Vanishing Fruit

Shack Still Life I, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 14x11

Shack Still Life I, acrylic on canvas, 14×11

AS THE WEEK PROGRESSED, the fruit began to vanish before our eyes.

Shack Still Life II, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 20x16

Shack Still Life II, acrylic on canvas, 20×16


Perspectives from a week in Boris’s shack in the Provincetown dunes, May 11 to May 18, 2013.


Single-Serving Scream

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 11x14

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 11×14

FEW RECENT INVENTIONS are as frivolous and wasteful as the single-serving coffee maker. One brand we found washed up on the beach far away from human traffic along the outer banks of the Cape Cod National Seashore last week had five parts: the outer plastic shell, the peel-away foil lid, and a heavy paper filter sandwiched between two plastic mesh disks. All for a single cup of coffee.

For what? Are we so busy and important that we cannot spare the few extra minutes to brew a cup using one of the myriad conventional coffee machines and systems? Is our fix for caffeine (or simply a hot drink, since many of these are decaffeinated) so urgent, our narcissism so great?

It is no wonder that most of the rest of the world is skeptical or incredulous when Americans preach about air pollution, water quality, endangered species, or climate change. “Seriously?” they ask. “You want us to take responsibility for curbing unneeded garbage and waste when you proliferate senseless products like this?”

You would be doing better by the environment by pitching your single-serving coffee machine into the ocean rather than using it, adding these foul cups to the landscape or landfills one by one, drip by drip.

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Dune View, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 11x14

Dune View, acrylic on canvas, 11×14

THE SINGLE-SERVING coffee cup carcasses pale in numbers, of course, next to the empty plastic water bottles glistening along the beach. Aside from the underlying deceit of these things—no safer than most tap water, and astronomically more expensive—the bottles (and plastic bags, another common site on this remote stretch of sand) are deadly to sea turtles and other marine life, which mistake them for jellyfish, part of their natural diet. Once they ingest a plastic bottle, they die.

*            *            *

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 14x11

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 14×11

ON MOTHER’S DAY we found more than one dozen deflated Mylar balloons along a one-mile stretch of beach, and several more scattered across the dunes in the days after. Many of them read “Happy Mother’s Day,” a sad irony given their ultimate destination, littering the surface of Mother Earth.

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 Perspectives from a week in Boris’s shack in the Provincetown dunes, May 11 to May 18, 2013.

Residency in the Dunes

Drift Fence, Dunes, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16

Drift Fence, Dunes, oil on canvas, 20×16

I AM PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE that I have been awarded a summer residency in a dune shack by the Outer Cape Artists in Residence Consortium (OCARC). OCARC awards six two-week residencies each year in the Margo-Gelb shack, from May to October. The one-room shack, which was once owned by painter Boris Margo and his wife, printmaker Jan Gelb, sits on a high dune overlooking the ocean.

OCARC was founded in 1995 in response to a request by the Cape Cod National Seashore to establish a residency program in one of its historic dune shacks at the edge of the Atlantic “back shore” in Provincetown. In the summer of 1995, OCARC was awarded the Margo-Gelb shack by the Seashore, with the first residencies being held in 1996.

OCARC is made up of four nonprofits: the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill, and a dune shack advocacy group, Peaked Hill Trust.

Days before I received this  news, I learned  that my name came up in the annual lottery for a week in a shack (this occurs once every few years; I last “won” a week in the dunes in 2010). I go there for a week this May, a prelude to the residency to follow. Three weeks in less than two months in this rare space is unprecedented for me, and sure to produce some surprises.

Euphoria through the seasons

Euphoria Wind, Russell Steven Powell linoprint, 10x8

Wind, linoprint, 10×8

EUPHORIA IS A CHAMELEON, a snowflake, never appearing the same way twice. Turn your head for just an instant, and it takes on new form.

In early January, I posted a series of linoprints of the dune shack Euphoria, named by its former owner, the late Hazel Hawthorne Werner. The post attempts to convey the shack’s changeability over a 24-hour period in late June.

