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Published: Sat Oct 15 2022
Art by Jin Suk
A Walk on Cape Cod

with photographs by Cole Barash

 

Among the things I like about Thoreau is that he was born in 1817 and died in 1862 at the same age my father did, one hundred years later. So Thoreau’s lifespan is familiar to me. I grew up ten minutes from Walden Pond—we all called it Lake Walden. My family had gone swimming there even before I was born. Walden had a great dock that went way out into the water you could dive and cannonball off of and make a big mess. We were well aware of “the Cambridge people” with their funny hats trotting quietly on the trail on the right to where the hermit had been. There was nothing there now I was told. I went to college later in Boston and reading Walden was the occasion for me of beginning to swim in another pond. The guy who had lived in the woods was engaged in deep measurement. He described the pond as an eye that reflected everything there was. He told you how deep it was and he told in exacting terms what he ate and how much. His practice segued nicely with the world I was living in, a world of Catholicism (a.k.a. counting) and control. Thoreau liked Catholicism, well what he liked was Catholic churches and their intention of creating awe. What he didn’t like was God. He was a bit of a Buddhist: “To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogin,” he explained. He was a performance artist as well. Everyone knows Thoreau now, more than his teacher, Emerson and people love to chuckle knowingly that he went home for lunch and brought his laundry etc. He lived a mile away, so why not. And though Thoreau practiced what screams to me as a gay man’s plan to live deliberately and “alone” he was an entertaining and genial man, and many people stopped by, he and his little house were a bit of a local spectacle and David Henry became Henry David because he liked the sound and sometimes it was crickets and birds and sometimes it was humans talking in his hut, in the vicinity of the pond. And that train. The passenger train to Boston ran right by his hut so he witnessed the beginning of the Anthropocene firsthand. He refused to pay his taxes to support America’s war on Mexico and its commitment right before the Civil War to keeping the status quo of being a slaveholding nation. He had met with and knew John Brown before Harpers Ferry and he mourned his death by throwing his own life in a multitude of ways against the weightiness of that crime.

Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod (manuscript survey, ink on paper). Courtesy Concord Free Public Library.

~

Around the time of the millennium I lived on Cape Cod in Provincetown, in my girlfriend’s house, and I was glad to be back in my native state after twenty years in New York. Provincetown was the part of uptight Massachusetts I could bear because of the art and the landscape and the queerness. I began to devour everything I could about this new place that was also old in my life. I read that Thoreau had taken this walk from Eastham which is roughly the elbow of the cape, to the wrist which is Truro, and finally to the fist or the hand which is Provincetown, the pointing finger, where I lived. I began assailing everyone I wrote for at the time which was mainly Art in America and the Voice to let me write a piece about this walk, but no dice. It was the corny kind of piece that Cape Cod magazines ran from time to time or the Times in their leisure section—it was something nice. Thoreau was not nice and I went ahead and did the walk anyhow.

I walked in October which was historically accurate since Thoreau took his first walk then. He had never been to Cape Cod. He took a train to Bridgewater but before he was able to begin his voyage the St. John, a famine boat, crashed in Cohasset. One hundred people from Ireland had journeyed to America and the ship crashed on Grampus Ledge and the bodies of the immigrants were laid out on the beach at Cohasset for their families from all over Boston to claim. I also have a devastation to share but I’m saving mine for later. Thoreau met rain at the beginning of his trip with Channing, an energetic and quirky friend who we never hear much from yet his presence enabled Thoreau’s walk to be more of a mutual condition. When I redid the walk in 2022 I invited Robert Harms, a painter from Long Island to join me but our dates kept shifting on account of the weather and ultimately I hoofed it alone. I wanted to take the Cross Sound Ferry to New London, and Thoreau also wanted to sail but we both got stormed out and I took a train instead like him and arrived in the charming chaos of Logan where a level of disorder is allowed, even encouraged that struck me as distinctly Irish. And the masses of pouty and chatty people in terminal five were all going to Ireland and some to Cape Cod.

The Provincetown plane was tiny. We get up there and it’s always thrilling. Phones are out. Still Thoreau would have preferred the earth, travelling in the air like a bird taps into the very thing we need to go easy on. Even then it was fuel. From the bowl of the sky I can never bother to try and understand land. For me it puts way too much burden on the experience to start building a map.

