cape cod - berchen, dickensOur book today is Cape Cod by William Berchen and Monica Dickens, a slim, brimmingly illustrated vacation volume from 1972. As I’ve noted before, the end of summer always makes me think of all the time I’ve spent at the Cape over the years, and although Boston is still panting under the fat hand of rampaging heat and rain forest humidity, the calendar (and, increasingly, the angle of the sun) says the summer has largely ended. This three-day weekend is when countless time-sharing families all along the Cape start to pack up their video games and ready themselves to return to the mainland.

As I’ve had many happy occasions to realize, they leave behind a Cape Cod just beginning to tighten into perfection. The sea breezes stiffen into winds, and the sunsets, always spectacular, become slightly begrudged – and all the more beautiful for it. The summer’s riot of colors turns more somber, and a small measure of peace returns to the woods and isolated nooks that dot the whole hook of the place from Sandwich to Provincetown.

William Berchen’s photos (in color and black and white), most of them taken in autumn and winter, capture that growing wild serenity perfectly. And every so often, Monica Dickens’ prose joins in the endeavor. “There is no place on Cape Cod where you cannot smell the sea,” she writes, “Cape Cod is an island. This is part of the mystique. To get to an island, you must cross water, and there the magic starts.”

She was a long-time resident of the Cape when she wrote this book but not a native nor even a native vacationer, having provincetown inletgrown up in England. And she obviously sets her cap against writing yet another dreamily effusive book about Cape Cod, because surprising amounts of this slim book are given over to carping and vituperation – not your usual stock-in-trade when it comes to this sort of thing. She has little patience for those natives:

The weather is so fair that people have a fit if it rains for three days, but they wonder why the grass is not as green as England. A light mist is accused of being a fog. Frost comes so late that impatient children skate too early and fall through the ice. In hurricane time, the weatherman, who “calls for” weather as if he could order it from a menu, reports the progress of tropical storms so frequently that everybody either gets so worked up that they are quite disappointed if the hurricane doesn’t hit, or so bored that they make no preparations and lose their boats and garden furniture.

And she has even less patience for the skeezy types she sees as building in numbers like some sort of locust-plague:

Provincetown, at once the most sophisticated and the most wild place on the Cape, is where the drifters drift to and pile up. In other towns, they stay for a while and drift on. In Provincetown they stay for months and even years, sharing a dilapidated house, spreading venereal disease and hepatitis, caught up in the laissez-faire mystique of this ravaged little fishing village.

(That mention of hepatitis and venereal disease is as close as she’ll allow herself to come to actually naming the specific type of drifter now filling up saintly old Provincetown, the censorious old biddy. One can’t help but wonder what she’d make of P-town now, forty years later)

nauset beachLike all transplants, she thinks her new home would have been well-advised to shut the doors right behind her and let nobody else in; as it is, she tends to see the decline and fall of the Roman Empire all around her, which makes for some prickly reading

The strange thing about the Cape is that even with the rape of places like Hyannis, Buzzards Bay, Provincetown, and Falmouth (which held out longer, but is now succumbing to the schizophrenia of luring customers by ruining the very things that lure them), even with all this, Cape Cod is still one of th most magically beautiful places on earth.

Its beauty is endogenous. It is not enhanced by man. But neither has its essence been destroyed. Yet.

Yet. Not Yet. But another generation has passed, another forty years of the bridges bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists and gawkers and drifters to the Cape every season, and it’s still there, and it’s still magic, and it’s still beautiful. It’s essence may indeed be destroyed (a recent National Geographic included a map showing what the world would look like if Earth’s polar ice caps melted completely – I looked first to the Cape, but it was of course nowhere to be seen; it was the bottom of a deep inland bay), but Dickens’ not yet is still not yet. The sharpening breezes still turn the surf to chop, and they still play along the marsh grasses, and they still make the dunes whisper a little louder in the morning.

At summer’s end I’m there again in my memories, walking those dunes with dogs and friends, pecking through those marsh grasses for a few last bird-glimpses before they, too, start migrating, and standing before that choppy surf thinking about all the vast tracks of open ocean beyond it – thinking until the dogs or friends are cold and night is coming on. Then we’d retire to a glass-doored beach house living room, and relax.

 

 

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