EASTHAM, Mass. — "A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit it; a lighthouse or a fisherman's hut the true hotel. A man may stand there and put all America behind him."
So read the last lines of Henry David Thoreau's "Cape Cod." The book, written in the 1850s, records the impressions that Thoreau gathered during three visits to what he called the "Great Beach"--in 1849, 1850 and 1855.
His penetrating eye took in the landscape, its flora and fauna, as well as the scattered denizens of Cape Cod.
And he did not miss the frailness of its beauty; he wrote of the need to respect and preserve this rare landscape. As if heeding his words, the federal government established the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961.
Stretching the 42 miles from Chatham in the south to Provincetown in the north, the national park will eventually encompass 27,000 acres. With the exception of Nauset Inlet, the beach fronts the Atlantic Ocean in an unbroken line; inshore its dunes hide ponds and pine forests, bike paths and hiking trails.
To explain the history and ecology of the cape, the National Park Service has established four visitor centers. The southernmost, at Eastham, overlooks Salt Pond, where varieties of shellfish are cultivated in floating nurseries.
A paved, two-mile bicycle path winds from the visitor center north to Coast Guard Beach. Shorter walking trails wend through the marshes.
In the museum are exhibits portraying the history of the cape, and in its auditorium is a film demonstrating the cape's geology. At the visitor center a little book, "The Outermost House," by Henry Beston, is for sale.
In 1927 Beston had a friend build him a 16-by-20-foot, two-room house. He chose a site on Nauset Beach in Eastham just north of the inlet, that narrow break where the sea enters, forming Nauset Harbor and the lagoons and ponds that steal into the "elbow" of the Cape.
It was a sturdy house--it had to be, for it stood on a mound just 20 feet above the high-tide mark. "Fo'castle," he called it. Beston had intended to use it as a temporary retreat, but when he arrived in September "the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go."
Response to Seasons
He stayed a year, chronicling his response to the seasons--their effects on the birds, the sea and surf, the beach and all its tiny organisms.
Life on the great beach was not always tranquil. A northeasterly storm descended in February, when "Fo'castle stood solid as a rock, but its wall thrummed in the gale," and in June a thunderstorm ripped through the cape. Beston wrote of "the violent, inhuman light . . . on the great solitary dunes staringly empty of familiar shadows."
A gifted writer, Beston hones the reader's sensitivity to the sometimes violent, sometimes subtle world of the great beach.
The house was destroyed in a hurricane of 1978. Declared a literary monument, it had been moved farther inland, but even that precaution could not save it.
Two miles north stood a Coast Guard station, and its crew provided the main source of Beston's contact with his fellow man.
He would take long walks and then join the crew for a cup of coffee, while the men, patrolling the beach at night, would often knock on his door and be treated to the same.
The "wardens of Cape Cod," he called them; these were the "surfmen" who risked their lives in the most difficult weather to rescue seamen clinging to disabled or wrecked ships in the storm-tossed water off the cape.
And they were kept busy: During that winter five ships went down, with a loss of at least 10 lives.
The outer cape is 30 miles from the mainland of Massachusetts and its long arm of beach, unprotected against ocean storms, flanks an active shipping lane used by East Coast ports.
Some 19th-Century Cape Cod residents were accused of "mooncussing"--waving lanterns on a moonless night to attract ships to the rocky shores; the salvage from a ship run aground could be highly profitable.
No one knows how prevalent this infamous practice was; it is true that some residents objected to the building of lighthouses. But no one can question the heroic record built up by the cape's Coast Guard stations.
In crews of eight housed in stations five miles apart, they kept patrol by day and night over their section of beach. The station Beston frequented at Coast Guard Beach has been converted to a museum. The history of the crews is detailed, and the equipment they used is on display.
Mayflower Passed By
Undoubtedly the most famous ship to sail through these waters was the Mayflower, and it was just before the landing at Provincetown that the New World was first sighted off Nauset Beach.
"After many difficulties in boisterous storms, at length, by God's providence, upon the 9th of November we espied land, which we deemed to be Cape Cod, and so afterward it proved," read the firsthand account.