Thoreau Walks The Cape

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Indians on the Cape Cod highlands in 1620 could have seen the Mayflower sail by.

In Thoreau’s time and for a hundred years thereafter, hardly anyone supposed that the fish in those seas were anything but inexhaustible. But after World War II, with the help of fish-tracking gear and factory ships that processed the catch on board, the international fishing industry almost destroyed the fishing grounds. Even the imposition of a two-hundred-mile limit gave only temporary relief. In the last five years the total catch of the Provincetown fleet has dropped from twenty-three million pounds to twelve million pounds. Of forty-five commercial boats, only thirty are still operating.

From the lighthouse Thoreau and Channing continued along the coast to High Head, where the land drops off sharply to a low, sandy plain that stretches ten miles to land’s end at Race Point. High Head marks the end of the glacier-made Cape. The lowland beyond —the clenched fist on a map—was dropped there by the sea, which builds up one part of the shore while it eats away another.

The end of the Cape is a true desert, covered by dunes that shift and move at the urging of the wind. Travelers before Thoreau thought that the sand must surely engulf the crescent of wooden houses at Provincetown. But in fact, the Cape Codders had already learned to tame the dunes by planting clumps of beach grass on them. The battle is never wholly won. In places the moving sand still buries the gnarled and stunted oaks, almost to the tops of their trunks, and would bury Route 6, the main highway, if bulldozers did not regularly plow it off. This rolling Sahara is a playground for dune buggies. Only the beach grass, now managed by the National Seashore, keeps the desert in bounds.

From the surface a clump of beach grass looks like a fragile thing to hold a dune, a wisp of vegetation with blades that bow before the wind and draw little circles in the sand, as perfectly .as if they had been made with a compass. But when Thoreau tried to pull out some of the beach grass, he discovered the depth and toughness of its root system. “Thus,” he wrote, “Cape Cod is anchored to the heavens, as it were, by a myriad little cables of beachgrass, and, if they should fail, would become a total wreck, and erelong go to the bottom.”

A greater fear today may be that the Cape will sink beneath the weight of the people who are crowding onto it. On a hot summer weekend visitors may wait for an hour to get over the Cape Cod Canal and then drive almost the length of the Cape before finding a National Seashore beach with space to park. But in the autumn they can still follow Thoreau’s footsteps, beyond the staked domain of man, onto the natural shore.

During his days on the Cape, Thoreau, the countryman, the panegyrist of hills and rivers and freshwater ponds, had been won by a new world of sand and sea. The sparseness and emptiness made a special appeal to one who, by his nature, had a limited taste for human company. “A man,” he wrote, in his valedictory to Cape Cod, “may stand there and put all America behind him.”