sure prospect of excellent food to stay it.

But perhaps the ultimate charm of the Cape is that, like a child, it is small enough to be loved. For the native-born, returning here in middle age, there is the delight of coming back to little things that memory had held as stupendous: a dim foreign township that used to be reached in a day’s journey with “carry-all and pair” is only five miles distant by the Lower Road; the Great Square proves to be within the swing of an hour’s stroll; the “cap’n’s” a modest mid-Victorian mansion with library and drawing-room that had the remembered vista of Versailles. Yet, in their degree, this charm is free; to the stranger. The Cape has a whimsical and endearing smallness: its greatest amplitude can boast but a few miles; and the most tortuous wood road that promised a day’s excursion through an uncharted wilderness will soon show you, from some gentle eminence, the true north to be reckoned by the curve of the bay.

It is such a jaunt inland to the woods that should invite the traveller, in any season, to forsake his motor-car for a sober “horse and team” as the better equipment to circumvent obstacles of unbridged stream or fallen tree. If even as he threads the crowded village street he can occupy his imagination with the leisurely past that matches the rate of his progress, his pleasure will be the greater; and the effort prove not too difficult when, as of old, poplar and willows shade the road and elms droop impartially over gray homesteads and the passer-by, or behind decent screens of shrub and hedge houses blink with a modest air of being sufficient for all desirable comfort. Farther afield wayside tangles of wild rose and cherry, and scented racemes of the locust-tree, in their season, make the air sweet; or in a later month, bright companies of orange lilies are drawn up at attention by the rail fence that has worn to a beautiful silvery hue, and Joe Pyeweed nods at thoroughwort in the swamp. Fields of warm-“toned grass roll down to the blur of willows in a meadow; in pastures intersected by crumbling stone walls stalwart purple and white blooms rout the fading mists of succory. And there on the outskirts of the village, hills are dressed in homespun woven of sparse grasses and crisp gray moss buttoned down with clumps of bayberry and juniper, adorned in summer by the filmy lace of the indigo-plant, and in autumn with a lovely cloak of dwarf goldenrod and asters.

Far to the north, now, lies the silver shield of the bay; inland, beyond the hills, deep-set in wooded banks is a glint of blue water, and near at hand a farm guarded by the spear of a pine that tops the roof twice over. The road dips sharply to a brook that bubbles along with a force that once turned mill wheels, and rises again in a graceful curve to a hill where stands a weather-beaten house as if a-tiptoe to survey in the meadows of the farther view the secret beauties of a lake. A few miles more, and there, among the wooded uplands that make the watershed between sea and bay, lies a network of interlacing roads: “blind roads” where scrub oaks and pines lash the traveller and the horse proceeds with a careful foot among the springes of a vigorous younger growth; narrow tracks that lead to the cul-de-sac of a cranberry swamp or a woodlot where the axe has been busy with its work of denudation; or long arched aisles of green, with here a little bay a-dance with ferns washing out into the woodland, and there a vista of hills opening through mullioned windows built by the straight trunks of the pines. And here are the great ponds with bold sandy bluffs and curves that cheat us into believing them larger than they are. They are pictures of security as their waves sparkle in the sun and break idly on the miniature beaches, but quick squalls may come cutting down from the hills to lash them into a sudden ugly fury that bodes ill for any stray craft plying these waters, where, even today, there is never traffic sufficient to disturb the pleasing atmosphere of solitude. On a wooded shore there may be a shooting-lodge or a bungalow, a pier with a few boats bobbing at anchor on one lake or another; but for the most part they seem. more remote from man than when Indians followed the forest trails and beached their canoes under a shelving bank.