6: Painting

Still Life with Avocado, Russell Steven Powell watercolor on paper, 15"x11"

Still Life with Avocado, watercolor on paper, 15″x11″

PAINTING AND ITS BODY ANALOG, athletics, both require endurance training. Practicing the art of shooting a basketball or developing proper running form is akin to learning to draw, requiring hand-eye coordination, fluidity, muscle control, and stamina. Physical and mental fitness  are essential to do either activity well.

Usually I only manage to paint for two or three hours at a time, but already this week I have had four- and five-hour stretches. It is energizing, relaxing — and draining. Painting is mostly pleasurable, but it is difficult at times to maintain concentration and control of my arm, wrist, and hand.

Today I paint for six hours, comparable, perhaps, to a long training run for a 26.2-mile marathon. During long runs I experience extended periods of serene beauty, where I feel totally in sync, successfully balancing relaxation with effort, moving fluidly, breathing rhythmically.

But there are other times when the pace is hard to sustain, physically and mentally. During these moments, my mind seeks relief from the relentless physical exertion, but also from the demands of concentration. The discomfort makes manifest my doubts about my ability to complete what I set out to accomplish.

Running through these mental troughs, I become more fit and gain greater confidence that I will emerge stronger from the next one. The effect over time is that I run further, faster, and more often than I originally thought possible.

***

AS I BEGIN this still-life with avocado, I already sense a greater familiarity with its demands of time and patience, a result of the painting I have done leading up to it.

I have used watercolors before, but never so intently as this week. I have learned a great deal in just these few days about layering, blending, mixing, and washing. I have a better command of my brushes and how best to use them, and my hand gradually is becoming more steady.

***

FOR ALL THEIR SIMILARITIES, painting requires not running’s speed, but its antithesis. Unlike running’s perpetual motion, painting allows for, even demands, slowing down, stopping at times, practicing patience and cultivating introspection. I get up and walk away, the painting hovering near my consciousness the whole time — or not — as I make subcutaneous connections, choices, approaches.

I stare at the painting from across the room, and again within reach of my palette. I study the plate of arranged fruit, clarifying planes and angles with my outstretched brush. I stare out the window to the ocean, off in the distance, thought abstracted in the waves.

I make a bold, impulsive stroke or take minutes to trace a single line. I sip a cup of tea, peel an orange as the forms gradually gain shape and contour, slowly, unrecognizable at first.

I add layers of color before arriving at a final, intricate shade, learning to trust in the deliberate, repetitive process, like a chant or prayer. The painting needs to be absorbed, allowed to sink in before it can paradoxically emerge. Part of it is seeing, becoming more observant, even mathematical at times. Some of it is about being on the surface of the objects I draw, sensing the avocado’s curve as though I am walking on it rather than seeing it from afar.

In running, my goal is to move freely through space. In painting, it is to inhabit space, to supplement, or transpose, my vision with the tactile.

5: Dune Night

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 14"x17"

Untitled, colored pencil, 14″x17″

AT TEN O’CLOCK last night we walked down to the beach, leaving behind the embers of a small fire in the woodstove and a single lamp turned low. The beach was beautiful and still, except for the steady, rhythmic breaking of the waves. A solitary yellow light advanced slowly right to left, east to west, on the dark horizon.

The evening was cool, but we could have walked the beach for hours. We were not dressed for it, though, and in any case could not stray far from the dying fire.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on wood, 8"x6"

Untitled, oil on wood, 8″x6″

Hundreds of fatal shipwrecks haunt these shores. In The Outermost House, published in 1928, Henry Beston wrote admiringly of the Coast Guard surfmen who patrolled the beach around the clock, year-round, looking for boats foundering in the sandbars off this wild stretch of ocean off the outer beach.

The nightly beach patrols began with the formation of the United States Life-Saving Service on Cape Cod in the 1870s, and continued until 1940, when a safer route for boat traffic was secured with completion of the Cape Cod Canal. Some of these night-walkers are credited with building some of the early shacks, around the time of Beston’s book, as havens from bad weather or places to meet their sweethearts.

