Pandemic Diary 22: Earth Day in Quarantine

Season’s transition on Earth Day in upstate New York and Cape Cod.

* * * *
Out of the small details one can become reacquainted with the larger picture. We only notice the details when we give the details attention, and attention only comes if we allow time to not matter.

Time has opened up in quarantine, for almost everyone—except essential employees—at the same time and thus it has lost a bit of its potency. (I still feel in a rush; I do not know if I would feel this if I lived alone or not. Decades of personal experience of life in a rush cannot be undone in a month of quarantine. That said, I have twice misidentified the day of the week this month and even missed an online appointment.)

There is an echo of a sense of needing to be somewhere, a muscle memory of a life spent awaiting the next thing. There are at least two men in my town whom I only know as walkers, not pedestrians: I have not yet seen either one in the act of being someplace to which he had been en route. Each man is always en route, always on his way without ever arriving. (Pedestrians arrive.) Neither man strolls, each one walks with purpose, one man carries a backpack, a back and forth on our Main Street here that is rarely interrupted by the event of arrival or departure. There is no next thing in a life spent in a perpetual search for the next thing or a mindless avoidance of the current moment.

Perhaps I have not been in the right place at the right time, myself, to witness either gentleman’s arrival in a restaurant, grocery store, coffee shop, but I have described each of these men to myself as “always moving, never arriving” for a quarter of a century. I usually see one or the other stride past as I exit a restaurant, coffee shop, or bookseller.

Seasons transition slowly in upstate New York. Late winter will often offer a sunny 70°F day as a punctuation mark in March’s relentless gray drizzle. Rarely do these warm days arrive on weekends, something always pointed out by co-workers and neighbors. And then a snowy day graces April as its own punctuation mark (we have had two snowy days this quarantined April), as winter’s memento mori.

Today has been sunny but cold and windy; thin cirrus clouds zoom past, driven by a wind that is loud even though there are not many tall trees in my neighborhood here to elicit sound.

My neighborhood, a trailer park of some two hundred seventy five homes, is small but large enough to have its own details, its own natural phenomena. Laid out against a hillside of such a gentle grade that none of the homes are built into the hill or constructed with one side taller, one stretch of road is continuously breezy (windy today), but at one intersection the breeze is gone. A jacket that is almost discarded before I leave my home is pulled close along yet another stretch of road. Forsythia, late March’s gift of yellow after the winter of dirty gray, are bright yellow earlier in one section of the neighborhood before another.

It is usually such a quietly trafficked neighborhood that the local birds—mostly the common American robin or the rough-winged barn swallow—congregate in any rain puddles and often walk from a puddle on one side of the road to the puddle across the lane. As spring debuts across the land and food is plentiful, robins walk across yards and fly up to the lower tree branches when something catches their attention up there or a threat appears on the ground. (With a local 15 MPH speed limit, which most drivers obey, cars rarely serve as a sufficient threat.) I have had birds calmly walk alongside me here for a few paces, not to chase me away, and not for such a brief period that it was a mere coincidence of two creatures who were both on foot, but long enough to make it feel almost companionable.

This is not a Disney movie set, it is a densely populated neighborhood and high-speed thoroughfares serve as boundaries on two sides, and life here is not wildlife companions and clouds smiling benignly down upon the peaceable kingdom. I have noticed each of these things over time, but I have not set any of them down until quarantine. My life has been in continuous motion until recently. Life had been spent in doorways, on my way into or out of gatherings.

Perhaps quarantine is a time without destination, can be taken as a time to notice what needed to be noticed. Perhaps if I lived alone, it would have taken me less that a month to notice that I had noticed anything, or perhaps I never would have gotten around to slowing down.

Henry Beston was a writer so sensitive to the natural world’s rhythms that he likely heard the beach grass grow outside his two-room home on Coast Guard Beach along the Atlantic side of Cape Cod. His much-loved 1928 book The Outermost House is credited as the reason the Cape Cod National Seashore was created and was cited by Rachel Carson as the one book that influenced her own work.

Today is Earth Day, the fiftieth since it was first marked. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, about the environmental degradation caused by man’s polluting activities, was a motivating force behind the creation of Earth Day.

Beston built the house himself in 1925 and decided to spend two weeks there after he saw that it had weathered an entire year. “The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.” His next sentence appears as a declaration of authorial intent:

The world to-day is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. In my world of beach and dune these elemental presences lived and had their being, and under their arch there moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year. […] The longer I stayed, the more eager I was to know this coast and to share its mysterious and elemental life; I found myself free to do so, I had no fear of being alone, I had a something of a field naturalist’s inclination; presently I made up my mind to remain and try living for a year on Eastham Beach.

The photo at top was taken by me at Nauset Beach on Cape Cod on a December afternoon in 2010; the white glaze over the footprints is ice and snow, and the Atlantic has ice in it—some of the white caps were frozen, and the waves merely swelled them, shifted them, lifted and dropped them.