In twenty minutes we’re arriving in P-town. It’s very moving and technically in terms of my journey I’m beginning at the end and Thoreau did that too at least once and there’s the Pilgrim Monument to white supremacy right there. That’s what the Pilgrim Monument is you know. Nobody’s going to pull it down but there are 175 commemorative stones installed in the structure and none reflect the Portuguese community who comprised at least one third of the population by 1910 when the monument was complete (in 1920 the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan put a burning cross in front of the town’s Catholic church) or the Wampanoag tribe who fed the colonists when they first arrived. But as Teddy Roosevelt put it when he laid the cornerstone in 1907, “The puritan’s task was to conquer a continent . . . and only a master spirit among men could have done it.” So maybe co-celebrating the arrival of the Pilgrims for the Wampanoag would be like Palestinians celebrating Nakba.

For me the important fact about the monument (besides that I hate it) is that it killed an 84-year-old woman who along with a few others was gawking at the bottom of the hill watching a block of granite get pulled by cable car up to the top. A freak storm arose and a bolt of lightning struck the cable and the car came careening right down the hill. Rosilla! someone yelled but Mrs. Rosilla Rich Bangs (who had introduced herself to Teddy Roosevelt at the laying of the cornerstone: I’m the oldest woman in town) apparently froze when she saw what was coming. Currently there’s a funicular being built to shuttle tourists up the hill. It seems to me it’s time to call it the Mrs. Rosilla Rich Bangs funicular, don’t you think?

I threw my bags in my tiny room at the Gifford House and trudged out to visit my friend Larry Collins, a photographer and painter and a Vietnam vet who had recently moved into senior housing right across from the cemetery (where I have located Rosilla’s grave) so the only thing to talk about was the future, which is death. After Thoreau witnessed the wreck of the St. John (but before he wrote Cape Cod) he travelled to Fire Island to gather the remains of Margaret Fuller. She was the only female member of the transcendentalists and an early war correspondent whose own writings had inspired Thoreau to write Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. She had gone to Europe to cover the Italian revolution and fell in love with a count and got pregnant by him and, broke, they decided to come here. The boat was weighed down by a lot of Carrera marble and a friend told Fuller I wouldn’t get on that boat. She did and the captain got smallpox and got off somewhere in Europe and the first mate was clueless so when they reached the east coast he couldn’t tell the difference between New Jersey and Fire Island (the difference is so obvious—Fire Island is gay) so the boat crashed on the rocks 300 yards from shore. Nobody was particularly worried they were so close until they realized the crowds of people on the beach were scavengers. The goods from the ship were secured but most of the passengers drowned including Margaret Fuller who was holding onto her baby and a mast until a wave swept them away. Thoreau managed to find a button from her husband’s vest. In the nineteenth century you could do such a thing. But all of this was weighing on Thoreau when he was writing Cape Cod. Walden is the bright book, Cape Cod is the dark.

Larry had a great rug, a serape he said, and I felt a craving, it seems so great to have art on the floor soft art that you can walk on and admire. I was going to walk on sand. I have a hurt foot I told him. Larry has a deep baritone. He was kind of a daddy at sex clubs. Well I hope you’re going to be okay, he darkly smiled. I realize I still haven’t started walking. But I will.

High Head Beach, Truro

~

Let the enormity, the ecstasy and the tedium begin. The thing about walking on sand with a large tawny cliff to your left and a rattling shifting ocean to your right is that pretty much nothing happens. And that is possibly the best feeling in the world. It has only improved in the twenty-three years since I did this before. The dunes are worse off and complex: rusty ruddy striped sworls. Meanwhile there’s that water. It’s like having an enormous sound system to your right. Predictable but ecstatically comforting. Again and again and I made nouns and cries out of the sound of the sea. I thought I saw death in the cliffs that persistently beckoned and held me up in a way, feeling squeezed by these two toiling phenomena. In 1999 I brought a camera not a phone. Did we have them then. I was alone. But now with so much access AND all the time in the world as I walk along the shore—I experience a truly lavish feeling of interiority that feels like a choice like I’ve never had. I want to be alone, I need to move slow and I’ve cut three or four days out of my life to just move along this geological succession I can’t ever remember not wanting to be near as much as possible. It’s what we came out of right, eons ago, and that’s why I think people are so enamored of going to the beach, but here when it’s wrong, early April or the dead of winter when nobody wants it much, it’s a gentle carpet of tiny stones and microorganisms for your feet. To look at the inverse of wind and water on the rolling sand and feel each tiny grade. I’m deliberately varying my step, sometimes I’m absolutely unconsciously moving ahead toward the sky as the past multiplies not just in amount. I logged 102,532 steps or thirty-seven and a half miles and I wound up in the altered state it produces.