The first shacks, though, appeared on Cape Cod’s outer beaches more than a century earlier, as part of relief efforts by the Massachusetts Humane Society, to shelter any shipwrecked sailors who made it alive to shore.

Now it feels supremely safe in these dunes, like being inside a giant sandbox.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 14"x11"

Untitled, oil on canvas, 14″x11″

Night, what Beston calls “the true other half of the day’s tremendous wheel,” is a rich and complex part of our planetary experience from which many people retreat. We expend copious time and energy trying to defeat it, overwhelming the dark with synthetic light before falling to sleep, with perhaps a lingering look at the full moon, moved by its natural illumination, or a starry night sky.

We rarely give our senses time to adjust to and explore the night, with its unique shades, tones, and odors. But here in the dunes, we are stripped of artificial light except for a few dots of flame from a kerosene lamp and the distant floodlight from a ship sliding silently across our horizon. There are no human predators, and it would be a rare storm to threaten us on shore.

Our latent senses are activated in this environment, fear of the unknown confronted. All but the fear blossom.

* * *

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 14"x11"

Untitled, oil on canvas, 14″x11″

WE BEGIN a twilight walk to Peg’s shack for a visit with friends, taking the winding, inland route through the dunes. I have made the ten-minute walk many times, but this is my first time here in four years, and the dunes often shift from season to season. We make several false starts to Peg’s off the main road as I struggle to get my bearings.

Finally, by process of elimination, we approach a shack sitting well above the dunes, though it makes little sense to me. I know Peg’s to be practically buried in the sand — not visible from either the beach or the interior road on which we walk. This shack jutting above the dunes does not fit, but its roofline and porch are familiar, and we have run out of choices.

When we near the shack, rust-colored light seeps from its windows and there is a low murmur of voices inside. But the entryway is level — not the descent down several stairs I remember. Our friends supply the answer to this riddle: since my last visit the shack has been lifted up seven feet, placing it (for now) safely above the encroaching dunes.

After conversation over a couple of glasses of musty red wine from a vineyard in nearby Truro, we start for home, around nine. A heavy fog has rolled in, and it is quite dark. Rather than return the way we came, we decide to walk the beach.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell watercolor, 11"x15"

Untitled, watercolor, 11″x15″

The fog is too thick to reveal stars, or even the presence of other shacks that might serve as landmarks. We carry flashlights, but still I am unable to make out the cut to the beach where the path from town ends. As we walk and walk, the dunes become more strange and unfamiliar.

At one point I leave the beach and scramble to the top of a large dune, but see nothing recognizable from its vantage point — not a single shack. After a brief debate, we continue walking in the same direction.

Before long, near the base of a shadowy dune, we see a large black mass emerge from the darkness. Bigger than a bear, smaller than a whale, it gradually forms into the hard edges of a pick-up truck as we approach. It is empty, as far as we can tell, though we do not choose to investigate. As no vehicles are allowed on the beach during the nesting season of the plovers and terns, we now know we have come too far, and turn back.

We walk briskly, enough for me to work up a light sweat beneath my windbreaker. After about ten minutes we find the outer edge of the area roped off for the birds. I shine my light on the single strand of twine looped between each post, and we follow it for another ten minutes.

Eventually we come to a break in the line, signaling the now-recognizable path to Euphoria, which winds through a field of dune grass after it leaves the beach, and over a little rise before joining the driveway. You cannot actually see the shack until you are at the top of this rise.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell monoprint, 10"x8"

Untitled, acrylic monoprint, 10″x8″

With our unintended detour, the walk home from Peg’s took well over an hour. It was pleasant, a puzzle of sorts. We appreciated it mostly in silence, listening to the breaking surf, breathing the mists and smelling the warm salt air, enjoying the feel of our legs pushing through the sand, making out what little we could see.

You cannot really get lost in this space, but the dunes can be disorienting at times, seeming to take on a life of their own.