Henry Beston wrote perhaps the best physical description of Cape Cod in the opening lines to “The Outermost House“: “East and ahead of the coast of North America, some thirty miles and more from the inner shores of Massachusetts, there stands in the open Atlantic the last fragment of an ancient and vanished land. For twenty miles this last and outer earth faces the ever hostile ocean in the form of a great eroded cliff of earth and clay, the undulations and levels of whose rim now stand a hundred, now a hundred and fifty feet above the tides. Worn by the breakers and the rains, and disintegrated by the wind, it still stands bold.”

He depicts a heroic shoreline, a land that declares its own terms of surrender against a hostile, battering sea. Given that from the air Cape Cod resembles a single raised fist jutting into the sea, a heroic, Byronesque, cliff face is only appropriate.

bretenmap1Beston built a house, a 20 x 16-foot cabin on the dunes near Eastham, Massachustts, along the Cape’s forearm, in 1925. My photo was taken from near where the cabin used to stand. The cabin faced the ocean, and its many windows offered him a view of the water that made him feel like he was on a ship. Thus he called the house the “Fo’castle,” but it became known as the “outermost house” for an obvious reason: it sat at what seemed like the end of the earth. Beston never lived full-time in his shanty, but he spent enough time there to write his book, which is subtitled, “A Year of Life on The Great Beach of Cape Cod.” Epic events from each of the four seasons that he experienced gives his “year” an intensity of action and feeling. The book was published in 1928 by Doubleday.

As a young man, I knew that I loved Cape Cod, for reasons of family and fun, but it was not until I devoured this short, 218-page, book that I found the deeper reasons. It would be a beautiful circumstance if each place on our planet could have a writer fall so utterly in love with it, as Cape Cod had Henry Beston. His brief meditation on the slow, usually imperceptible rhythms of nature—imperceptible because few bother to perceive them and communicate anything about them—is written in a muscular language that makes the surf appear to have desires and dreams, the wind have language, the birds individual personalities.

It is not easy to take memorable landscape photos; the camera may capture every pixel of a detail-packed outdoors scene, but a photographer’s eye and hand is required to direct our eyes to what may be worth our gaze. Otherwise, every beach snapshot is every other beach snapshot; they are all alike in their uniqueness of sky and sand. The nature writer has even more difficulties: he or she could fill pages with yelps like, “It was such a stupendous night sky full of stars! You should have seen it,” and thus bore us with banal generalities, or lurch in the other direction and bore us to tears with specifics. Beston finds the poetry in correctly applied terminology of whatever phenomena he describes. This was a revelation to my then twenty-year-old self.

winter 2010 nantucket sound2

Cape Cod, winter 2010. Photo by Mark Aldrich

Winter from atop the dunes is neither “frigid” nor “bitter,” two words that may find their way into one’s letters home; in The Outermost House it is “crystalline” and the snow dances and drives:

The snow skirred along the beach, the wind suffering it no rest; I saw little whirlpools of it driving down the sand into the onrush of the breakers, it gathered in the footprints of the coast guard patrols, building up on their leeward side and patterning them in white on an empty beach. The very snow in the air had a character of its own, for it was the snow of the outer Cape and the North Atlantic, snow icy and crystalline, and sweeping across the dunes and moors rather than down upon them.

Spring’s appearance is noticed in the color of the sand: “The sand has entirely resumed its looseness, its fluidity, but its colour still tells of winter in a faintest hint of grey. The golden warmth is there and is emerging; the climbing sun will soon exorcise this ghost of cold.

When the National Park Service evaluated the arguments to establish the Cape Cod National Seashore, Beston’s book was cited frequently in the report’s pages. Beston died in 1968, and a sentence from The Outermost House is his epitaph: “Creation is still going on, the creative forces are as great and active today as they have ever been, and tomorrow’s morning will be as heroic as any of the world.” The cabin itself, his Fo’castle, was swept away by the Blizzard of 1978, a nor’easter of heroic strength with historic effects; in other words, a storm that Henry Beston would have appreciated. The spot on the beach where the cabin stood, once atop the dunes, is now under the Atlantic Ocean, a portion of the Cape that the sea reclaimed for itself.

There are more reasons than the slow pace of quarantine to embrace the world around me.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 22 asks us to reflect on the word, “Tempo.”

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  1. Relax... · April 22, 2020

    Wonderfully written, great photos, too. I hadn’t heard of Beston before — interesting!


  2. hazeymcc · April 23, 2020

    Dear Mark, you write wonderfully, hope ok , I have shared your post on my fb page and put your name in. Stay safe dear friend, we are in fifth week lock down and it is hard. that once a day walk is bliss. Love hazel x

    Liked by 1 person

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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