The Shack of Art and Healing

A simple list of plants from the Pilgrims' description of the tip of Cape Cod in the 1622 Mourt's Relation, is, strangely enough, one of the more haunting lines in Cape Cod history. "They found it to be a small neck of land; on this side where we lay is the bay, and the further side the sea; the ground or earth, sand hills, much like the downs in Holland, but much better; the crust of the earth a spit's depth excellent black earth; all wooded with oaks, pines, sassafras, juniper, birch, holly, vines, some ash, walnut . . . " Though it is unclear exactly where they were looking—and certainly there were sandy stretches on the Cape from earliest times—Cape Cod, so famed for sand, was once more forested.

Growing up in Provincetown, Mass. I had heard occasional tales of buried trees and of ancient tree stumps at the bottom of the harbor, but it was not until I read two old local histories, Frederick Freeman's 1860 The History of Cape Cod and Shebnah Rich's 1883 Truro—Cape Cod, or, Land marks and sea marks, that I realized that swaths of Cape Cod's dune landscape are, in essence, man-made.

The histories tell of how seventeenth and eighteenth century settlers and crews from visiting ships cut down much of a forest here for firewood and lumber for houses and boats. They had come from England, where various laws and private ownership restricted access to woodlands, and they now gorged themselves on free wood for every purpose. Soon there was little left to hold the sand, and the dunes began to move, burying remaining trees and threatening the town and its valuable harbor. The state tried for years to stop the cutting of trees and the grazing of cattle, but Provincetowners have never liked being interfered with (a trait with both positive and negative consequences). The federal government appropriated money for the planting of beach grass to finally bring the dunes under relative control in the nineteenth century.

Part of this celebrated landscape, then, is a wasteland, perhaps an adapted one, but a wasteland nevertheless. Why do people now see it in terms of wonder and beauty rather than despair? I know it is not that obscure a piece of information, just an ignored one. Despite Henry Beston's Outermost House, John Hay's The Great Beach, and so many other popular Cape Cod books, I think this landscape suggests far more about human nature than anything else. Such as our endless capacity for destruction, no matter the fragility of the subject. And a tendency to take note too late, to mourn too briefly, and to forget as quickly as we came and got. This place's literary history, too, points to our habit of following the leader, of reading and believing what we are told to.

I spent the second week of May 2000 in a dune shack in the Province Lands on the back side of Provincetown. Someone had cancelled their residency week, and I was the runner-up in the lottery. These dune shack residencies are advertised as "retreats for art and healing," but all I wanted was time to read and write. Writing and painting in a dune shack is something of a legendary experience in Provincetown, and I wanted to see what the fuss over them was about. This was the easiest way for me to get there now.

Over the past several years I have been reading many things that relate to my family's past on the Lower Cape—histories, old records and newspapers, novels, travelers' accounts, archaeological surveys, studies of Portuguese-American communities, and books on fishing and whaling. But there is one genre I tried, and failed, to read with the same enthusiasm I brought to the other material. The box of books I brought with me to the shack included the usual eclectic mix: the above-mentioned nineteenth century Cape Cod histories by Freeman and Rich, Mary Heaton Vorse's Time and the Town (a favorite of mine), and the Portuguese classic The Lusiads. I also packed a book I had been avoiding for a while: John Hay's 1963 The Great Beach. John Hay has been called the "nature-writing laureate of Cape Cod," and I thought that perhaps here, if anywhere, I could come to terms with Cape Cod nature writing.

On the morning my residency began, a volunteer named Sam drove me out to the shack via a long sandy trail marked Fire Road. He mentioned the lost forest to me on the way out in the jeep. When we arrived at the one-and-a-half story gray-shingled house in a shallow valley of sand dunes, I met the previous week's resident: a "multi-media" artist named Ellen, probably in her fifties, with short gray hair and an intense stare. She said she hadn't done much work, that she'd mostly just been writing in her journal and meditating. When she said the word "meditating" she fixed her eyes on mine. I took it as a challenge: meditation as competition. She was sizing me up and she seemed to say, "I bet you don't meditate."

As I listened to the conversation between Sam and Ellen, I began to get that familiar feeling of being out of place in my own hometown—a feeling I got most often while walking down Commercial Street in the summertime crowds. The night before, while in a frantic rush to get batteries and flashlights and other supplies for my week without electricity and running water, I'd glimpsed a woman walking down the street wearing a large pair of well-feathered angel's wings. Locals tend to react to such sights with a combination of proud composure and bemused resignation that masks a secret delight in living in a place where these things have at times been the norm. So I had thought little of this angel—it's never too early in the season for costumes.