4: Dune Society

Dune Fence, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24"x48"

Dune Fence, oil on canvas, 24″x48″

AROUND MIDDAY I return to “town” following a three-hour walk southeast along the beach (an hour out, an hour of writing, and then back). The roughly mile-long, half-mile-wide stretch of dunes framed eastward by the Jones shack (about which I know little, other than its location) and Euphoria to the west has several shacks within its radius, occasionally visible but discretely nestled in the dunes.

There is Peg Watson’s place. Her end was grimly poetic — she died here, crawling up the face of a dune after her Jeep broke down (she suffered from severe, chronic arthritis).

Just before Peg’s shack is one owned by Ray Wells, who, if she had her way, would likely go in a similar fashion. Now 103 and limited to an apartment in New York City, Ray still insists that she will walk to her shack once again from Route 6. I admire her spirit, but in her frail state she could not possibly make the 25-minute walk over dunes to get there.

Euphoria stairs, Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 14"x17"

Euphoria stairs, colored pencil, 14″x17″

Her shack, set high on stilts back from the water, is currently in disrepair because Ray has been unable to make the trip out by foot or vehicle for several years now. Until recently, she has not allowed others to maintain it, either, and structures like the shacks cannot withstand this harsh environment for long if not cared for. Fortunately, Ray has now granted permission to the Peaked Hill Trust, which holds leases to several of the shacks, to rehabilitate her shack.

Next comes the Bratten shack, home to the dunes’ only year-round human resident, who after years of walking in and out exclusively now has a car, which looks disconcerting where he parks it in the dunes behind his shack. Continuing westward there is Bessay’s, then Thalassa (Greek for “the sea”), one of two shacks, with Euphoria, named by longtime owner Hazel Hawthorne Werner. Hazel was a central figure in the halcyon days of the shacks, allowing many artists, writers, and an assortment of other bohemians to stay here.

Thalassa is one of the smallest shacks, and the nearest to the ocean. Hazel purchased it for her children to stay in while she lived in Euphoria, a courageous or foolhardy act, depending on your point of view, given its distance from Euphoria — at least half a mile.

Dawn from Euphoria, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24"x18"

Dawn from Euphoria, oil on canvas, 24″x18″

Set back in the dunes is neat, white-trimmed Fowler’s, looking more like a small cottage than a shack (it even has a chemical toilet). Above it, atop a dune overlooking the sea, is Boris’sthe boxy shack formerly owned by the late painters Boris Margo and Jan Gelb. Boris would form a great sculpture on the beach with driftwood he had gathered all summer, and set it ablaze for a bacchanal every August, to which his friends and anyone else who ventured out from town were invited.

Zara’s sits further back in the dunes than the other shacks, without ocean views. Because of its location it offers a unique experience of the environment, and inside it feels relatively spacious, with a pitched pyramid roof and screened-in porch. Zara, now in her 80s, remains in good health and continues to spend time in her shack every summer.

From Euphoria’s door facing southeast we have good views of Boris’s’ and Fowler’s, and see traces of a few others — the vent pipe of a privy here, a birdhouse there, a fading tarpaper roofline. Bisecting the quarter-mile of dunes between Boris’s and Euphoria, we also glimpse occasional walkers on the sandy path leading to the beach.

When the terns and plovers are done nesting, a few vehicles with permits, mostly fisherman, are allowed to drive along the beach from Race Point, about two miles northwest of here. But they are banned now.

Provincetown dunes Russell Steven PowellThe exception, ironically, is the ATVs driven by two naturalists working to save the protected birds. They seem enthusiastic, but opine resignedly that coyotes will probably get the eggs before they hatch (though I have neither seen nor heard coyotes during my stays in the dunes).

Several riders on horseback traverse this stretch of beach most days, especially at twilight, when they appear as silhouettes on the horizon.

***

IF YOU ARE GOING to see people while staying in the dunes, the beach at the end of the dune road amid this constellation of shacks is the likeliest place to encounter them. After a morning of being alone with my thoughts, I now meet the older couple we rode in with, who are staying at Thalassa, and we exchange a few pleasantries.