In 1999 I was happy but a little bit bored. It was fall and there were more skinny-legged birds, I swear more foam, tiny abiding bubbles in the water that crashed at my feet. There were lots of fabricated sculptures on the beach with bottles and rope and branches. Now I see none. In April the sea changes color several times a day. It’s a big broad movie. Dark blue and then the green shifts into a bright blue stripe. It flashes for a moment as the wave recedes. To be walking thirty miles up the coast is an opportunity to be held by “nature” in some existential way. Of course I agree with Thoreau that the measuring act is what these travels are all about. You feel the shape of the cape with your body literally. You can read Cape Cod again and again because Thoreau was a poet in prose. “It was a purely rural sound” he says of some distant voices from a boat. What does that even mean. The pleasure is in the measure. The cape is co-poem. So it needs to be particular nature, and to cover distance on a walk means largely that meaning has been discarded and that one can revel in detail and their thoughts and mine by the way strangely are so often gendered. The beach is gendered in its personhood and contiguously mine. I’m this gender. I think of riding up a mountain in Maine many years ago and being young and drunk and I was astonished that I couldn’t feel what I saw. I had anesthetized myself from experiencing delight in my surroundings. The connection was gone. Each year since then has been another undoing of that anesthesia. My first thought was I see death in these cliffs because the experience is so full I imagine it will break. I see it as breaking and nature is a giant feeling thing.

I twisted my ankle in May 2021 and it really hasn’t properly healed since. A step is a foot (I’d love to go into rods and furlongs, forms of measurement he occasionally used but I will resist pretty much). I read Thoreau’s bio hoping I would learn something about his body and hold that measure as well—his walk against mine. He mainly had lung problems, consumption ran in the family otherwise he had great nineteenth-century legs and thought nothing of taking a thirty-mile walk and I think he could probably do it in a day. Though he had been warned as I was that it is difficult walking in sand. If you normally walk around 3.5 miles an hour and your phone says you’ll get to Provincetown in six hours you have to double it in sand. It’s like being a turtle winding up the coast. The beach is different again and again. The particular frame of the sky, the lurch of the clouds, the premorse—a Thoreau word I learned which means the cliff just ahead of me, really the sexiest thing on the beach, what’s sought was “showing, by its curve against the sky, how much space it must have occupied, where now was water only.” The cliff says. So I’m putting down this mangled foot—sensitive and suddenly squeaking out a little pain which might just be how it feels to me now, something happens and maybe arthritis sneaks in and that’s the new definition of foot like a body premorse. When I was a child I shared my foot with my LeCount Hollow Beach, Wellfleet mother. She sang the “this little piggy” song and I had toes because she was there. We traded body facts for as long as she lived and mostly we had the same body—even when we entered menopause. Efficiently, and early. But when I told her I had problems with my feet she huffed That’s Irish and she pulled her Polish self from that body part of mine. My mother was always eroding.

LeCount Hollow Beach, Wellfleet

The only people on the beach are women and dogs. Alone it’s great to see the two kinds of paws stretching back and into the future. I made it my practice to ask the dog’s name, a fact that nobody is unwilling to share and did the person “live here.” Most did. I told one woman with a brown dog that I was walking to Provincetown and she said oh I haven’t done that in a while. It’s just like going to the gym. And the commonality of the measure is what’s wonderful.

