Cape Cod – The Land – Pt. 2

THERE are riches enough for all who love the land : for those who come to play, and those who come chiefly to refresh their memory of the past; for those of the fine old stock who live here year in and year out on the modest competence inherited from seafaring ancestors; and those who fish, or farm, or engage in the important modern industry of ministering to the “summer people.” The quality of the riches, as in any community, may vary with the individual. But save among a negligible few of the idlers — where there is a sinister strain of vice in a “petered-out” neighborhood, or a foolish and incongruous display among some visitors — there is a recognizable inheritance from the men who settled the land : an atmosphere of simplicity, a sturdy instinct of judging one for what he is rather than for what he has, a predilection for healthy pleasures. It is folk of this kind whom the Cape attracts — plain people, if you will; and it is perhaps significant that potent as the land might be to stimulate the imagination, it is only the beguiling “foreign” atmosphere of Provincetown that has fostered anything like a School.

Cape Cod: a sandbar, one may have the more excuse for judging, as the land lifts to the wind-swept plains of Truro. There is a change in the aspect of the Cape as it turns due north to brace itself against the thunderous approach of the Atlantic. Straight and defiant, it holds its own to the Clay Pounds at Highland Light, the Indians’ Tashmuit, and then, little by little, the ocean pushes it back and folds it over in the graceful curve of the tip at Provincetown. From the frayed edge of Chatham on the south shore –broken as it is into deep bays with outer shoals and beaches that may alter their whole contour in a winter’s storms — and on the north the snug village of Orleans where the by-roads are the prettiest, we enter upon a new country. It may be remarked in passing that Orleans offers something of martial interest to the traveller there: for at Rock Harbor on the bay was fought the famous Battle of Orleans, an engagement of 1812; and at Nauset Harbor, in the Great War, a German submarine, with some idea, apparently, of defeating a tow of empty coal barges, planted a stray shot on the sandbar at its mouth to the considerable alarm of cottagers in the vicinity.

At Nauset Beach we look out over the ocean, and turning, see behind us the Harbor that lies there as if bent upon offering every variety of inlet — bay, lagoon, cove, and salt river threading the marshes — that may be crowded into a small compass of miles. In its progress it all but meets the equally erratic inlets of Chatham, and also the waters of Cape Cod Bay, with the result that any breeze there is from the sea. To the south stretches the Beach, a low- straight wall of sand between Harbor and ocean, moulded by the Atlantic, worried by its storms, yet somehow withstanding the impact, and linking up at the sharp apex of Chatham with the sands of Monomoy that, again, are in line with Nantucket Shoals and the Island. It needs a wary seaman to know the safe entrance to Vineyard Sound. To the north the shore rises steadily to the great bluffs at Highland Light — the Norsemen’s Gleaming Strands, a name best appreciated by the seafarer proceeding, on a fair morning, to the port of Boston, when the hours spent in running by that line of golden cliffs may be the pleasantest of his voyage. And wherever one may penetrate to the coast — unless one has the enter-prise of Thoreau to tramp along shore, he must return to a town and take the next road eastward — there is always a difference in the scene. Perhaps at no point is it more lovely than at Wellfleet, where the bluffs curve gently to a promontory and the surf, touched by a stray shaft of sunlight, breaks into crystal and jade. In and out, they trend away again to the north; and the sea at our feet, forward flow and backward clutch, even on a cold day of spring sounds the whole gamut of blue, light, dark, bewilderingly mingled, out to the intense purple of our farthest reach of vision — literally, the Purple Sea. There is little break in the line of bluffs, but sometimes one of the valleys, that -now begin to cut transversely across the Cape, persists to the coast; and one of the prettiest drives is to Cahoon’s Hollow by way of a typical Cape Cod wood-road, winding up hill and down, with vistas of blue ponds glinting through the trees. The road debouches on dunes, covered with a low, shrubby growth; and everywhere there has been an amazing quantity of the wild cranberry covering acre after acre with its glossy green mat of leaves. The land billows down to the water’s edge, yielding flashing glimpses of blue water long before we reach it, and rises then on either hand into deeply indented cliffs.