What I had forgotten in my haste, of course, was that that night, May 5th, was the night of the potential world-ending alignment of the planets (whatever that means). While I unpacked, Sam and Ellen started talking about the night's "energy:" the strange vibe he'd felt on Commercial Street, and the animal sightings she declined to detail. I later suspected it was just the little cottontail bunny that was living under the shack. This kind of conversation, I knew, shied away from specifics as much as from any hint of negativity. I finally had to interrupt them to find out where the flue was on the wood stove, whether there was extra kerosene for the lamps, and how to use the outdoor water pump, not to mention the outhouse itself.

They drove off and left me alone in the shack, which was more like a house and bigger than my Boston apartment. It had a combination dining room and kitchen, a living room, and a loft bedroom above the living room. The bedroom seemed strangely well-furnished for a rough old place on the beach. It contained a red oriental carpet, a mahogany and glass linen cabinet, a wicker chest full of blankets, an upholstered armchair, and a leather drum the size of a small coffee table. In the kitchen I found so much stored food I realized I had probably brought too much of my own. I opened canisters full of Met-Rx, green tea, and Master's Choice chocolate bars imported from Germany.

I went outside and sat on the new wood of the deck as the sun came out. From somewhere very far away I heard the sound of hammering, and later, a siren. It was a forty-five minute walk to the closest inhabited area, if you didn't count the other dune shacks, some of them still boarded up, which lay over some distant hills.

This dune shack is one of nineteen surviving shacks built in the dunes on the back side of town before the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore park lands. The "Seashore" decided to bulldoze all of the shacks after it took over the land in 1961. Those that are still standing exist because some of the owners took the Park Service to court and eventually won. As I understand it, the current owners have lifetime leases on their shacks; when they die the buildings revert to the Seashore. The C-Scape shack began in the 1940s when a local couple, Eddie and Mary Nunes, moved a structure from another town and made additions to it; they also gave it its name. It changed hands many times and, since 1996, has been leased from the Seashore by the non-profit organization that runs the residency program. Park rangers now bring tours in to see the visual artists at work here in the summer.

Local people built many of the dune shacks early in the twentieth century, though they may have replaced even older fishing huts. While the Province Lands were owned by the state from the beginning of the town's history, it seems that anyone who wanted to could build a shelter out here from wood they found on the beach. The shacks are small, weathered, and well braced for storms.

My grandfather built several of the shacks himself, perhaps as many as three or four, so it's ironic that I should feel out of place here. He sold them so long ago that no one knows anymore if any of them are still standing, or what they might look like now—though I'm told that one of them had a roof shaped like the upside-down hull of a boat.

The area is most famous as the site of the old Coast Guard Station where Eugene O'Neill lived and wrote—before the building fell into the sea and he left for other places. Many of the town's other artists and writers worked out here too, leading to the area's eventual designation as the Peaked Hill Bars National Register Historic District. A few people made dune shacks their permanent or near-permanent homes. Harry Kemp was the biggest self-promoter among these. I have read how he would ply O'Neill with his sometimes awful rhyming poems, hoping for a scrap of praise. He has been dead for more than forty years, but he's still known as the "Poet of the Dunes" and has even been republished. Printed on the brochure advertising the dune shack residences are his lines: "My shack standing in the middle of all thisä/Next door to heaven and close on the gates/of sunsetäI've got what few have,/I've got the life I want!" Sam told me on the drive that he'd finally been able to get into Kemp's poetry after spending some time out here.

Among locals, however, the shacks have a less genteel reputation. This is one of those gaps in understanding between natives and most (though not all) "washashores." Before anything else, the dune shacks of my imagination are places of wild parties, chaos, and regrets (my mother says my father used to go out there with notorious town hell raisers such as Norman Mailer). They were where you went to do things you didn't want people to know about in a small town, and to escape authority. I used to look forward to getting my turn out here when I grew up—but I never thought I would be filling out an application to do so.

Going back further, there is an older layer of belief beyond the New Age spiritualism I couldn't seem to escape in the Shack of Art and Healing: in Cape Cod folktales, these dunes on the back side of the Cape are the domain of the devil. Some of these tales may even be based on earlier Native American stories about the region. By contrast, in the early twentieth century, the town's Portuguese immigrants gave rise to a legend of a visit by the Virgin Mary, whose footprints blossomed into the clusters of yellow flowers that still grow in the dunes.

