SINCE 1986 I have been privileged to spend time in several of the dune shacks in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod. They offer a rare experience for people who love solitude.
I am launching this website to consolidate my writing, painting, photographs and video about the dunes and make it easier for people to find it. Over the next several weeks I will re-publish the nine-part 2010 Dunes Journal in its original form, with artwork and photographs interspersed.
The 27-minute video documentary Shack Time, which was chosen for the 2001 New England Film and Video Festival and aired regionally on PBS, contains rare Walker Evans photographs (including one of Eugene O’Neill’s Lifesaving Station after it had toppled into the Atlantic following a storm), writers Annie Dillard and Cynthia Huntington reading from their work, interviews with several shack owners, and rare archival footage (like Jack Kerouac typing in the dunes).
To order a copy of Shack Time, send $14.95 (price includes shipping) to: PO Box 41, Hatfield, MA 01038. To pay online using PayPal, send an email to ShackTime@comcast.net.
Here are some excerpts from Shack Time:
The first time I set foot on the Provincetown dunes, under a crystal clear October sky, was like stepping onto another planet, walking up a wall of sugar.
EIGHTEEN SHACKS ARE SCATTERED IN THE DUNES ALONG A FIVE-MILE STRETCH OF THE CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE IN TRURO AND PROVINCETOWN, REMNANTS OF AN AGE WHEN THEIR SHELTER MEANT WARMTH AND CIVILIZATION TO SHIPWRECKED SAILORS.
DURING THE PAST CENTURY THE DUNE SHACKS HAVE LURED A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRAVELER, IN SEARCH NOT OF CIVILIZATION, BUT OF SOLITUDE.
MANY 20TH CENTURY ARTISTS HAVE VISITED THE SHACKS TO WRITE, TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS OR PAINT: EUGENE O’NEILL, JACK KEROUAC, ANNIE DILLARD, WALKER EVANS, E. E. CUMMINGS, JACKSON POLLACK, EDMUND WILSON, CYNTHIA HUNTINGTON, AND NORMAN MAILER. HUNDREDS OF OTHER LESS WELL-KNOWN DUNE LOVERS HAVE FOUND INSPIRATION FROM “SHACK TIME.”
I experience community in the dunes as well as solitude, of fellow dune dwellers, past and present.
THE SHACKS HAVE ATTRACTED MANY ECCENTRIC PERSONALITIES THROUGH THE YEARS LESS WELL-KNOWN BUT FONDLY REMEMBERED BY THEIR FELLOW DUNE DWELLERS. PEOPLE LIKE HARRY KEMP, THE SO-CALLED POET OF THE DUNES; HAZEL HAWTHORNE WERNER, A MATRON OF THE ARTS WHO OWNED THE SHACKS THALASSA AND EUPHORIA; THE PAINTERS JAN GELB AND BORIS MARGO; PEG WATSON AND LEO FLEURANT, WHO ACTUALLY DIED IN THE DUNES; AND AL FEARING, WHO TYPICALLY WORE A TOP HAT AND NOTHING ELSE IN THE DUNES.
THE CREATION OF THE CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE IN 1961 STAVED OFF THE GREATEST THREAT TO THE FRAGILE DUNE ENVIRONMENT: THE ENCROACHMENT OF COMMERCE AND DEVELOPERS. IRONICALLY, THE PARK IN TURN HAS COME TO REPRESENT THE GREATEST THREAT TO THE TRADITION OF THE DUNE SHACKS.
THE QUESTION OF HOW TO PRESERVE THIS SMALL AND UNIQUE CULTURAL ASSET — THE SHACKS — WITHIN A LARGER NATURAL ONE — THE PARK — REMAINS A MATTER OF PUBLIC DEBATE.
THE DUNES THEMSELVES ARE THE UNINTENDED PRODUCT OF AN EARLY INTERACTION BETWEEN HUMANS AND NATURE.
“WHEN THE MAYFLOWER DROPPED ANCHOR IN PROVINCETOWN HARBOR,” WROTE HENRY C. KITTREDGE, IN HIS 1930 BOOK CAPE COD: ITS PEOPLE AND THEIR HISTORY, “AND HER WEARY PASSENGERS AT LAST HAD A CHANCE TO STAND ON A STEADY DECK AND LOOK ABOUT THEM, THEY SAW A SHORE WOODED TO THE WATER’S EDGE AS FAR AS THE EYE COULD REACH.”
THE EUROPEAN SETTLERS’ VORACIOUS APPETITE FOR WOOD TO MAKE SHIP MASTS AND BUILD AND HEAT THEIR HOMES EXPOSED THE SANDY SOIL AND MADE THE LANDSCAPE FOREVER VULNERABLE TO SHIFTING WINDS.
THE FIRST DUNE SHACKS WERE BUILT IN THE LATE 1700s, THOUGH NOT TO EXPERIENCE SOLITUDE. “THE MASSACHUSETTS HUMANE SOCIETY … BEGAN BY BUILDING HUTS ON REMOTE BEACHES TO SHELTER SURVIVORS WHO MIGHT GET ASHORE UNAIDED,” WROTE KITTREDGE. “THIS WAS A MUCH-NEEDED MEASURE, FOR A SHIPWRECKED MAN’S TROUBLES HAD ONLY BEGUN WHEN HE DRAGGED HIMSELF ABOUT THE REACH OF THE SURF.”