Euphoria Fog, Russell Steven Powell linoprint, 10x8

Fog, linoprint, 10×8

Euphoria Nightfall, Russell Steven Powell linoprint, 10x8

Nightfall, linoprint, 10×8

Euphoria Winter, Russell Steven Powell linoprint, 10x8

Winter, linoprint, 10×8

Euphoria Spring, Russell Steven Powell linoprint, 10x8

Spring, linoprint, 10×8

Euphoria Summer, Russell Steven Powell linoprint, 10x8

Summer, linoprint, 10×8

Euphoria Fall, Russell Steven Powell linoprint, 10x8

Fall, linoprint, 10×8

9: Reentry

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 17"x14"

Untitled, colored pencil, 17″x14″

THE EXPERIENCE OF FOOD here, like everything else, is elemental. I am singularly aware of everything I eat, as well as the effort of preparing and cleaning up after it.

There is a two-burner hotplate, and a gas refrigerator. The narrow kitchen is modestly, if well-equipped with an assortment of plates, silverware, and cooking utensils.

Meals are simple, and straightforward. A peanut butter sandwich or cereal and yogurt for breakfast, with cranberry juice and coffee. A sandwich at lunch (variations of cheddar cheese, hummus, tomato, pickle, onion, banana peppers, and mustard), with an apple or orange for dessert.

Provincetown dune shack Russell Steven PowellPasta or rice for dinner, with sautéed vegetables, red sauce, and salad. Guacamole with chips one night, rice and beans with corn (“shack chili”) another. No butter or white flour, little sugar or salt.

There is no dishwasher, or even running water. We wash our dishes by hand in a plastic tub in the sink, and empty the gray water outdoors, away from the shack. As writing by hand compares to a word processor, my retro experience sustaining basic life functions here makes me think more about the consequences of my actions, about my consumption. I use less, and re-use whatever I can.

It feels like a healthier relationship to food (eat only good food, only when hungry) than the more casual diet I am used to, which is heavily influenced by having endless choices in my home kitchen or for eating out, and a certain ennui and fewer healthier options at work.

I know from experience that this simpler, healthier approach to food will be difficult to sustain when I return to the rigors of the workplace. But I resolve to start making and bringing healthier lunches there with me.

* * *

Approaching Storm, Dunes, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 14"x11"

Approaching Storm, Dunes, oil on canvas, 14″x11″

THE JUICE AND MILK last through our final morning’s pills and coffee. For breakfast, we finish off the yogurt and the last McIntosh and orange.

There are just a few garlic cloves left, and one onion. We will bring home several carrots, and half-filled jars of pickles, olive oil, and capers.

About one-third of the bar of cheddar remains, plus a little bleu and feta, and varying amounts of nuts, raisins, banana chips, and tea. There’s some leftover tomato sauce from last night’s dinner. A few cereal bars, a quarter can of coffee, half a liter of wine, a partial loaf of bread, and containers of turmeric and chili powder complete the list.

Somehow we overlooked two tins of smoked oysters and a box of crackers on a low shelf, and they will be repacked, unopened.

There’s not much else to bring home. Like every other part of my stay here, I enjoyed my food and savored my meals, but eating was not a main focus.

* * *

Dune Storm, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 11"x14"

Dune Storm, oil on canvas, 11″x14″

A HUGE THUNDERSTORM unfolds over the ocean at 8 a.m. on our final morning, darkening the sky. Rain pelts the shack’s roof, great peals of thunder roll over the blank sea and flashes of lightning streak the sky or form jagged lines connecting cloud and water.

Yet two hours later the heavens clear, and it becomes so warm and humid by noon that we strip down to shorts and T-shirts as we depart the dunes, huddled in the back of a pickup truck packed with our Thalassa neighbors’ and our things.

Our final day is stitched together by lightning: as we approach the Connecticut River on our way home to western Massachusetts around 8 p.m., another thunderstorm strikes, simultaneous with a blazing sunset. The image of a round, red sun in the distance through heavy rain blurring our windshield is strange, a fitting exclamation point to this week of weather extremes.

