Cape Cod – The Land – Pt. 3

From the slender tip of Champlain’s Cap Blanc to Wareham one is never out of sight of water: salt here and salt there, ocean and inlet and bay; and the great ponds of the uplands, or deep in its swampy covert a lake dropped from the jewelled chain among the hills. In the towns nearer the mainland are creeks and brooks and tiny runlets, flooded cranberry swamps, a ditch choked with the lush growth it nourishes; or near the beach a peat bog may wink unexpectedly from its bosky rim where a colony of night heron have nested to be near their feeding-ground in the bay. And when the tide is at ebb they and the seagulls wheel out there in airy platoons that manoeuvre as if to catch the light on their ermine or sleek surtouts of gray. On the drying sands the gulls teeter about like high-heeled ladies on an esplanade until a stranded minnow changes the play and they pounce and cuff and scream like boys greedy for a penny. There are rich harvests for the hungry on these wide reaches of the sandflats, and even a glutton bird could gorge his fill upon the prey entrapped in the fish-weirs that dot the inner coast.

There, at one point, the tide marches out a long mile to the Great Bar and back again, by appointed channels, unhurrying, punctual to the minute, to keep its tryst with the shore. Sailors, unless they have a care to the time, are likely to be “hung up” on the Bar; but for one ashore who looks out to the white line of breaking foam, every moment of the ebb and turn has its special beauty. In bright days the shoaling waters show a lovely interlacement of greens and blue; but when the sky is shrouded in gray, fold upon fold, and the sun, invisible, steps softly westward, their surface is like burnished metal, although a painter’s eye would discern there a pastel of mauves and pink and blue and a whole chromatic scale of green. White sandflats, disclosed by the ebb, are carved in whorls like a shell by the hand of the tide. Inshore plumy grasses fringe them; here and there infinitesimal forms of life stain them amethyst or green. But the wide sweep of them responds to some subtile quality in the day, and they are plains of pearl where cloudy shadows drift, or, in certain golden hours, they burn with color like some jewelled marquetry of the East. A flaming sunset walks them with feet of blood. And day after day they, or the waters above them, surprise us with some new sweet diversity.

A scarf of gray tops the sand bluffs of the opposite shore, and when the land looms, miragelike, scattered villages appear; or on certain clear evenings we may catch the twinkle of friendly lights. And in summer days when the languid creeks threading the marshlands add a brighter blue to the picture that throbs in the sun — water and sky and the dazzling collar of sand that yokes land and sea — the bay, seeming all but landlocked in its honey-colored bluffs, deceives us with a look of inland waters and lies as softly there as Long Pond among the hills. Above the beaches, now and again, stand groves of pines, homely thurifers that incense the breeze as it passes. And where the line of shore dips to a lowland, the salt marshes, with their exquisite adjustment to the sea-son, are a treasury of beauty — rich greens flushing and dying to the bronze, studded with haycocks like the bosses of an ancient shield, that challenges encroaching autumn tides.

Winter drains the scene of color, but salt winds cheat the lower temperatures of their rigor, and it is a hard season when snow lies in the meadows through consecutive weeks. Then there are days of brave sun-light when whitecaps feather over the surface of the bay, and ice-cakes churn in with the tide and pile up like opals on the beach: days when the air is wine-clear, and the land is dressed in its best of warm russet brown, and hoofs strike the frozen roads with the resonance of Piccadilly pavements. Then sunset jewels woodland interstices with mellow cathedral light; high on a bluff above the crystal plane of a lake regiments of militant pines salute the dying day; and up in the south, when night hangs the stars low, Orion will be calling his dogs for the hunting. But more beautiful are the gray days in winter when earth meets heaven with the justly modulated values of a Japanese print, and the hills, clothed in the soft fur of leafless woods, crouch under a pale sky; when in swamps the lances of dead reeds clash, and by a stagnant pool stands a cluster of brown cat-tails like candles that have lighted some past banquet of the year.

In spring, long before the tardy oaks unsheathe their foliage, the sudden scarlet of swamp maple flames in a hollow, and we are off to the woods to hunt the stout fresh leaves which betray hiding-places of the arbutus, the mayflower, under the waste of a dead year. Near by, wintergreen in sturdy companies shoulders the red berries that have eluded hungry winter birds, and graceful runnels of wild cranberry flow through the open spaces. Here pretty colonies of windflowers will soon be swinging their bells, ladies-slipper and Jack-in-the-pulpit dispute the season’s clemency; and when summer brings red lilies to surprise the eye in some green chamber of the wood, our journey should end at the beach of an inland lake where spicy sabbatia sways delicately in the warm air and genesta grows on the bank.

From spring around to winter, the months are packed with flowers — roadside beauties, shy little creatures of the fields, waxen Indian-pipes in the pine groves; even on the dunes are flowering mosses, the yellow lace of the poverty-grass, the pretty gray velvet leaf of “dusty-miller,” pink lupin, wild grapes and roses crowding a secret hollow where the soil is enriched, perhaps, by an ancient shell-heap of the Indians. And among the depressions of the hills are swamps where a lovely progression, exquisitely disposed as if by conscious art, walks through the year. Color dies hard in these sheltered nooks, and hardly is dun winter lord of all, with stripped bushes huddling like sheep in the hollow, than spring breaks his rule and

“Along an edge of marshy ground The shad-bush enters like a bride.”

Again the march begins : huckleberry, Clethra, honey-suckle, the dull smear of Joe Pyeweed, the white web of elderberry blossoms turning to fruity umbels that promise homely brews, swinging goldenrod and feather-grass, the decorative intent of cat-tails that, with certain engaging brown velvet buttons nodding on their stems in a swamp and the firm coral of alder-berries, brings us around to winter again.

And there are choristers a-plenty : the remote sweet piping of hylas piercing the velvet darkness of a night in spring, the melodious booming of bull-frogs, the challenge of Bob White; and all the dear homely New England birds, twittering, chirping, chattering, pouring out their hearts in song as they swing with the trees that the wind sweeps into endless motion. And in summer and winter, from north, south, east, or west, the wind brings us news from the sea: the savor of salt, gray billows of cloud and fog, clear stark bright days following one another through a season. The southwest gales of summer beat down ripe grasses in the field and feather willow and poplar with silver; the great autumn gales go trumpeting through the land; the nor’easter sends surf thundering on the outer shore; and there are the soft moist winds that relax the high-wrought tension of humans, and melt the rigors of winter.

The free winds, — and contour, sound, color: with nothing superfluous, yet satisfying and ever present. And from flowers and fruit and woodland and the sharp tang of the sea there is distilled a draught corrective of morbid humors and the wandering will, — a stanch pledge of sobriety.