Thoreau’s Cape Cod

Cape Cod, 1951 Edition

1951 Edition

Archived from Cape Cod Trip: June 2009

Most of our time on this planet is not lived deliberately as Henry David Thoreau suggested it should be, but passes in a whirl of linked and repeated events of complacent ritual. I thought of this as I sat outside a boutique in Chatham, Massachusetts, shopping bags tucked under a bench, sullen and aggrieved look on my face, awaiting the return of my travel companions.

It was my fourth day on the Cape, I had done the tourist thing, done the beach thing, trekked in and out of Boston, eaten countless fried clams … I was ready to get off the concrete for awhile. For the last few days I’d been quietly reading Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod whenever I had a free moment. The book had set me in a mood to wander through salt marshes and dune trails, get my feet muddied, and to hear bird song.

Cape Cod is one of Thoreau’s lesser known works, and is probably the lightest and funniest complete text that he produced. It’s a collection of the observations, stories, and tall tales that he picked up while visiting the Cape on four occasions during his life. One of the funniest descriptions in the book is that of the Wellfleet oysterman, a cantankerous fellow who offers Thoreau lodging for the night, as well as an unforgettable culinary experience:

She got the breakfast with dispatch, and without noise or bustle; and meanwhile the old man resumed his stories, standing before us, who were sitting, with his back to the chimney, and ejecting his tobacco-juice right and left into the fire behind him, without regard to the various dishes which were there preparing. At breakfast we had eels, buttermilk cake, cold bread, green beans, doughnuts, and tea. The old man talked a steady stream; and when his wife told him he had better eat his breakfast, he said:

“Don’t hurry me; I have lived too long to be hurried.”

I ate of the apple-sauce and the doughnuts, which I thought had sustained the least detriment from the old man’s shots, but my companion refused the apple-sauce, and ate of the hot cake and green beans, which had appeared to him to occupy the safest part of the hearth. But on comparing notes afterward, I told him that the buttermilk cake was particularly exposed, and I saw how it suffered repeatedly, and therefore I avoided it; but he declared that, however that might be, he witnessed that the apple-sauce was seriously injured, and had therefore declined that.

The book begins with the reporting of a shipwreck (an extremely moving passage for me as I recalled the transatlantic passage of my own Irish relations) and then moves on to describe Thoreau’s journeys from Yarmouth to Provincetown, mostly on foot or by carriage. Thoreau notes the practices and traditions of the inhabitants, human and otherwise, and provides detailed descriptions of the landscapes that he encounters. Thoreau’s prose is light and fluid, and his magnificent observations sparkle throughout this often-overlooked text.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

My desire, inspired by my reading, was to experience a bit of Thoreau’s Cape, to strike out off the concrete and do what he would have done. In short, I drove to the nearest trail-head to get into the woods. The path which I took, the nearest to where I was staying, took me around the Nauset Marsh, through woods inhabited by early Pilgrim settlers, and out onto the beach of which Henry Beston wrote about in The Outermost House. (This trail can be accessed from the Cape Cod National Seashore’s Salt Pond Visitor Center.)

While walking, I tried to be as observant as possible – my usual practice is to fall so deeply into thought while walking in the woods that I lose track of where I am. (Not recommended.) This time I tried to notice the many birds, trees, bugs, and small animals that I saw along the way. I walked to the Doane Rock, the largest exposed boulder on Cape Cod, and a reminder of the glacier that formed the Cape’s features. From this rock, I continued out onto the beach to see the surf. A brisk east wind was stirring things up quite a bit – only a few adventurous surfers could be seen in the chop. Standing on the edge of the dunes, looking out over the surf, I could taste salt in the breeze. I walked back through the marsh, pausing many times to take in the beautiful landscape. I paused at the Doane Memorial, and walked back through the woods to my car. In my travels that day on several different trails, I had only encountered a few other people in the woods.

I had spent a few hours nearly alone in the woods, had taken in some excellent views, and had gotten a bit of oxygen into my brain. More importantly, I had done what my reading of Thoreau had led me to do: to actively participate in nature simply by recording its impressions; to walk quietly and reverently through the woods.

Brief Book Review: In the Footsteps of Thoreau, by Adam Gamble

footsteps of thoreau coverI picked this book up after my hike in the woods, and rather late in the week. If I had read it earlier, it would have helped me shape my Thoreau experience more effectively. The book is part trail guide, part field guide, and part literary commentary.

This is a great book for anyone who’d like to turn a trip to Cape Cod into an easily-accessible literary travel adventure. It details many of the hiking trails on the Cape and explains in detail the routes that Thoreau took, what he saw, and what he had to say about the area. The book offers insights into how the terrain would have looked to Thoreau and how it has changed since his time. The book also highlights common flora and fauna from the area (from baybery and sand pipers to pilot whales and deer ticks) and includes Thoreau’s observations from his travels.