The country, as we follow the main road inland once more, swells into rounded hills that seem under bonds to crowd as many of their company as possible into the narrow confines between sea and bay. The deep valleys among them conceal many snug homesteads built there by the First Comers; and the atmosphere is indescribably pure blending, by the winds that always blow, the bracing qualities natural to ocean and upland. It is easy to share the enthusiasm of a physician travelling this way who exclaimed: “It’s the best air in North America.” The hills now merge into high moors that narrow to the Clay Pounds where High-land Light finds a firm foundation. One overlooks both sea and bay and walks poised aloft as on a roof-tree. Thoreau is master there, and has written discursively of flora and birds and humans, and, with the wonder appropriate to an inlander, of the sea. In truth “a man may stand there and put all America behind him.” As for the name, a triangular plot of some ten acres composed of a blue clay cuts transversely through the sand; “pounds” is variously explained as a corruption of ponds or as suggested by the pounding of the surf. The land slopes up from the inner bay to the great shining bluffs that are singularly bold and picturesque, with escarpment and overhang, bastion and turret built by their architect, the sea. Below them on calm days the polished surface of the Atlantic breaks into foam on the ivory beaches.

But in winter there is a different story of savage surf and an ocean that flings up its spume near two hundred feet to the starved grass of the upland. Such clamor is unbelievable in the pearly haze of summer; but even then an infrequent nor’easter may whip the Atlantic into a hungry rage as if to send it leaping over the puny barrier that divides the outer uproar from the gray dogs of the bay that are showing their teeth to the gale.

Provincetown is a story in itself. The village, with its ingredients of old Cape Cod and a large proportion of handsome, gentle-mannered folk from the East Atlantic Islands, is curled comfortably about the edge of its harbor. It has been said that Provincetown has the “privilege of turning to look at itself like a happy child who has donned a long train,” and there is an evening picture of the “circlet of lights with a background of slender spires and hills, a friendly beacon shining over the narrow spit of land at Wood End.” Picturesque and picturesque: one wears the words threadbare picturesque in summer, with the flicker of shadow and sun, sharp-cut, exotic, the brightly dressed folk thronging the streets or hailing one another from the windows above; picturesque, with a difference, in the less exciting atmosphere of winter when the town is comfortably full of its own people busy about their affairs, which more often than not means preparing for the harvest that summer is to bring them. The harbor is a picture at high tide or low, with the boats anchored in the roadstead or moored to the wharves; or the sun slanting across the sandflats where a dory is stranded by the tide, and its master, dark-ringletted, slouch-hatted, a red kerchief knotted at his throat, a red flower in his shirt, strides shorewards with his catch dripping in its creel. The fish-wharves make a painter’s fingers itch to be at work, and many are those who respond to the impulse. No small part of the vivacity of the summer scene is furnished by the artists and their easels and their colors — artists who express what they see after a method that would horrify the ladies of the earlier era that is our particular affair.

The soil is sand, and it is said that the gardens of the town were imported by returning shipmasters who, in more fertile regions, steved their holds with loam for ballast and dumped it in their own front yards. However that may be, the little gardens are as pretty as in any English village; a vista harborwards through bright plantations of hollyhock is something to remember. And there are many trees sheltering the houses and yards: silver abeles, and elms, and willows, — the old willows “Way up along.” The scene today is perhaps unduly dominated by the Monument, which with time may develop a closer familiarity with its environment. Springing from clustering trees on a low eminence above the town, graceful in itself, it is as much a memorial to the indefatigable will of one of the last of the deep-water captains as to his forbears, the Pilgrims. In season and out he worked for its accomplishment, with the result that a colossal Sienese bell-tower, supplementing as it were the enterprise of Columbus, the Genoan, pins firmly in place the sands of Cape Cod.

The village is bounded by wooded hills, and a drive oceanward brings us to the dunes where the State, year after year, has waged war with the drifting sand of its Province Lands. Life-saving stations and beacons are set at short intervals, and are needed, on this shore, and out there lie the great shoals of the Peaked Hill Bar, the cruellest of all the coast, where ship after ship has piled her bones, and men by the hundred have gone to their death. To the eye, in a crisp north wind, they present only lines of vivid jade-green water set in the wide field of blue; and here sea and shore give such promise of variety as makes one long to watch the seasons through in sun and storm and shrouding mists. The dunes that are no other color than that of sand, ever responsive to the changing mood of the atmosphere, are covered now and then by carpets of growth that run from dull green to the purple of winter; and they and the bluffs beyond them are no more constant in aspect than their neighbor the sea. Far from depressing the spirit, they stimulate keen anticipation of what the hour shall bring forth and a sense that whatever its fruit one shall be great enough to share it. Of all the places one has seen here it is most fitting that man should dare to be free.