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FOOTING IT ACROSS THE CAPE
The Pilgrims might have been envied their discovery of Cape Cod if they had come in the spring of the year. As it was, though they hailed it with joy, it being land anyway, yet they must have found it inexpressibly lonesome and spooky. To the newcomer it is apt to be a ghostly sort of place at any time of year, unless mayhap he be from some similar strand, for its rolling sand hills are swept by winds that wail, and beaten by a sea that grumbles when it does not cry aloud. At the time of year when Standish and his men patrolled its beaches, it is no wander they saw savages behind every liliputian pitch pine and heard them shouting in the wind and sea. So far as the records go the Icelanders came first of all and Thorfinn Karlsefne, who set sail about 1000 A.D., called the place "Furdurstandir," or wonderstrands, perhaps because of the immense stretches of sea beach along the outside, but quite as likely on account of the mirage which so often greets one in the region thereabouts. A much later explorer tells how the curious atmospheric effects made the land seem to tip up in front of him in whichever direction he walked, making level land and even downhill look like uphill, so uplifting is the Cape air.
Gosnold was perhaps the first Englishman to set foot there, doing it first in 1602 and coming again, as we all must, once we know the region. Gosnold and his men got the eerie feel of the place too when the winter approached. They colonized Cuttyhunk and did very well through the summer, digging sassafras by day and retreating to their fort on the little island in the pond on the bigger island every time the goblins chased them: But the shouting of warlocks in the autumn gales was too much for them and they reembarked for England, glad to get away from the land which was so beautiful and so strange.
A dozen years later came Captain John Smith, who feared neither man nor devil, and who saw nothing unprosaic about the place. As mariner and cartographer to him it was a cape, and nothing more. "Cape Cod," he writes, "which next presents itself, is only a headland of hills of sand, overgrown with scrubby pines, hurts and such trash, but an excellent harbor in all weathers. The Cape is made of the main sea on one side, and a great bay on the other in the form of a sickle. On it doth inhabit the people of Pawmet, and in the bottom of the Bay those of Chawum."
The bottom of the bay means the region of Barnstable and west, and the people of "Chawum" were the Indians of that region. The word sounds dangerous and suggests cannibals, which I do not believe the Indians were, even in those days. Perhaps it refers to their chief, who may well have been an aboriginal Dr. Fletcher. The word "hurts" is more difficult to dispose of but I find it was just his way -- and indeed the way of the English of his time -- of saying huckleberry. That delectable fruit which is so common on the Cape ought to have a name more significant of its delectability, but perhaps the original sponsors ate it before it was ripe, or too much. Hurts is short for hurtleberry, which is another way of writing whortleberry, the correct old English form which we have since corrupted into huckleberry. That Smith should, have classed the Cape huckleberries as "such trash" is proper cause for a riot.
Two and a half centuries later came Thoreau, the very prince of explorers, for he can take one over well trodden ways and through familiar fields and show him India and the Arctic regions. Patagonia and Panama in one sweeping glance along a sand hill. Cape Cod was as full of romance of remote regions as was Concord. He, too, notes the mirage. "Objects on the beach," he says, "whether men or inanimate things, look not only exceedingly grotesque, but much larger and more wonderful than they actually are. Later, when approaching the seashore several degrees south of this, I saw before me, seemingly half a mile distant, what appeared like bold and rugged cliffs on the beach fifteen feet high and whitened by the sun and waves; but after a few steps it proved to be low heaps of rags -- part of the cargo of a wrecked vessel -- scarcely more than a foot in height." Thoreau felt the eerie strangeness of beach and sand dunes as all explorers have, and he noted, too, the characteristics of the sand and its vegetation and of the inhabitants with a humorous minuteness. Writing of the dunes, which seem always about to overwhelm Provincetown, he says, "Some say that while the Government is planting beach grass behind the town for the protection of the harbor, the inhabitants are rolling the sand into the harbor in wheel-barrows, in order to make houselots," which seems characteristic of the beach grass, the harbor and the Cape Cod spirit of making the most of real estate opportunities to this day.
