Gone Summering, July 1998
I seldom recognize the Cape Cod that people write about, because I rarely write about it myself, and because I constantly think about the place. It is in my dreams, a landscape of my unconscious mind, perhaps my mind's only landscape. Paddling between islands in New Guinea I often think, "That's no worse than Falmouth to Oak Bluffs." Swimming in a bad chop or swift current anywhere, I think of Woods Hole or Lewis Bay. This complex landscape has taught me ways of measuring the world of risk.
But the word "landscape" presents a problem on the Cape. I find it hard to separate the land from the water, or the water from the winds. The stranger walks or drives to the shore and looks across to Martha's Vineyard, or on the bay side to Wellfleet, or wherever, always seeing divisions. The local person does not distinguish between land and water, and keeps going, actually or mentally, seeing shoals and eddies and sunken ships and the rocks that are only exposed at low tide — not barriers, but features. There are calm days, of course, and the prevailing winds are often reliable; but the weather is eccentric, and it's not unusual for the winds on successive days to blow from all the points of the compass, and these winds determine the weather and the condition of the land and water.
To a stranger, the Cape seems like many simple, separate places according to when the person has visited, seeking the jolly, the quaint, the charming, the historical. When such strangers describe the place they are very choosy. It seems odd for a local to hear such selective descriptions of the terminal moraine of the Cape, of the dunes and woodlands and harbors. Or Nantucket Sound as a sort of moat that protects the island of Martha's Vineyard. Or how Nantucket Island is some distance to sea — too flat and far to be visible. Or how Woods Hole is like a spillway, and farther south in the Sound there are ship-swallowing currents and the hidden rocks that holed the QE II. But these are just versions of the Cape, simplified portraits of its peculiarities.
To me, knowing the Cape means knowing the ways of navigating it: finding routes into the marshes and up the tidal creeks; knowing the offshore shoals and sandbars, such as Egg Island off Hyannis, or the Billingsgate Shoal off Wellfleet, or the three serpent-shaped shoals that make the crossing from the Cape to the Vineyard so unpredictable: L'Hommedieu Shoal, Hedge Fence Shoal, and the Middle Ground. Even on a flat day with no wind there are standing waves on these shoals, making a specific contour, five or six feet of irregular fury, more like whitewater in a narrow river than anything in an ocean. Muskeget Channel, between Chappaquiddick and Nantucket, can be terrifyingly swift, full of whirlpools or rocks. And yet this is the same world of the Cape — just its nether side. These waves and swells have their analog in the dunes of Truro or Sandy Neck, or the wooded ridge of the Upper Cape.
If a place is home it offers, most years, 365 faces. Whether it is a Cape marsh, or a creek, or a pepperidge tree, or a dune, or the sea itself, it is different every day of the year. Knowing the differences keeps you fascinated and may keep you safe. Not understanding a current or an offshore wind or a shoal in a channel can lead to death. That is also why I have a problem rhapsodizing about the Cape or using the quick-to-fade colors of hyperbole. I wouldn't want to paint a pretty portrait only to mislead someone into thinking they are safe when they're not.
Yet if the Cape weren't dangerous it would lose much of its reality for me. The water of the Cape is seen from shore as seemingly featureless and deceptive as moorland, which is why it has claimed so many lives. When Henry David Thoreau walked the length of this place and wrote about it, he remarked on how the world's true wildernesses lie under the sea. It goes without saying that, like everywhere else, a portion of the marine world of the Cape has been tainted and littered. Yet more and more I have come to see that those who'd fanatically protect a single stretch of beach are missing the point. The Cape is its total sum of land and water, the silly houses and pretensions of Osterville balanced against its rural poverty in the woodlots of Mashpee, while the reckless little alewives make their way up creeks in Brewster each spring to spawn. The Cape has taught me that we live in one world, fragile and failing, and it is the whole that must be understood, not any fragment of it.
Paul Theroux is the author of The Mosquito Coast and The Great Railway Bazaar.
Illustration by Jason Schneider