I have to tell you about the cliffs which were a really funky marvel. I think I’m at Wellfleet-by-the-Sea they call it where all these doomed houses are perched on the collapsing cliffs. There was one empty almost glass house ready to flip right over in a year or two. But since nature is uneven it could be tomorrow. Pipes of all colors are jutting out of the dunes and trees are falling down the sides, hanging off the edges and some seem to have replanted themselves on the beach. I saw a tree with a nest still in it. There was something that looked like a big sandbox skating down the dunes. I confirmed later with a local friend that that was a septic tank. One actually fell and opened up the other day and people were shocked by a beach covered in shit because though they want to be up there on top of it their insides are not supposed to show. But that’s what a midden is. It’s the future. I suppose our midden now could be the whole planet.

Each step marked by a dog or a person is getting filled in as I watch. I saw a leaf do a hole-in-one, and then the rocks start imitating clam shells like Thoreau said. Some trees die like a bouquet, all burst, and when I try and describe the contrapposto of the cliff and the surging beach and the jangling sea I have to recognize the contrapposto is me. I’m standing at odds with it all. I mean I’m in it. It’s the most musical thing I’ve ever seen. Look at the sand and you’ll see the former waves are articulating their shape along its slope in pebbles like a photograph of the just past. There are clumps of peat here and there in the sand and just as the cape was shaped by two huge glacial ponds, this peat is a reminder of that. This is very old stuff. It was here too in Thoreau’s time, and he tried to convince the locals to use it like he’d seen the Irish do in Concord. But they liked their wood and they were beginning to move to coal. Have you read that because coal deposits are thinning, mines are cutting into sandstone which releases silica—even worse than coal for workers’ lungs. There are black stripes in some of the dunes of the lower cape and some of it is coal from the atmosphere, from the past, just blowing around.

What did he want. What I note in Thoreau’s writing is a lack of desire except to be in it all and know it all, to communicate with man. He was a fag. I’m not making a case but I’m leaving it around. Then the sand begins to mime wood too and the dunes with grass are a musty mouth sipping the day. Sea is a deep dark blue. Then it’s later. The shoreline is perpendicular to the evening, the cape is moving. In fact, it’s utterly true.

Four Mile Beach, Wellfleet

I stayed at Four Points in Eastham that night. I went backwards cause there’s nothing here and after five hours of walking I related to my bed like a bandage. I’m not a person, I’m a wound.

~

The painter Helen Wilson met me at PB’s café the second morning. How remarkable is it goes Helen to have a world-class chef in Wellfleet. We meet him in the parking lot. In 1999 I met Helen at the top of my walk. Neither of us can remember exactly how or where but developing a random roll of black-and-white film I’d found in my apartment there’s Helen standing in the shades of time, waving. Helen’s been here since childhood. She talks this way, exhilarated and precise cause she’s Edmund Wilson’s daughter. We head down to Newcomb’s Hollow, I meet her lively black dog named Ida and she pretty much catches me up on the last twenty-three years. I can see Helen’s Russian mother and with her small turret of a knitted cap and her pink chiseled features, she looks like a healthy icon as we’re wading around in the morning sand.

Mark Adams—a painter like Helen as well as a writer and coastal geologist, formerly with the National Park Service and now the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown—is giving a talk right now on Thoreau’s Cape Cod at the Fine Arts Work Center and I’m torn. Is that the artifice and this is the fact or is this an opportunity to get more live information. What’s live. Am I just being a pussy. I had planned to meet Mark at some point. Helen offers a ride. You have to do it her calm face utters. In the common room at FAWC Mark walks around on a brightly painted floor map of coastal Maine. We are plunging through millennia, he’s explaining the long history of the cape. The sand travels east–west, the wind blows north–south and he explains how the cape in fact is moving. It is being pushed by this wave energy. We often say the shoreline is retreating, actually it’s rotating—the land edge wants to be perpendicular to the direction the wave is coming from—the wave is perpendicular to the land—right now the cape is here, he’s waving his arms, and the cape’s going to want to turn toward the waves by eroding, changing its shape—it’s a very creative process he says.

So not so much death. Like a Buddhist teacher once told me that’s you.