Among other things, they tell me that the junior high school students we saw walking in the day before were not a local group from Provincetown, as we had suspected, but from an inner city in southern Connecticut. The students and their chaperones camped in Brewster overnight, and made the trek into the dunes as a day trip.

Untitled Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 14"x17"

Untitled colored pencil, 14″x17″

Some of the children had never seen the ocean before. The distant sound of their laughing and chatter was startling but pleasant in the normally quiet dunes, like a brief visitation of migrating birds.

Moving on, I nod silently to a middle-aged man wearing a sky-blue baseball hat and a woman in a white blouse with short, strawberry-blonde hair, perched on a blanket just above the surf, not wanting to interrupt their conversation.

A binocular-wielding man covered by dungarees, beach hat, sunglasses, and a faded-yellow shirt billowing in the breeze, stands with his back to the ocean. He appears to be searching the dunes for signs of nesting birds. Because of its proximity, I presume he is staying at Boris’s shack. (Later in the week this is confirmed; he has been coming to the dunes off and on for 40 years.)

There are three pairs of young men. One pair sunbathes at the base of the dunes, another sits propped up reading, mid-beach. A third arrives on the entry road as I pass by, dressed in light-colored plaids.

These are my day’s society.

***

POSTCRIPT: Shack owner Ray Wells passed away July 23, 2011.

3: Vacation

Still Life with Cantaloupe, detail, Russell Steven Powell watercolor, 11"x15"

Still Life with Cantaloupe, detail, watercolor, 11″x15″

ON MOST VACATIONS, time speeds up. I just get settled in to a place and establish a rhythm, it seems, and I look up and it is already Thursday, and I begin to anticipate loss and return. Here in the dunes, every day is like a week of true living, each 24-hour period spawning several days within it.

It’s not exactly vacation by most people’s standards. There are few amenities—no going out to eat, no maid service, no shopping or museums (except to the extent that the shack itself is a living museum). Being here, for me at least, is not the absence of work, but rather an exchange: I replace labor for someone else with labor of my own making, on my terms and schedule.

Civilization, we know, requires the cumulative efforts of masses of people to accomplish common goals, such as manufacturing cars or running a college. But these shared endeavors are not innate to us as individuals. We labor on behalf of others for the money to buy goods necessary to support our independent lives, our separate houses and cars, our nuclear families. The world of work, for most of us, is no altruistic beehive or ant colony; our loyalty must be earned, or bought.

With our individuality comes the capacity for passion and independent thought, and these defy conscription. Thus many people become resigned to their work, accept it as a cost of living, and seek their true passion elsewhere, often vicariously. Hopefully they find their tasks worthy and colleagues pleasant, and feel adequately compensated.

Vacation may be a necessary compensation for the sacrifices we make to earn our money (and from our employer’s point of view, an essential ingredient to sustained productivity). But many people confuse the need for time off from our jobs with a break from labor. For those of us in white-collar positions, this is especially absurd, since our work is not physical, and includes enough repetitive tasks that its abstract mental challenges can hardly be considered taxing.

(Is thinking work? We don’t stop thinking on vacation, whether reading a mystery or exploring a new destination. But we exercise a different part of the brain than the one we use in the repetitive aspects of our jobs. Is exercise work?)

Still LIfe with Tomato, detail, Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 17"x14"

Still LIfe with Tomato, detail, colored pencil, 17″x14″

With rare exceptions, few of us work to full capacity in our day jobs, and those who do often are less interested in vacation — they don’t feel as great a need to separate from activity they genuinely enjoy doing, on behalf of some organization or cause whose goals and culture they freely embrace. For the rest, the need for vacation can signify dissonance between how we spend our days and who we think we are.

A week in the dunes subverts this, in part because the shacks lack the traditional trappings of leisure. Like any vacation, we are free to do what we want here, true; the physical demands are slight. But without the usual distractions and filters of society, there are few barriers to realizing one’s self — our fundamental, holistic selves, not just what we do to “make a living.” Sleep, paint, read, write, walk or sunbathe here, the choice is not mediated by either a need to escape work, or an expectation about how, or when, to do it.