"Thus Cape Cod is anchored to the heavens, as it were," he goes on, "by a myriad little cables of beach grass, and, if they should fail would become a total wreck, and ere long go to the bottom. Formerly the cows were permitted to go at large, and they ate many strands of the cable by which the Cape is moored, and well-nigh set it adrift, as the bull did the boat that was moored by a grass rope, but now they are not permitted to wander."
All of which would seem to prove that Thoreau liked to crack a sly joke at the region he loved, as well as do the rest of us. The other day I too crossed the Cape, not exactly in Thoreau's footsteps but through the region of the "Chawums," which, I take it, are the Mashpees of later days. The trail began at East Sandwich where the sandy road crosses the State highway and goes on up the sandhills, always with the blue of the sea teasing from behind the keen javelin of the north wind pushing me on southward. It was wonderful, that blue of the cold, wind-beaten sea. It shone through the maze of mingled twigs for miles till I finally lost it in topping the plateau, passing from loose sand to clayey bottom and fairer growth in moister and more fertile soil. One fascination of the region comes in the fact that in a few rods one leaves all trace of civilization behind, unless one may call the narrow road a trace, and traverses the Cape Cod wilderness for mile on mile, just such a wilderness as Thorfinn Karlsefne may have tramped in armor with spear and crossbow of his day, such as Myles Standish and his men shivered through or Verrazani and Captain John Smith marched over and mapped. Pitch pines, small oaks of many varieties with an undergrowth "trash" of "hurts" and scrub oaks make up the forest which presses narrow cart paths and hangs over them. All the way up the slope the persistent chill of the north wind filled the air with the tonic tang of brine and held back the gray-green mist of leaves that strained at the buds, eager to be out. In hollows the spring had come. On ridges it delayed, finding the auguries unfavorable and waiting a new voice from file altar. But wherever the sun shone in and the wind was stayed it had loosed the butterflies that soared or flitted or flipped about in joy of long awaited warmth. Broad wings of gold-margined, brown Vanessa antiopa soared serenely along under overarching white oaks. "Little Miss Lavender" folded her gray-blue wings in demure beauty on the gray cladiummossed stumps by the roadside, and dusky-winged species of the skipper brood were agile with new-born life, yet glad to fold wings and sleep in the sun on the road. These were sprites of the deep forest. None were visible in the town margin, though perhaps it was the sweep of the north wind that kept them away. Bird regions, too, showed a definite demarcation. In the orchards and open fields of the town were I lie home-loving birds, bluebirds, robins, song and other sparrows, swallows, and in the marshes the red-wing blackbirds. Not one of these did I see after leaving the open spaces behind. The avifauna of the scrub-oak underbrush and of the white oak and pitch-pine trees overhead was as distinct as that of a new continent. A flight of pine warblers was on and the oaks and pitch pines were alive with them. The juncos had gone north to nest in flocks of thousands, in a wonder of full song, all eagerly pressing on towards the hills but they left their songs behind them, as it were, to be sung by the other birds. In the pastures and cultivated fields the chipping sparrows, newly arrived from the South, took up the trill with an accent of their own, and all the pine warblers sang it, each with an individuality that slightly but clearly marked him from his fellow. I think all birds show this slight but definite individuality in manner and voice and are probably known to their neighbors of the same clan, as we are, each by his voice. And even so simple and definite a thing as the pine warbler's song may be varied by the individual singer from time to time. I heard one fine bird singing in the stereotyped form. As he sang a flicker flicked in the distance. Whereupon the pine, warbler sang again, the same trill but with a tittering twang about it that just jocosely imitated the flicker. I saw no other warbler or other bird near enough to be the beneficiary of this, joke. He did it just for himself, and his motions as he flew over to the next tree seemed a visible chuckle that ended in a saucy flirt of the two white tall feathers which are one distinguishing mark of the bird in flight.
Other warblers I noted none. The woods seemed given up for the occasion to Dendroica vigorsi.