Mark drives a Subaru Crosstrek—like a lesbian he laughs. I’ve known Mark for probably twenty years. People say we look alike but I think it’s because we both have similar cute aging faces and I’m masc and he’s gay. When he’s standing on the map he talks about Alexander von Humboldt who was greatly influential on Thoreau’s world view. I nod since I vaguely know about everything but understand naught. Humboldt supplied Thoreau with the notion that seeds are the way things get moved around, blown by wind and animals, and that nature doesn’t just erupt. It gets delivered. Darwin wanted to meet Humboldt because he had read his book. Afterwards he said of Humboldt, he talks too much.

Humboldt was a polymath—it’s crazy—he was the first to make the link between deforestation and local climate. He was an early theorizer of plate tectonics, so he would have suggested to Thoreau that Cape Cod at one time had met Portugal. And it seems Humboldt was also gay, gay Thoreau. Mark’s gay. Man land. I think it’s easy for them to imagine this earth as other. Mark took us on the road to High Head Beach with water on both sides. This is East Harbor where large ships could get in during the Revolutionary War when the British blockaded Boston Harbor. They put the train through here and they blocked the tides and the water became fresh—it was a gradual thing. In the nineteenth century right when Thoreau was here they had these misguided ideas that this area would be better for humans, healthier as a freshwater pond, or as a drained marsh—it’s the endless fable of humans trying to remake the landscape—you never get what you want, you just get a hideous shadow of what it was. East Harbor is on its way back to something closer to nature, it’s in a good place for the first time since Thoreau.

This, where we stand, was actually the end of Cape Cod. When? Like 6,000 years ago Mark says. The geological part stops here and the rest has been made by the ocean. Provincetown had been like a fist originally and then it unclenched and made a hook. We began walking over the massive dunes and instantly I had the sensation I could get lost. In Thoreau’s day there had been a network of Humane Houses where shipwrecked sailors could stay if they were lucky enough to get to shore. If these houses weren’t there or if you weren’t able to find one you could get lost and perish.

Form. This partial one, a high-tide ledge, is constantly changing.

Walking up and down the dunes we found skeletons probably coyote or fox. Who is the predator out here we wondered and Mark offered that because of predation animals are getting small. Apparently being big means you’re taken out first. Are humans big or small. The little guys smartly figure out niches to survive in.

Our winding path dropped me finally in a neighborhood of tacky little houses called Mayflower Heights. This area remarkably I knew. Rosilla, who the monument whacked, had been married to a guy named Solomon Bangs. I happen to know every scrap available about her though there isn’t much. When Solomon, a sailmaker, was old and going blind Rosilla contacted the company in Boston that made the sails and asked if they could equally make tents. They could and she created a nineteenth-century resort right here called Bangsville. They had the whole shebang: crockery and rugs, dinners and dancing. People took the train from Boston on weekends and from Provincetown there was a buggy with a horse named Draco who worked so hard bringing people back and forth to the party that at the end of the weekend he died. There were two news accounts about a dog named Beans who started a fight. The final touch on Bangsville was the opening of the Peregrine White ballroom, named after the first white child born in the New World.

I stayed near there at the Harbor Inn and again I took the limping torso to my room and without dinner or entertainment or hardly any movement at all I slid into bed.

~

In the morning I decided to call Pride Cab to get me back to Truro and I got this amazing guy named Brian Lisbon, descendent of Portuguese fishermen and a fisherman himself until he went to Vietnam. He had an interesting way of speaking as a result of a stroke, landing brightly on a pivotal word and then shuffling sentence order at will. His raw joy and friendliness made him entirely understandable, he felt like a friend, and he was glad to learn I was a writer. He said his daughter who taught English at Quincy High would be glad. Yeah tell her you met a poet I said and he laughed because what else could he do.

He dropped me off at Newcomb Hollow and I walked to Truro. Later I walked off the beach along Pamet Road and met Mark at Cape Cod Light. The cliffs down below us were in a variety of states of collapse. Mark explained something sweet called the angle of repose. An abutment like what we’re standing on, he said, depending on the particular combination of friction and gravity can actually stay put for a very long time. Then something shifts and part of the golf course is gone. The famous lighthouse right here where Thoreau had stayed for several nights with Channing has been moved twice. I thought of the mottled innocence of the ruddy cliffs bedecked with sliding toilets and trees I’d passed for three days on my walk. Mark directed me to a path which was Kings Highway and it led for a mile or two to Longnook Beach. He told me to notice the pattern of the oaks and the pines like Thoreau talked about. Because one followed he other. If all the oaks were cut, pines would come in. If the pines dwindled, boom, up pops an oak. Not in that strange propulsive way that mushrooms do overnight but a time release would reveal trees coming eventually in their oaky way. If there’s a gap between trees there’s also been some kind of event.

