7: Dune Reading

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell watercolor 11"x15"

Untitled, watercolor on paper, 15″x11″

ASKED WHAT SHE LIKES doing most at the shacks, our friend at Peg’s answered that she likes to spend much of her day inside, reading. This definitely is a place where one can surrender to this luxurious activity.

This morning I finished re-reading The Outermost House for the third time, the first in a decade. It is a beautifully written book by Henry Beston about his year in the 1920s spent living in a two-room cottage on the beach in Eastham. It is filled with detailed observations about life in these dunes, poetically expressed. I should read it at least once every ten years.

Beston writes about the habits of birds and storm patterns, the variable surf and the life within it. I especially enjoy his chapters about night on the beach (he is often out in it), and our sense of smell.

He notes with regret how people had come to devalue the sense of smell in his lifetime, a trend that has intensified, I fear, in mine. I would add to this neglected sense hearing, which has been not so much neglected in our lives as overwhelmed.

The natural world is constantly alive with noise that we either ignore or layer over, and at the beach the simple, repetitive crash of breaking waves is a reminder of how complex and compelling natural sound can be, if we choose to listen. Like their visual counterpart here — the seemingly stark, monochromatic bands of dune, grass, ocean, and sky, which reveal a thousand shades and variations once one spends time among them — the waves are not truly repetitive at all. Each one breaks at a different height, in a different place, in a different cadence, producing subtly different sounds and shades than the one before it.

I contrast this with the assaultive blasts pulsing from my television set, the screech of unmuffled jets overhead, or the modified motorcycles that lay siege to my house in summer, shattering all society before, during, and after they pass. They symbolize the arrogant and aggressive sounds that we routinely tolerate in our culture today. To my ears, they are a vile pollution.

Silence is an adjunct to solitude, and equally hard to find. The dunes offer both in abundance, and my ears, as well as eyes, nose, and palate, experience a rare chance to reawaken here. I hear sounds I am usually deaf to, decompressed. I also experience a stillness so great I can hear myself think.

In addition to our senses of hearing and smell, we give short shrift to memory among those traits that disproportionately define our experience. We increasingly delegate memory, subcontracting it to our computers and cell phones, to great benefit but with great risk.

Our technology has exponentially expanded the great global closet of facts and figures available to our consciousness, while liberating us from the mundane. But something is sacrificed when we no longer are compelled to remember phone numbers and grocery lists. Our memory of events, always subject to interpretation, can become even more conflicted if we cede over this task to others, or to machines.

How can we truly argue, confidently resist the narrative of others when our own memory fails us? Memory, like smell, must be cultivated to experience its full benefit, else it atrophy. We strengthen memory by telling stories to each other, by making careful observations, by writing things down, by flexing our memory muscles in multiple ways, every day.

Deep, visceral memories of time and place are transmitted by our sense of smell, Beston notes. A reliable way of recalling the conscious events of our collective and individual experience, as well as their meanings, can be nourished by reading on the beach or in a dune shack, alone with our thoughts.

* * *

TODAY I BEGAN Cape Cod, by Henry David Thoreau, which, like The Outermost House I have read before and will read again. I love Thoreau’s descriptions of the 28-mile walk from Eastham to Provincetown he made three times between 1849 and 1855. Thoreau sets out for the Cape from Concord, Massachusetts, via Boston, taking the train to Sandwich, “the terminus of the ‘Cape Cod Railroad,”’ before transferring to stagecoach from there to Eastham to begin his hike. The story begins with a grim shipwreck in Cohasset and some history of the Cape from local historians. Cape Cod was a wild, remote, and somewhat desolate place then, and Thoreau describes his encounters with occasional wry humor.

The terrible violence of the sea was visible regularly from shore during Thoreau’s lifetime, and remained so during Beston’s, more than 50 years later. Both men write not just of the frequency of shipwrecks, but the mixed feelings of horror, fascination, and helplessness while standing on the beach watching people in their final, desperate moments before being swallowed up by a storm-churned ocean of inestimable strength.

The death and destruction in Salt House, Cynthia Huntington’s excellent 1999 collection of essays about three summers she spent living in Euphoria, thankfully is limited to her riveting description of a frenzy of bluefish that arrive in late summer, creating great havoc near the beach as they prey on anything that moves, including each other.

Like The Outermost House, Huntington’s book follows the calendar year of her stays in the dunes, a choice, I suspect, made because of the heightened awareness one has here of the passage of every day, each sunrise and sunset unfolding like the waves, unique in aspect, at a slightly different time, at a slightly different angle.

This awareness of the vastness of planetary time and space juxtaposed with the micro experience of living in the shacks, where every nail and loose board has identity and purpose, is both humbling and expansive. It is centering, a cosmic tuning fork, and its effect is fundamental to the dune experience, as expounded in its literature.

* * *

WE ARE ALSO READING Anne of Green Gables, aloud, evenings, by lamplight, in preparation for a trip to Cape Breton later this summer. My daughter read L. M. Montgomery’s century-old stories  about Anne, the wholesome but feisty 11-year-old, again and again. Rita probably read Anne of Green Gables in this very shack, where she stayed more than once as a young girl, loving the experience as much as the book.

I did not read Anne of Green Gables at the time, but now, separated by two decades and half the continent, reading Anne presents an unexpected and pleasurable sense of connection to my daughter and those earlier times.

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