Most of the year we go to bed and set our alarms in the morning, shave and shower, eat, do chores and make plans for living, not according to our own rhythms, but in deference to our workplace. Perversely, we can’t wait for the week — and our lives — to speed by, so we can get to the next weekend. Then we look back and say, “I can’t believe summer’s over,” or “where did the time go?”

Living in the dunes, we are no longer on the clock, at work or away from it. Time slows down here. Our hours are no longer ordered and regulated around the workday axis — or in response to it.

Our institutions are necessary, and commerce inevitable. We are social animals, congenial for the most part when it comes to serving a larger purpose or need. Most people do not consciously rebel against their lack of control or feel deprived of passion, and are willing to trade the uncertainty of freedom for the security of a clear purpose and fixed schedule, with predictable costs and rewards. One of those rewards is vacation, prescribed periods away from the job offering just enough taste of the other side to satisfy our appetite for independence.

Certain words in our lexicon become appropriated or politicized beyond, or rather ahead of, their definition in dictionaries. Vacation is one of these — to “vacate” implying emptiness rather than the fullness of living according to our own desires. The term “vacation” is determined by, set in opposition to, the world of industrial work, from which we are granted a temporary escape.

2: Flora and Fauna

Rosa rugosa, Provincetown dunes

Rosa rugosa, Provincetown dunes

THE PINK AND WHITE beach roses, Rosa rugosa, are heavily in bloom, the air thick with their perfume as you pass near them, as you are bound to do twice on the path from our door to the beach, about a five-minute walk from the north-facing shack (the sun rises and sets over the ocean). A broad thicket of roses drapes over the ridge 20 feet from our door; another hangs precariously from the flat face of a dune rising from the base of the beach.

The dune grass bends and glistens in the wind. A band of it 30 yards wide or more interrupts the sand and stretches east and west between the shack and the beach. Its color is highly variable; depending on the time of day, it runs from lime to bluish-green, with accents of silver or gold. Only the ocean, with its browns, purples, grays, greens and myriad shades of blue, reflects more colors.

A number of boats already are visible by 6 a.m., plus the loud rumble of an engine that gradually fades eastward, out of view. To the west, on my left, a sailboat silently plies the waves, and two small fishing boats skip across my view, like father and son. An airplane drones overhead, unseen. There is not a cloud in the powder-blue sky.

I see a lone merganser lying down on the sand at the edge of the surf, and a number of gray seals diving and resurfacing near the water’s edge. Our interest in the seals seems reciprocal, as they frequently appear near shore and gaze at us head-on or in profile. (We saw as many as 14 at once during our week, an impressive sight, but our friend at Peg’s shack said she saw several dozen early one morning sleeping with their heads poked just above the water, and the people at Thalassa witnessed a “haul-up” of a hundred or more seals gathered in a mass on the beach two miles east of here.)

Some distance from the shore, great hosts of seagulls dot the waves for much of the day, leaving jagged, whitish patches and the impression that there is some source of easy food drifting by just beneath the surface. The beach is animated as always with tern action: squawking, diving, darting, emerging from the sea with sand eels glinting from their beaks, nesting in cordoned-off spaces in the hot sand bordering the dunes, which they share with piping plovers.

The ring-necked plovers, legs whirring, skitter up and down the beach, always watching, occasionally chirping. It is both a state and federal crime, the signs say, to disturb their nesting.

View from Euphoria, watercolor, 15"x11"

View from Euphoria, watercolor, 15″x11″

Back at the shack, a mouse walks boldly out from behind the dish drainer in broad daylight until it sees me sitting at the nearby table, then hastily retreats. We saw our first evidence of mice last night, as a roll of paper towels was pulled into the sink and shredded for a nest (later discovered behind the wood stove), the mouse ignoring the single curling strand of pasta, a straggler from dinner, clinging to the porcelain.