A happy reunion with our pets, a shave and shower, stories of the shacks with our house-sitter and friend over wine and a dinner of leftovers and seafood (my Spartan diet has already been breached with a milkshake while waiting for the latter to cook at a takeout in Dennisport), and the return to the life we left a week ago begins in earnest.

I know from prior visits that my experience of the dunes has just begun.

8: Dune Beach

Dune Beach, Russell Steven Powell watercolor, 11"x15

Dune Beach, watercolor, 11″x15

ON OUR LAST FULL DAY in Euphoria, we set our alarm for 4:30 a.m. in order to be on the beach to watch the 5:08 sunrise. From the warmth of our narrow, bottom bunk bed we see that the day will begin with clear visibility and little wind. Despite our early rise, though, from our north-facing window we already spot a broad patch of salmon sky sweeping the horizon.

We scramble down the path in our bare feet, which make a sound like soft chewing as they tickle the cool, sugary sand. The gradual sunrise is partially obscured by cloud cover, but the light grows steadily and the sun eventually breaks through not far above the skyline. Our attention toggles between the micro-environment of the beach and the vast ocean, mirroring the spatial relationship between the shack and the dunes.

Atlantic Dawn, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24"x20"

Atlantic Dawn, oil on canvas, 24″x20″

I take photographs, we scour the beach. The sand here is relatively free of ocean debris, but we collect a dozen or so crab shells, bleached pink or white by the sun. We examine a hollowed-out sea urchin, a barely alive crab (tossed back in), and countless compositions of pebble and seaweed, patterns of webbed seagull feet, fragments of pale, pungent sponges, and slick skate egg cases, looking like black raviolis with short tendrils extending from each corner.

There is plenty of bird life at this hour: gulls standing idly near the surf as if waiting for a bus, terns diving, plovers striding, and water fowl too distant to discern. The beach is relatively clean here, but still we pick up stray rubber gloves, plastic bags, beer cans, Styrofoam and other flotsam washed in from the sea.

We linger, watching southeast-bound fishing boats pass by at regular intervals. Gray seals bob up again and again near the beach singly or in pairs, sometimes for an instant, arching their long, smooth torsos as they disappear, other times staring at us through round, curious eyes as we wave our arms in greeting.

The walk provides a good example of how time slows down here: it feels as if we have been out for hours, but we are back in the shack eating breakfast before 7:30 a.m., a full day ahead of us.

It has been windy much of the week, and foggy at times, with patches of rain, or sunny and hot — often all in a single day. Today is no exception, turning out to be the hottest, most summer-like yet, but dissolving into breezy mist by evening (it is not exactly rain, but your skin gets damp even on the short walk to and from the privy).

I have been swimming  in the Atlantic most days. The water is cold but not icy, allowing me to more than simply run in, run out — I manage a couple of dives and float on my back before emerging. The decision to go in rests more on the strength of the wind and air, rather than water, temperature.

More than most beaches, I have an awareness that the ocean is teeming with life here. It is not just the seals or the terns dipping for sand eels; as I stand knee deep in water a good-sized fish, perhaps 18 inches long, approaches my ankles before quickly darting away.

A fisherman who walks the beach most days says he is “sight fishing” for striped bass — spotting their presence just below the water’s surface from shore, then casting in their midst. He pulls in a small one directly in front of where we sit. At 12 or 13 pounds, he says, it is about half as large as what he considers good size. He promptly throws it back in.

But this human presence is the rarity, and this is our sole conversation. Around the clock each day with few exceptions, the beach is ours alone as far as we can see in either direction, to read, walk, talk, or eat sandwiches beneath a mesh sun tent. In a moment of supreme relaxation, I lie splayed like a starfish on the wet sand.

But we, too, are insignificant specks here, where the animal life still dominates. We are of little consequence to the steady air traffic of terns above us, for example. After a lengthy sequence of squawking by two males fighting for the attention of a female, she promptly nests in the sand just outside the roped area arranged by humans to protect her.

No matter; when the park naturalists arrive, they merely pull up the fence posts on either side of her and arrange them closer to the ocean to accommodate her nest.

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.