It is really enjoyable to read the forest.

~

In the morning yep I walked. It was my last day on the cape.

I decided to take a walk that I know and let that walk take me to the end of Cape Cod like I need to do. I went into the market on Conwell and loaded up on Snickers and Cape Cod potato chips and a Diet Coke. There are no dietary restrictions when you walk 25,000 steps a day and you can’t even stay awake for dinner. There’s Brian sitting outside in his cab. Hey he says. I am walking to the ocean I announce. Any crazy thing that comes out of my mouth delights him. He’s got a red face, big glasses and I feel he’s actually glad to see me. C’mon Eileen he sings, bumping his fist to cheer me on, and I head out along the non-sidewalk of Conwell where you could easily be killed by a passing car but it’s not summer so it’s somewhat unlikely. I walk down to Route 6 and cross the highway and then dwindle down the road past the transfer station on the left and I think about euphemisms—that’s the dump of course. Euthanasia for dogs is execution, climate resiliency in New York City means development but we’re not there yet. I pass Beech Forest which would have been lovely. There’s an immense pond and trails but that’s actually even too manicured for me meaning that though I’m open to interventions on this walk every step and I mean every step has to have an intention. What’s a life without intention. I’m heading to the fire road because of its extraordinary beauty and its utility since it will lead to the end of my walk. It’s raining today though lightly. I brought no raingear—no I brought a poncho I got in a hardware store two years ago because I’ve been meaning to reprise this walk since then. Thoreau and Channing used umbrellas which I thought was charming but I don’t have to be antique about it. I take a left on the road to Herring Cove.

Herring River Marsh, Wellfleet

Halfway up the hill I realize I have to take a shit. Then just past the visitor’s center I see it. There’s a large parking lot with a porta potty. For me. I step inside and have a moment of panic. Has anyone ever got stuck in a porta potty. What a place to get trapped. I’m outdoors and I’ve been outdoors a lot since Saturday and this is Wednesday so claustrophobia is insinuating itself into the very grain of my thoughts. All insides are suspect. While I’m in there I think back thirty years ago to when Annie Dillard was giving a talk here at the visitor’s center about sand. I had some kind of strange resentment toward her, maybe because friends of mine who are not writers would say enthusiastically are you going to see Annie Dillard, as if that was what we were all for, especially me. I went grudgingly. She was great and wore a peach safari outfit, kind of outdoorsy and maybe smart, playful. On stage with her in big hiking boots and a crew cut was someone she referred to as Bob. I thought she said Father Bob meaning that Catholic thing where whenever a priest is “in” your set, he becomes that kind of first-name formal. Turns out Bob was her husband. I just learned that last week. When the talk was over she said okay now ask me the question you are really wondering. When I’m signing books people always say what I really wanted to ask is . . . so ask me that. I thought, what would my question for Annie Dillard be? I raised my hand after a few mundane questions had been popped. She pointed to me efficiently. I yelled out what sign are you. People turned, thinking what kind of tacky lesbian would ask that question. She paused and if she was rankled she didn’t show it. Slippery when wet she pronounced, and the room took in its breath and some people chuckled. That’ll be it she added, walking off stage and the room also began to rise and shuffle into the Cape Cod evening.

