Something missing – Cape Cod Reflections

We got to P-Town around 6 PM. We parked in a municipal lot and took the cooler from the trunk. We strolled up Commercial Street. The first few blocks were full of T-shirt stands, walk-up food windows offering cheap lobster rolls, “art galleries” selling large print photos of whales breaching waves. It was beach tourism middle-America style replete with gaggles of large bright-red burned tourists. I was disappointed.

I’m invested in the legend of P-town: a New England beach outcrop, the end and beginning of the civilized world and gay, like Pirate Gay, mixed with old settler Portuguese families. All I got were tied-died t-shirt shops.

A few blocks more and it was still tourist, but at least it got gayer. There was the requisite leather shop, the sex shop with a swing in the window, and sandwich boards announcing big gay parties and drag shows. Gay tourists replaced straight tourists. I felt less betrayed.

The track lighting in the ceiling of the house I am staying in in Wellfleet, twenty minutes south of P-Town, is flashing a low orange. The individual bulbs keep winking in unison like a child’s eyes fighting sleep in the backseat on the drive home from a day at the beach, the type of day you never want to end.

There must be a missed connection, a loose wire, a faulty switch. The light isn’t doing what it was made to do. It is doing something new, mesmerizing, connecting to memories that have nothing to do with track lighting. It is not serving its function. It is broken, and beautiful in the mistake of what it is now.

“When the Pilgrims landed at P-town [November 11, 1620] they would have found a hardwood forest where the dunes are now, “ Dave, our tour guide from Al’s Dune Tours, tells us as he drops the Suburban into four-wheel drive at the mouth of the cresting dunes. Ker-chunk.

“They stayed here for five months exploring the Cape. When they dug down past the 8 inches of topsoil they found sand and decided it wasn’t good for farming. That’s why they ended up in Plymouth.”

“By the time Henry David Thoreau walked up the Cape in 1849 it had long been clear cut to build the growing villages, and to heat homes in the winter.  If those hardwood forests were still here you wouldn’t see the dunes. It is the trees and the vegetation that protected the hills from erosion.”

The same farmers who clear cut the forests were shocked when the dunes rolled across their land like a dreaming golems, swallowing whole fields and suffocating crops. You can almost see them sitting on low wooden porches scratching their heads. The early Industrial Revolution that sprouted river driven mills in the rest of New England skipped the Cape. No one could figure out how to harness the water power of the ocean. The next wave of settlers skipped the Cape completely. They pushed west looking for something new.

Dave, a 25 year veteran accountant from Boston who moved to P-town to start his second career as a seasonal tour guide and a seasonal lay about, points out cranberry vines that fruit in September and are good for jams and chutneys (“I still have some in my freezer from last season,” he says), blueberry shrubs that will fruit next month, and sea pea pods.

“A native tribe still comes here to harvest all of these at different times of the year,” Dave says.

“Is there a reservation,” I ask from the far back seat.

“No. The Wompanoag, the tribe, doesn’t have lands here, but they still use the dunes,” Dave says.

This is the first and last mention of Native Americans on the tour. This passing (non)acknowledgement is a part of the fabric here (everywhere). There is some Great Other (not us or them, some Other) who doesn’t know that the story of here (everywhere). We all know it, but to mention it would be to pull the curtain back. We might have to think about it on our sunset dune tour. That could be bad for business. 

It is my first time on Cape Cod and the regular appearance of Native American words on road signs juxtaposed to the overwhelming whiteness of the people here is something. Alarming would be too easy to say. It would be a denial of growing up in apartments in the suburbs where longhouses once stood in towns that still carry names like Massapequa, Patchogue, and Yaphank. Maybe it is banal in that way that street signs and town names make heavy words like genocide banal. It feels ordinary.

Dave tells us that the dunes were not protected until fairly recently. When he was growing up they (he and kids his age) used to tear around the dunes on dirt bikes and dune buggies, adding to erosion started by the clear cutting.

“We didn’t know any better,” he says.

John F. Kennedy made it all a part of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961 (possibly the longest piece of uninterrupted non-developed beach on the East Coast). They’ve since planted dune grass with networked roots that hold the sand in place. There are small stands of gnarled scrub pine in the hollows between dunes where fresh water seeps into shallow pools. Dave says these stands remind him of the enchanted forest, he puts his hand out the window to pull off some needles as we roll through. It will take 100 years to gain back one inch of topsoil, Dave says. One-hundred years.

Sitting on the deck of the house in Wellfleet I keep thinking about my broken computer. I watch a bright red cardinal poke feed from the bird feeder over the deck while a chipmunk waits below on a bench to collect dropped seeds in its cheeks. A ball of stress congeals in my belly because my computer died and I have to send an email or two, I have to check twitter and my blog stats.  A blue jay clings to the trunk of the tree next to the feeder waiting for its turn to feed the chipmunk. Wind chimes hanging from a nearby oak sound in the breeze, a call to meditation, and my fucking computer died so I can’t work from here like I thought I could. I can’t participate. I am anxious.

“’Flexibility’, ‘nomadism’ and ‘spontaneity’ are the very hallmarks of management in post-Fordist, Control society. But the problem is that any opposition to flexibility and decentralization [possible opposition by organized labor to protect their standing in relation to Capital] risks being self–defeating, since calls for inflexibility and centralization are, to say the least, not likely to be very galvanizing,” writes Mark Fisher, paraphrasing Slavoj Žižek, in Capitalist Realism. A page later he concludes, “In any case, resistance to the ‘new’ is not a cause that the left can or should rally around.”

Dave guides the bucking Suburban over the swooping dune peaks and we are thrown around like sailors in a storm. Dave has a light smile on his bearded lips, his sun leathered cheeks crease. He seems truly happy to be here, now.

We stop on a high dune for a photo. Dave points to different dune shacks that were built by squatters in the 30’s. He tells us what they are like on the inside (no electricity or running water), which famous writers have stayed in them (Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, etc, etc.), and how you can enter a lottery to live in them for a week during the summer.

Pointing out an outhouse on a dune opposite he says, “That outhouse has the best view of all the outhouses I have ever been in.”

When we get to the beach Dave pulls camp chairs from the roof and sets them up in a semi-circle facing the sun. We sit and drink chilled beers. We use our fingers to scoop homemade chicken salad with fresh-shucked fava beans and fennel into our mouths. We crunch on a salad of basil, lettuce, tomato, radish and avocado. When pods of seals arc just above the surface twenty feet from shore we yell “Hellooooo.” When they stop and break the blue surface with their slick gray heads we tell ourselves they are looking at us with their black eyes. They are saying hello. We sink into the chairs and into our skin, into the simple beauty of the sunset and the beach that was once a forest.

The track lighting is still winking low and orange, an irregular beat. Someone notices it and says something. We all look up for a moment, our throats long and vulnerable. It is morning and we are quiet. “Yeah,” I say, “I noticed it yesterday.” We all look back to our books, sip our mugs of steaming coffee.  Later, when I flip the light switch to stop the winking, I still think of how it was broken, unproductive and beautiful.

Dave, the worker, the driver, the guide doesn’t retreat to the truck, he doesn’t lean against the wheel well and smoke a cigarette, or pull out a phone or a book. He, of already countless early summer sunsets, slowly walks down the beach squatting to look at a rock or a shell. He inspects. He smells. He smiles some more. When another pod of seals speed by I pull my phone from my pocket to record a video, the whole scene miniaturized, screened and removed from where I am. Dave just squats in the sand and watches them.



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