There are daily shack rituals like sweeping the floors of sand, checking for ticks (happily we found none) and filling plastic gallon jugs with rust-colored water from a pump at the base of a dune at the end of a winding path through and beyond the rose thicket. Then there are the rituals we brought here, that keep us from totally forgetting ourselves: toothbrush and floss, and a litany of pills—flaxseed, calcium, glucosamine with breakfast, aspirin at night. Through these, continuity and equilibrium are maintained.

1: Arrival

The dune shack Euphoria

The dune shack Euphoria

June 2010 – IT IS MID-AFTERNOON Saturday on our first day in a small, one-room shack in the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I have just awoken from a nap. She is out walking. It is warm and windy, and the screens are whistling.

We packed incrementally over the past few days, but inevitably still forgot some things, most importantly our sleeping bags. Fortunately, on the way we were able to purchase three pillowcases, two sheets, and a comforter in excellent condition for $10.89 at a thrift shop in Wellfleet.

The slow, circuitous drive through the dunes in the back of a pick-up truck, the exchange of guests and gear at Thalassa and then Euphoria, the instructions about drinking water, where to find the pilot light on the gas refrigerator, how high to keep the kerosene lamps, and making popcorn for the privy are all part of the transition ritual. Then we are by ourselves.

Our shack, one of 18 along a five-mile stretch, is a remnant from the 1920s and 1930s. Individually and collectively, they have had unusual histories, from their beginnings as retreats for Coast Guard surfmen walking the beach at night, to decades of casual use and bohemian activity by writers, artists, and other lovers of solitude, from playwright Eugene O’Neill and photographer Walker Evans to writer Jack Kerouac and the painters Boris Margo and Jan Gelb.

Since the early 1960s the shacks gradually have been passing into the hands of the federal government overseeing the Cape Cod National Seashore, and there has ensued a protracted public debate about their continued existence and use, which still continues. As a district, though, the shacks are now eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, not for their architecture — there may not be an original board left in these wind-swept structures — but for their cultural history and the rare experience of solitude they continue to provide in the fragile and shifting dunes.

Except for the handful of people who make the 25-minute walk to the beach here from town, and the daily pass-through several times of tourists with Art’s Dune Tours, mostly in the afternoon, the shacks amid miles of sea, sand and sky remain blissfully free of signs of civilization.

But it is near impossible, it seems, to escape commerce altogether. Less than an hour after our arrival, a biplane makes its way slowly up the coastline, trailing a huge banner sponsored by Dunkin Donuts that waves eerily, leerily, invasively, “You Look Hot Down There.”

About ‘Shack Time’

Dunes, Dawn, oil on canvas, 16"x20"

Dunes, Dawn, oil on canvas, 16″x20″

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.

Gathering Storm, Dunes, oil on canvas, 14"x11"

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

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:

Dune Storm, oil on canvas, 11"x14"

Dune Storm, oil on canvas, 11″x14″

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.”

Atlantic Ocean from the dunes, watercolor, 11″x15″

Atlantic Ocean from the dunes, watercolor, 11″x15″

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.

Dune Grass, watercolor, 11"x15"

Dune Grass, watercolor, 11″x15″

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.

View from Euphoria, Provincetown Dunes, watercolor, 11"x15"

View from Euphoria, watercolor, 11″x15″

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.”

Dune Shack, 12 views, oil on canvas, 36"x48"

Dune Shack, 12 views, oil on canvas, 36″x48″

“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.”

Euphoria interior

Euphoria interior

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.

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View from Euphoria, dusk

View from Euphoria, dusk

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.

Evening meal, Euphoria

Evening meal, Euphoria

“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

Sunset, Dunes, colored pencil, 14"x17"

Sunset, Dunes, colored pencil, 14″x17″

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.”

Sunset, Provincetown dunes

Sunset, Provincetown dunes

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.”

Untitled, colored pencil, 14"x17"

Untitled, colored pencil, 14″x17″

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.

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