As the hill to Herring Cove began to crest, there it was on the right. The fire road. I had brought my dog Rosie here quite regularly in the nineties. Initially after the unpaved parking lot it’s a path through piney woods. There are lots of puddles and the path is slim. It was tricky to negotiate if other people, especially other dog people were coming from the opposite direction. Once the woods ended the remarkable panorama began. A 360-degree view of wetlands on both sides on a manmade dike that cut across it all, straight to Race Point lighthouse and some dunes and beyond that the sea. Are sea and ocean replaceable terms. I’m acting that way. I’m thinking it’s a sound choice. You never reach wrong. It’s home. Like Thoreau said I have travelled a great deal in Concord. As a passionate minimalist (as well as a maximalist) he gives us permission to do things again and again. I can’t tell you the joy it gave me to be on that familiar walk and for it to be as wonderful as it ever was, even better than ever. I think I’ve brought first-timers here in the summer and the mosquitoes can be really hell so they might say yes I can see what you like about this but in fact it’s terrible. April is not a terrible time. It’s a private time, an unpopular time, a liminal time. It’s not winter and it’s not summer. It’s not fall. I could say it’s spring but I’m feeling something more precise. As I walked I kept wondering where Rosie’s pool was or if it was gone. I’ve been so indoctrinated on this walk on the mutability of nature. Anything could be vanished, amiss, permanently altered. But what’s off is probably me and my sense of distance and placement has shifted a bit. The pool is there. Rosie began swimming here late in life by accident. I threw a rock in one day and she followed it and till the end of her life thiswas her thing. I say hello to Rosie in eternity and I walked right past the pool. I didn’t stop. That would be corny. And this last part of this walk is tricky to negotiate. The trail ends, you can see the lighthouse and hear the ocean behind it by now. Have I mentioned the rain. I’m wearing a baseball cap and it actually makes a lot of difference. But I could hear the patter from inside the plastic latrine and when I open my notebook to write something reliably the ink smears. The sand has taken over now but it’s wavy, ungainly sand cause what most often happens here is a dune tour and all manner of off-road vehicles and their big wheels make these swales that are just like waves in the sand, big off-putting ones. I’m tippy-toeing around lichen now, beautiful patches of soft pale-green lichen and brown darker grasses and small pools. Then there’s another series of low dunes and now the rain is getting to me and my foot is actually starting to hurt and I’m frankly grouchy. I mean you are walking on a slanted surface all day long.

I saw an old rowboat and decided to scrunch up against it and block the wind and the rain and eat a Snickers. I haven’t seriously eaten a Snickers since 1995 when I was in Russia. It was a depressive symptom. I thought of this as a treat but the moment was desperate. I ate it, gathered my forces and headed toward the rounded portion of land over there. I couldn’t quite see the end of it but there was plenty of water around me and across the way there were trees that I think were behind Herring Cove. And behind me were the wetlands and the moss and I couldn’t see the trail anymore but I could see the lighthouse. And already I knew I’d be turning back. Because I got to a point and realized this was it. The rounded part did not continue. It stopped. On my map it looks like that too. Maybe in low tide you can trip right over there to the extreme end of Herring Cove where all the gay men would set up tents and stay there all day. I was heading in that direction but there was just no way. I was stuck. Surrounded by water on three sides. There was the sea, there was the land I couldn’t reach and there were the wetlands and the lichen and lighthouse I had just left. What.

There was no wading in. There was no telling how deep that water was and it was April, strange singular April and it was cold.

Ballston Beach

And this was the end. I’m okay with this I thought. And there was only one conclusion which was to go back. To go back exactly the way I came, not going to the tip of Cape Cod so I could say here a man may stand and put all of America behind him. I was never out. I was always in. I returned the way I had walked so many times with my ghost of a dog, Rosie and I took her home.

~

Thoreau began Cape Cod with a disaster and I want to end mine with trees. New York City’s ill-considered flood plan, the East Side Coastal Resiliency project a.k.a. ESCR intends to protect the neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and the East Village from climate change and flooding by demolishing eighty-year-old East River Park which was the only thing that protected the neighborhood during Sandy. This plan (which has already destroyed 500 trees) to build a concrete levee with a park on top (sure) has just advanced to the section of the park called Corlear’s Hook. Specifically Cherry Street and Jackson, named Cherry because there have been cherry trees there for four hundred years and the week I returned from Cape Cod those cherry trees were in bloom. A small group of activists, maybe ten of us, were down there Saturday morning and when the workers raised their chain saws two of our people, Reverend Billy of the Stop Shopping Choir and Sylver swiftly entered the fenced-in area with intentions of stopping the work. They wrapped their arms around the cherry trees and were subsequently removed by the police. I was ready to get arrested too that day and jostled around hoping to make my feelings known but the cops were not open to my plan and after a little bit most of them left and we left. It’s New York. I had things to do.