Part of me wishes the dune shacks were still lawless and free. Today, the photocopied C-Scape regulations, several pages long, ban dogs and many other things, and explicitly forbid anything a park ranger could possibly "construe as a party."

The landscape here is not all sand—there is the beach grass growing on ridges and down the sides of some dunes. The shallow valley beyond the deck is partially filled with thin, low shrubs that added a dark gray touch to the overall impression of a scoured, bone-dry landscape.

The Atlantic is just over the dune, and the surf added a constant background noise, almost like static. Huge bumblebees swung back and forth over the deck, tracing the same patterns in the air each time as if they were on strings. One resident, I later read, thought these bees were fighting when they suddenly buzzed at each other and flew off locked together. Another thought they were mating. I could never decide—I think perhaps it was both.

Before taking out the books I'd brought with me, I took a quick look through the three volumes of journals left by four years' worth of residents. I sat on the old Indian tapestry covered couch in the living room in front of the cold wood stove, with one good painting to my left, and one very bad pink and green painting to my right. There were two maps of the dunes and a poem written on an old shingle by a group of children on a wall near the couch. In the bookshelf below, I noticed a game of Candy Land. Somewhere behind my head in the Styrofoam-insulated walls that looked like they might double for flotation, I could hear the scratching of a family of mice.

What I read in the journals increased my sense of not having the proper set of responses to this place. I was told I had entered a "realm of magic and poetry" in these dunes. Along with a few drawings and small paintings in the pages, and the occasional interesting musing of a novelist, there were dozens of flailing, repetitive descriptions of the beauty of sand, waves, birds, shells, and light. The words relaxation, recovery, peace, and communion recurred over and over again. I had come here to work, dreaming of all that I would get done, and I felt like an imposter. But then I also felt there was something programmed about the responses people described—as if they were following some script that I didn't want to, or couldn't, follow.

By the end of the first day, though, I felt something I didn't expect. I had never had anything like a house of my own in Provincetown—this was the closest I had ever been, even if it was only for a week. My family had been through a lot in recent years, and I had gotten used to the daze brought about by a constant, low-level sense of loss. Even though I had developed something of a love-hate relationship with the town, I was going to enjoy this.

Wednesday, May 10

I have been carrying in wood and water. Today it poured, thunder and lightning too, for hours. My hands are so cold that I'm holding them under someone's old blanket on this couch which squeaks just like the mice that have been eating my food. It is hard to do work when I feel so uncomfortable. I've been getting up the courage to "take a shower" outside all day now. But with no sun, there's no solar shower.

The wind is so strong at night that I wake up and wonder if the loft is about to tumble off, rolling with me in it, down the dune. I imagine that single well-furnished room, with the oriental and the glass cabinet, out by itself in this desolate place. The room sways, but not like a boat. Someday it's going to come off. I think about the strength of the metal braces holding the wood stove's chimney to the roof. I think about them a lot.

I have had the worst dreams here. Arguing, two nights in a row, first with my mother and then while being fired from work. Then plane crashes and Kennedys, the one with one leg. My father says one of the early owners of this shack, Howard Lewis, had only one leg. I don't know how he did it, how he got along in the shack. (Less to wash, though.)

It's 5:30 and I think I'm going to go dump a pot full of half-boiled chili-flavored water over my head. Then I'll have to dry my hair in the wood stove smoke, which will make it dirty all over again.

Every day, except for that one terrible day when it was rainy and cold, I worked in the morning and went for a long walk along the beach or through the dunes or the low, bog-ridden forest between them and the highway.

I started, then stopped, John Hay's The Great Beach several times. There was a basic guidebook to the plants of the National Seashore propped on a shelf in the shack like some kind of religious icon, and I kept reading that instead. I read about the plants I saw on my walks or knew from around my parents' house. I read how lichen grows even on bare rock, and can turn even the most inhospitable surface into soil rich enough for other plants to grow in after a few years. I read about the stunted pines growing flat along the ground, about poverty grass, wild asparagus, hog cranberry, cat's briar, bayberry, and the few other things out here. It was a thin book.

If The Great Beach had been a well-written book about Death Valley or Alaska, I might have swallowed every word, but I was here, had known the landscape since childhood, and I realized I didn't want Hay's voice interpreting these plants and this scenery for me. I found his descriptions weak and his conclusions vague. His clouds are "like heaps of spun silk," and the sun on the water makes it look like "molten gold and silver." Hay's sentences trail off from promising specificity to vague, sometimes incomprehensible conclusions, "The bryozoans on the seaweed tell a deep and primitive tale about the salt water and its animation." You can take many sentences out of context and have no idea what they mean. Not only that, you can take two sentences from the same page and get the same effect, such as, "A greater landscape means a new communion," and "Mountains or seashore make for revelation."