The wood warblers disappeared at the border line of the open fields at Wakeby and the home-loving birds appeared again in numbers, robins, bluebirds, swallows and the sparrow kind. The downy woodpeckers and flickers, to be sure, passed to and from both zones, though they, too, seemed to love the trees of the open rather than those of the deeper wood, but in the main the boundary line, as usual, was quite distinctly marked. The noon sun was high and the north wind's chill had been fairly combed out of it by the bristly harrows of a thousand pine tops. In its place was a warm, resinous fragrance, an incense to the season. The heart of the Cape forest is passed at Wakeby and the blue waters of a great lake lap in crystal clearness on the clean sands. The Cape sands are a vast water filter and strain out of the streams all sediment. The ponds are liquid crystals in narrow settings of pale gold.
Someone told me it was only eight miles across the Cape from East Sandwich to Cotuit. Perhaps it is as the crow flies, but I could not clear the scrub as they do and I found the roads adapted to delightful leisure. No wonder the Cape folk do not hurry. How could they? The narrow, gray ribbon of road strolled with me through what seemed eight miles of forest before we reached Wakeby.
Somewhere along there the holly stood green and statuesque in occasional clumps. And thus we fared on to Mashpee. The Mashpees, very mild and genial descendants of the "Chawums," if descendants they are, live quietly in little yellow houses that do not look prosperous, though the children are fat and the elders contented. Modern civilization has reached them in phonographs, bicycles and folding baby-carriages, if the shingles are vanishing from the roof. In 1620 Mashpee was their chief and they lived in wigwams. But the last pure blood died in 1804. Nauhaut, one of the deacons of the Cape Indian church, which seems to have thrived a century or two ago, was the hero of a wonderous snake story which, if it were not about a deacon, one might think apocryphal. I did not see a black snake on the whole journey, but they are common enough even now and were once perhaps much more so. At any rate Nauhaut was attacked by a whole ring of them -- so the story runs -- which approached him from all sides, the snakes with black heads raised and hissing venomously. Nauhaut with true Indian strategy stool still as they approached, and even when the largest of them twined about his legs and climbed to his neck he made no move other than to open his mouth wide. The chieftain snake thrust his head into this mouth with its glistening white teeth, and Nauhaut immediately bit the head off. Thereupon panic fear seized the other snakes and they fled, leaving the deacon master of the battleground. The Cape grows some big black snakes to this day, but none like those, nor have any later stories appeared to match.
The Cape has informative guide boards, though whether the facts match the information I am not quite so sure. Perhaps, sailor-like, I was circumnavigating Cotuit, beating in, as one might say, instead of sailing directly to port, for I found three guideboards at intervals of a mile or two and each announced with monotonous regularity that it was two and a half miles to Cotuit. When it comes to making statements the Cape guideboards stand loyally by one another. But the little town hove above the horizon at last with its lovely blue bay of warm Gulf-stream water, set in a sweet curve of white sand and backed by neat cottages bowered in green trees. It is worth walking across the Cape to reach Cotuit at the journey's end, but I doubt the eight miles. If it is not fifteen by way of Wakeby, Mashpee, Santuit and the rest I am mightily mistaken.
Thoreau with his usual clear gift of prophecy said of the Cape: "The time must come when this coast will be a place of resort for those New Englanders who really wish to visit the seaside. At present it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world and probably it will never be agreeable to them. If it is merely a ten-pin alley, or a circular railway or an ocean of mint julep, that the visitor is in search of -- if he thinks more of the wine than the brine, as I suspect some do at Newport -- I trust that for a long time he will be disappointed here. But this shore will never be more attractive than it is now. Such beaches as are fashionable are here made and unmade in a day, I may almost say, by the sea shifting the sands. Lynn and Nantucket! this bare and bended arm it is that makes the bay in which they lie so snugly. What are springs and water falls? Here is the spring of springs, the waterfall of waterfalls. A storm in the winter is the time to visit it -- a lighthouse or a fisherman's hut the true hotel. A man may stand there and put all America behind him."
This was all true in Thoreau's day and long after. But the fashionable world has since found the Cape, and brought its palatial hotels and its million-dollar cottages to sit down in friendly fashion among the villagers and share their summer life with them. Thereby both are benefited. But after all the chief charm of the Cape is still that vast stretches of it are as free from fashion as Thoreau said they always would be, and the forests like those Captain John Smith and Myles Standish, Karlsefne and Verrizana traversed still grow there in wide stretches.