 

Longnook

On Monday I was back there at seven and Laura, a trumpeter and activist was my only cohort. I was ready to get thrown in jail but I wanted to do it with somebody. But like my Cape Cod trip that was not the direction things would take. More people showed up within the hour including an arborist inside the fence with a blue hard hat. This is the man who signs a death certificate for trees in New York. These are healthy trees so he has to make a certificate to create an impression that his actions are legal. That’s government. The workers moved first toward a small magnolia tree and with a few taps of a saw the little tree came down. The workers were methodical. They would cut a tree and then they would heave it into the chopper and it would become mulch. A couple of small trees were removed that way and he began to work on a large one a London plane. These are tall trees overlooking FDR. They cleaned the air for local residents for eighty and—in this case (Billie’s tree)—120 years. I don’t know if they knew in 1939 that building a park next to FDR would purify the air of carbon monoxide. They did know by the eighteenth century that deforestation made things hotter. But they don’t seem to know that here anymore. The worker went up in a white cart attached to a crane and began lopping off the upper branches of the London plane. When he had made short shrift of that he attacked its body. Clunk. If you’ve ever heard a tree die you know it’s a sequence of different sounds, each revealing the weight and the age of that part of the tree. The trunk is its life. Now the torso of that London plane is a strange fat toothpick bisected at the top and still (for now) standing sentinel over FDR. The cherry trees are in bloom all over New York today and quite dramatically on Cherry Street and I said to myself and aloud if he goes to the cherry trees I’m going in. The way things are situated there’s a tall chain-link fence in front of us which went up as the first indication that work would begin. The workers and the trees are inside. There’s a phalanx of cops, maybe ten. The activists and cops by now are about in equal number. FDR is to my left and the river beyond that. The rest of the park already a disaster zone runs along the river where a park once was. Parallel to FDR on this side is a low concrete divide. So you can throw your leg over and easily swing down onto the other side of the fence, to the trees. The worker raised his chain saw and I yelled I’m going in. It went fast. I was on the other side in a flash. And two cops were right behind me. The worker, this red-headed bearded guy who has on several occasions bowed toward us with a grin after killing certain trees, backed off. He stopped as soon as I approached him, running. The vibe from the workers is that this is all a big joke and we are pathetic. And we are in the rich emotive sense. I get to the tree and I throw my arms around it Joan of Arc style. Probably not the most effective position but definitely the most dramatic. In the footage and photographs of this I look fat. It was cold. I had on several layers under my jacket. The two cops tried to pry me off the tree. They were successful. It was a struggle but I was led back to the fence which was now open then the fence was shut and they let me go. What. I am not being arrested. I could hear the buzzing of the trees behind my back. I thought what do I do now. Give up. That was that? I’m going back I yelled and ran to the divide to have another whack at tree defense. With that they put handcuffs on me and deposited me in a police car and I was driven downtown, to the seventh precinct. Was it downtown. It was over there. I was kept for seven hours. Pointlessly. My crime was trespassing and they are throwing all our cases out as soon as we get to court but they are happy to inconvenience us as much as possible. Still they held me pretty long, more than any others except Alice and Allie Ryan in December at the beginning of the tree slaughter. My friends brought me a sandwich and I ate some, then I fed it to the ants. There was a dark halo around a piece of cheese on the floor. For hours I pondered was that a mitzvah or a trap. The people at FAWC had been encouraging me to stay on Cape Cod for one more day so I could walk the breakwater to Long Point on a sunny day in order to complete my trip even to see the whale skeleton that had been decomposing for months. I said no not now but I will do it later like Thoreau did, in June.

See what's inside AGNI 96

Eileen Myles moved to New York from Boston in 1974 to be a poet. Their books include For Now (Yale University Press, 2020), I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems (Ecco/HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015), and Chelsea Girls (Black Sparrow Press, 1994). In 2019 they showed their photographs at Bridget Donahue in New York City. Myles has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. They live in New York and Marfa, Texas. (updated 10/2022)

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