I lay in a hollow back of the shore, listening to the heave and splash of low waves. The sinking sun, like a colossal red balloon filled with water, swelled, flattened and, with a final rapidity, disappeared into the sea, leaving a foaming, fiery band behind it. I heard the trembling cry of a loon behind me, and then saw it fly over, heading north, it had been a hot day, the light shining on metallic, glittering, slow waters and sharp-pointed beach grasses clicking together in the faint wind. Now, with the dusk, the wind grew cool.
This was the first night I ever spent on the Great, or Outer, Beach of Cape Cod. I have been a property owner on the Cape for 20 years and a resident for 15. But I live on the inner, or bay, side, facing gentler waters, having only a sense, now and then, of the Cape's long, curving Atlantic shore, of its raw and open majesty, some 40 miles of great headlands and low dunes in vital and changing communication with the winds and oceans. I had decided it was time to take a walk, to see what the Great Beach told me, perhaps to find out what it told the nation, now that it is the spinal column of the 26,666 acres of beach, dunes, salt marsh, heath, low woodland and fresh-water ponds that this summer became the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Spine perhaps is not the right word for an area which has no bedrock and is formed of gravel, sand and clay, left there by continental glaciers. Waves, winds and ocean currents have molded Cape Cod during the 10,000 or 12,000 years since the last glacier melted back. These forces take away several feet of shore line a year in some places, and in others they add to it. Where the steep dunes are not thoroughly anchored by beach grass or other seaside vegetation, winter storms suddenly rip out great chunks, and it is difficult to see the Cape in other than tenuous terms. But the sharp, shining, separate clumps of beach grass hold acres of sand together with a power which is real enough. This land holds even as it gives and is taken away. It is in supple compliance with winds and sun and the weathers of the year. More than that, it is the farthest daring of a continent, in alliance with elemental waters. This is perhaps the main value of the Great Beach for the people of the United States, who will own it.
This "nationalization" may seem the end of an era to a good many Cape Codders who think of the land as their own. It is an era, in their minds and feelings, which has lasted since 1620 when the Pilgrims arrived. There are others whose family affiliations do not go back so far but who have no less strong emotions on the subject. Homeowners, real estate developers, builders are afraid that they will be hurt by the park. Some towns, and their residents, have expressed concern about a serious loss in tax revenue. Still others are afraid that millions will ruin what they come to enjoy.
To all Cape Codders—those in favor of the park and those against—the National Park Service points out that it is still largely up to them to keep the land they value from being despoiled. Many parts of the Cape already are covered with motels, gift shops, signs and various quick-and-cheap "developments," to the extent that the old quality is invisible. Cape Cod towns have had a recent history of resistance to planning and zoning that probably stems from an older individualism, but wise local planning will be needed if towns on the fringes of the park and elsewhere are to retain their once-cherished identities. A bulldozer that flattens acres of land for a new development is no respecter of life, natural or civilized. It entombs all it encounters.
The National Park Service has pointed out that its intent is to preserve the Great Beach and not to wreck it. In that connection, Representative Hastings Keith of Massachusetts, who collaborated with Senators Saltonstall and Kennedy on the original bill to establish the park, has attempted in as many ways as possible, during progress of the legislation, to emphasize the word "conservation," instead of "recreation." It is by no means a policy which tries to hold back public recreation; its aim is to promote it "without harm to the features on which that recreation depends."
There are other values of an equal and, I am sure, an ultimate importance that are a little harder to define. One economic study of the proposed Seashore says that "the fascination of the sea and its seaside environment are intangible values." To make the intangible tangible, the way beach grass holds down the sand, is a matter for the spirit, regardless of economics. The fact that the new park is within a day's travel of 50 million people, located in a region that has the highest population density in the U.S., may have been one reason behind its formation. The cities, self-enclosed, may have a thirst for outwardness. But the park was mainly created for its own sake. It has an identity to be cherished and a nobility of which to be proud. It is no mere outlet.
Many who see the Great Beach for the first time are stirred by a bold and open beauty that is beyond expression. I have heard visitors, standing on the high cliffs, who were stimulated by the shining horizon to talk about disasters at sea, or who suddenly looked down at the foaming shore line, curving on and on, and gasped with surprise. Whether or not they have come to picnic, get a suntan, play softball or make love, there is something about the naked reach of the sands toward distant water and sky that catches humankind.
This park will have a number of public beaches, with access roads at intervals along the shore, and certain areas will be accessible only by foot trails. No major concessions will be allowed within the limits of the park. While camping sites will be established, provision for overnight accommodations will be left to private facilities outside the park boundaries.
It was, then, as one of the 180 million shareholders of this new national park that I set off from Race Point in Provincetown late one afternoon this summer—with pack and sleeping bag—to see and feel the Great Beach for myself. The Provincetown beach in the crowded summer weeks contains a marvelous wealth of paper, beer cans, bottles and general garbage. One of the first things to catch my eye as I lunged down off the bank was an electric light bulb floating in the water; and I was quite surprised at the amount of sliced onions lying around—perhaps they had been thrown off a fishing boat. Then I heard an insistent bird note behind me, and a piping plover flew past-they are very pale in color, adapted to the sands and with a slender black collar. It suddenly volplaned down ahead of me, fluttering, half disappearing in holes made by human feet in the sand. It side-winged, edged away, still fluttering, in the direction of the shore line, and when it reached the water, satisfied evidently that it had led me far enough, it flew back. These birds nest on the beach above the tide line and, like grouse, try to lead intruders away when they come too close to their eggs or young.