“WHEN I THOUGHT WHAT MUST BE THE CONDITION OF THE FAMILIES WHICH ALONE WOULD EVER OCCUPY OR HAD OCCUPIED” THE SHACKS, HENRY DAVID THOREAU WROTE INCAPE COD, “WHAT MUST HAVE BEEN THE TRAGEDY OF THE WINTER EVENINGS SPENT BY HUMAN BEINGS AROUND THEIR HEARTHS, THESE HOUSES, THOUGH THEY WERE MEANT FOR HUMAN DWELLINGS, DID NOT LOOK CHEERFUL TO ME. THEY APPEARED BUT A STAGE TO THE GRAVE.”
THE COAST GUARD PLAYED A ROLE IN THE BUILDING OF NEWER SHACKS IN THE EARLY 1900s, BUT FOR DIFFERENT REASONS. SURFMEN ASSIGNED TO WALK THE BEACH AT NIGHT BUILT SHACKS TO GET OUT OF THE WIND OR MEET THEIR SWEETHEARTS.
THESE NEWER SHACKS AND OTHERS BUILT BY DETERMINED DUNE LOVERS GRADUALLY PASSED INTO PRIVATE HANDS IN THE 1920s AND ‘30s AND HAVE SINCE BECOME TREASURED RETREATS, FRAGILE ANCHORS AMID IMMENSE SAND AND SPACE, A PLACE PEOPLE GO TO BE ALONE WITH NATURE AND THE ELEMENTS.
MOST OF THE SHACKS ARE SMALL, PRIMITIVE BUILDINGS THAT CAN BE PUSHED BACK UPRIGHT WHEN BLOWN OVER BY A STORM, AND PROVIDE LITTLE OTHER THAN COVER FROM THE RAIN. EVEN THE OLD LIFE-SAVING STATION, OWNED IN LATER YEARS BY EUGENE O’NEILL, FELL INTO THE SEA FOLLOWING A GREAT STORM IN THE 1930s.
Time spent in the dunes is like running into a wall of water. You have no choice but to slow down. There’s no telephone, mail, newspapers or interruptions — just you and the Atlantic Ocean.
Staying in the shacks is a cut above camping. I use an outhouse, pump my own water. There’s a gas refrigerator and hot-plate, though, and at one or two shacks, a solar-heated shower.
“I START OFF by pacing back and forth across all six feet of floor space, opening all the windows, chewing on my pen, and staring out as the world goes on beyond me. The shack is a retreat in the center of endless space, offering just the finest separation between inside and outside, its open windows and the cracks between its boards entangling me in a continuum of light and sound.”
— Cynthia Huntington
At first the landscape appears spare, even stark, comprising broad bands of blue, green, white and beige: sky, ocean, beach, dune grass. But the longer I stay, a thousand variations become visible within each band, changed and charged by the endlessly varying light.
Writer Annie Dillard has spent several weeks in the dunes. “Here on earth texture interests us supremely. Wherever there is life, there is twist and mess: the frizz of an arctic lichen, the tangle of a brush along the bank, the dogleg of a dog’s leg, the way a line has got to curve, split, or knob. The planet is characterized by its very jaggedness, its random heaps of dunes, its frayed fringes of shore.
“… The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.”
Henry Beston, author of The Outermost House, about his two years living in the dunes in Eastham in the mid-1920s, wrote:
“Night is very beautiful on this great beach. It is the true other half of the day tremendous wheel; no lights without meaning stab or trouble it; it is beauty, it is fulfillment, it is rest. Thin clouds float in these heavens, islands of obscurity in a splendor of space and stars: the Milky Way bridges earth and ocean; the beach resolves itself into a unity of form, its summer lagoons, its slopes and uplands merging; against the western sky and the falling bow of sun rise the silent and superb undulations of the dunes.”
NORMAN MAILER, WHO WORKED IN A SHACK IN THE DUNES IN 1961 SAID, “THE WAY OF THE ARTIST IS CURIOUS AND CAN NEVER BE DETERMINED. BUT IT IS A FACT THAT MANY NEED SOLITUDE, AND SOME OF THE GREATEST WORKS DONE IN AMERICA, NOTABLY THE EARLY PLAYS OF EUGENE O’NEILL, HAVE COME FROM LIVING IN SOLITUDE IN THE DUNES AND SHACKS ON THE BACK SHORE OF CAPE COD.”
WITHIN THE NEXT FEW YEARS, ALL BUT ONE OF THE 18 SHACKS WILL BELONG TO THE CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE, A PART OF THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE. THE PEAKED HILL TRUST, A NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT HAS MANAGED SEVERAL OF THE DUNE SHACKS SINCE THE MID-1980s, WAS PART OF A SUCCESSFUL EFFORT TO MAKE THE SHACKS ELIGIBLE FOR THE NATIONAL HISTORIC REGISTER. THE DESIGNATION LEAVES MANY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS.
THE NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE HAS BEEN WORKING TO DEVELOP A POLICY TO DETERMINE WHO WILL HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO EXPERIENCE THE DUNE SHACKS, AND HAS EXPERIMENTED WITH SEVERAL TYPES OF LEASES, INCLUDING ONE FOR ARTISTS WHO MUST OPEN UP THE SHACK TO VISITORS DURING THEIR STAY.
I feel fortunate to have spent time in the dune shacks, and I am glad to see them become part of the public trust. But I worry that their tradition, particularly the solitude they provide, will prove harder to preserve than their physical structures. The shacks remain as enduring, and as fragile, as the land on which they stand.