The passages I did like provided more facts than most: I learned about two kinds of fog, tidal bulges, milestones in the lives of the diatoms, and that Cape Cod Bay's tendency to ice up is unique on the East Coast.

I had to give Hay credit for sounding more intimate and being a bit more present than he might have, especially in the one chapter he devotes to the human history of the area. But Hay and other Cape Cod nature writers sometimes seem to live in a "place apart" within their heads. The place they describe is partly just in their imagination, the way the dune shacks, in another way, were in mine.

My own little manifesto against Cape Cod nature writing still stands. It has surely been said before, but I continue to feel this genre, which can be traced back to Thoreau's Cape Cod, has been operating on some unspoken assumptions:

1. Audience. The land described is always in understood comparison to suburban/urban life, which the reader is assumed to share. Hay says, "One afternoon in the middle of June I set off from Race Point at Provincetown, carrying a pack and sleeping bag, with Nauset Light Beach in Eastham, twenty-five miles away, as my destination, and my purpose simply to be on the beach, to see it and feel it for whatever it turned out to be, since most of my previous visits had been the sporadic hop, skip, and jump kind to which our automotivated lives seem to lead us."

2. Morality. Human objects, whether trash or a house (excepting perhaps the author's?), take on an immoral air and an original sin for simply existing at all.

3. Class. Natives and those employed in any way in the landscape do not and cannot have the same deep thoughts about the landscape as the (apparently unemployed) nature writer is having. (Unless the native fits into the "Old Salt" stereotype.) Also, most natives are ignorant and need to be told much of what the nature writer already knows, though they may never fully comprehend.

4. Subject Matter. "A Long Walk on the Cape Cod Beach" is an intrinsically interesting subject, and a rare and intrepid trip taken by few. For my family, and for others, walking on this beach and gathering things here is a tradition that goes back at least a hundred years in our memory. My father was once known to go out every day, around the time he was starting his business selling surplus and ships' salvage, some of which he found on the beach.

Nature writing that suffers from these and other similar problems, disappoints its readers by leaving out so much else that is going on, or has gone on, in the landscape.

I am going to say something blasphemous: I do not think this landscape is beautiful. I am not even sure I like it. To me, this landscape looks honest (in that it is undisguised and uncultivated), blank, and defeated. As in many places in Provincetown, I feel at home but I do not feel at ease. While people may no longer see this place as the province of the devil or subject to visitations from the Virgin Mary or the ghosts of the shipwrecked, for me and for others, there is a lingering fear of this place. When my borrowed cell phone's battery died toward the end of the week, my parents started to get nervous, imagining all kinds of scenarios when they could not reach me.

And at night, when you light every kerosene lantern in the place and the glass panes of the windows look like sheets of ebony, all of the Province Lands' demons are loose. Ellen, the previous week's resident, had not slept well, and complained that a local had told her some stories (which she did not specify) before she came out. There were notes about this in the journals too. Someone left a book of ghost stories by the bed as a joke for a friend, who noted that she did not read them. I did no better than the others; I was one of the ones who propped the front door closed at night (the locks have long been rusted out). The truth is that nights in the dune shack are the flip side of the much-touted relaxation, recovery, peace, and communion in the journals, and that having survived them might just have something to do with why people felt "healed" after their time here.

Friday, May 12

I made the best beach-combing discovery of my life today: I found a color TV. They say the ocean provides for all our needs.

Coming down the dune, I thought it might be a small stove, or perhaps a generator (my father's been wanting one of those). As I approached, I saw that an electric cord was still attached, flung out beside the object. I got closer and made out the distinctive black plastic curves of a television's back. A large set of sneaker prints led to it and away, back toward the sets of tire tracks that parallel the water line. Either they've begun charging for TV disposal at the dump, or there's still not much to do around here on a Thursday night in May.

I turned the object face up. A Sony Trinitron. The faux wood-paneled variety. While the glass was intact, one side of the set had been cruelly kicked in. I sat down beside it, looked it over some more, and finally resisted the temptation to haul it over the dune. It would never fit in Sam's jeep.

Later, wandering aimlessly on the high dunes in my favorite Scarlet O'Hara T-shirt, I arrived in time to watch the sun go down as the sea came to claim the Trinitron.