Thoreau Walks The Cape


Not all offending cottages are so easy to get rid of. Among the dunes at the tip of the Cape is a scattering of wooden shacks that range in structural condition from spare to dilapidated. In the eyes of the Seashore Administration, the shacks are blots on the natural landscape, and because that part of the land has always been public, the occupants are squatters. Last summer the superintendent announced that when their temporary permits expired, the shacks would be removed. But hold on! The Provincetown shacks are not just anybody’s seaside camps. Over the last halfcentury or so they have given shelter, and perhaps inspiration, to the playwright Eugene O’Neill, the critic Edmund Wilson, the writers Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer, the poets e. e. cummings and Mary Oliver, and the choreographer Paul Taylor. To tear them down, said their champions, would be like bulldozing Thoreau’s cabin at Waiden Pond. The Seashore Administration, bowing to the indignation of the historic preservationists, backed off and said that, for now at least, the shacks could stay.

Thoreau chose October for the time of his visit to the Cape. He liked the clear, crisp air of sunny fall days in place of the “thick” atmosphere and frequent fogs of summer. He also liked the storms that stirred up the sea and sent it crashing against the land. “An outward cold and dreariness,” he wrote, “lend a spirit of adventure to the walk.” Today another attraction of the autumn is that the summer crowds are gone. A fall beachcomber will pass only a few hikers, picnickers, surf casters, and dog walkers.

The only human beings Thoreau and Channing met in four days of walking on the beach were “wreckers” who combed the tide line for flotsam washed ashore. They were silent, expressionless men, loners like Thoreau himself. He described one wrinkled face: “It was like an old sail endowed with life,—a hanging cliff of weather-beaten flesh. …”

Thoreau heard tales of an earlier time when “moon-cussers” set out false lights to lure ships onto the shoals. At least it was true that when a ship was wrecked, the men would line up on the shore and use poles to pull in whatever floated by. In one town, it is told, they kept the competition fair by limiting themselves to ten-foot poles (but they allowed the minister a twenty-foot pole).

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the chain of lighthouses built along the coast had effectively reduced the number of shipwrecks. The only treasures salvaged by the wreckers whom Thoreau saw were the trunks of trees washed down the coast from lumbering operations in Maine. Since lumber is no longer floated down New England rivers, not many logs are found today on Cape beaches, but the same currents that brought wrecked ships and logs still wash up whatever comes by. After a winter storm the modern scavenger may find a litter of buoys broken loose from lobster pots and boat moorings.

Year by year and season by season, the beach is always changing. High tide in summer may leave a broad expanse of sand; in winter it may run up to the cliff, trapping unwary walkers. During one summer, at Wellfleet or Truro, the ebbing tide may leave an offshore playground of bars, spits, and lagoons, where small children wade and older ones build a sand city of castles, forts, pyramids and Mont-Saint-Michels. The following summer the bars and spits all may be underwater.


When Thoreau left the beach and climbed the sand cliffs, he found himself on a tableland stretching all the way across the Cape. Modern visitors may be puzzled by his description of this “bare and flat plateau a virtual desert. …” That description does not square with what we see today, and neither does it square with what the early explorers reported. In the seventeenth century, by all accounts, there were hardwood forests, made up of trees that were somewhat stunted on the outer Cape but all the better fitted to withstand the wind and salt spray. Those primeval woods were almost entirely destroyed, partly by the fires of the Indians but mostly by the axes of the European settlers. The lumber went to build and heat their houses and make their ships. By the time Thoreau saw the tableland, it was a barren heath supporting only shrubs such as bayberry, bearberry, and wild plum. At Truro, however, he saw the pattern of the future: a stand of little pines planted in rows. The pitch pine was planted to make good the loss of the hardwood, and after Thoreau’s time it spread, through cultivation and natural seeding, until it became the prevailing tree growth of the whole Cape. Only now is it giving way to a second growth of oak.