Awed by a Flawed Cape Cod
The nostalgic allure of a sandy cape; a tragic tour of an enduring fate
After dropping our kids at college, my wife and I spent some time on Cape Cod. She had gone here as a kid for summer family vacations to enjoy the sand and salty air, and she wasn’t alone.
Now people come from all over the world to visit this soggy, sandy, stretch of land surrounded by sea. But it’s capacity is being tested, cresting waves are gobbling the coast, as warming water turns sea life into ghosts. It’s survived this long, but how long can it carry on?
ON SCARGO POND
Situated beneath Scargo Hill, the highest point on Cape Cod, is a pond most people call Scargo Lake. With permission from a lakeside homeowner, my wife and I recently descended its bank through the brush and bramble to swim in the calm, warm water. The stairs are supported by partially submerged glacial rocks deposited around 14,000 years ago.
The pond itself is one of hundreds of kettle ponds, giant divots formed by the glacier. After coming to its final resting spot at the edge of what was to be called the Atlantic Ocean, the mountain of ice melted leaving a sandy, spongey cape dimpled with ponds of melted glacier water. The runoff from Scargo Hill now feeds this pond as it makes its eventual journey back into the sky or salty sea.
One of the rocks deposited near the stairs is the size of a Volkswagon Beetle. Its permanence stands in stark contrast to the drifting fine sand of the famed Cape Cod beaches. No amount of rainfall will budge this boulder, but recent ravenous runoff has reshaped this ravine of late. Another reminder, along with the shifting sands, that despite illusions of permanence earth’s natural forces are unyielding.
Cape Cod is dripping with illusions of permanence. The man who built these stairs was a friend and colleague of my father-in-law. His name was Rudy. He was an esoteric retired dentist, who in retirement, took his proclivity for tinkering with teeth – a profession hellbent on slowing inevitable decay – to nurture nostalgia’s permanence.
His basement was like a touristy roadside attraction with a replica of a small 1950s diner booth, walls adorned with posters and pictures of the past, coin operated amusement park gadgets from the early 20th century, and a favorite of mine – a player piano.
Rudy liked to spool up his appropriately favorite song, the 1957 pop hit song Old Cape Cod. Rudy would sing along with these opening lyrics:
If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air
Quaint little villages here and there
You're sure to fall in love with Old Cape Cod
The song was written by a Boston-area housewife who, like Rudy, was so fond of vacationing on the cape. New England tourism, including Cape Cod, was just getting underway in the 1950s. A 1953 article in the publication Economic Geography reports,
“To many New England communities, the past few decades have been a time of economic readjustment and expansion…This current reversal of trend is largely the result of New England’s growing tourist industry, the income from which in 1951 amounted to $957,000,000.”
That would be over ten billion dollars today.
Recent analysis from the National Park Service reports over 300 million visitors streamed through Cape in 2022 resulting in $23 billion dollars of direct spending. Clearly a lot of people are fond of sand dunes and salty air, quaint little villages here and there, as more and more people fall in love with old Cape Cod.
Not everyone thought Cape Cod would be a tourist destination. One hundred years before the cape’s 1950s popularity, Henry Thoreau wrote in his book, Cape Cod,
“The time must come when this coast will be a place of resort for those New-Englanders who really wish to visit the sea-side. At present it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them…Such beaches as are fashionable are here made and unmade in a day, I may almost say, by the sea shifting its sands.”
Thoreau was visiting the Cape at a time when the allusivity of shifting sands posed a real threat to Cape Cod tourists and residents. After chatting with the lighthouse keeper of The Highland Light, the eastern most U.S. lighthouse and the first to greet sailors venturing from Europe to Boston, Thoreau believed even this beacon of permeance was threatened. He writes,
“According to the light-house keeper, the Cape is wasting here on both sides, though most on the eastern. In some places it had lost many rods within the last year, and, erelong, the light-house must be moved. We calculated, from his data, how soon the Cape would be quite worn away at this point, ‘for,’ said he, ‘I can remember sixty years back.’”
Thoreau surmised the lighthouse keeper would likely outlive the lighthouse. While it indeed was moved a short distance and rebuilt, it remains today as one of many Cape Cod tourist attractions. It’s not just the lighthouse that’s been preserved all these years, but the very grounds that surround it.
One hundred years before Thoreau’s visit, the harbor just north of the Highland Lighthouse, East Harbor, – at the narrowest segment of the cape – was erased. Tides from a powerful storm had sucked the eastern sands to sea breaching the harbor and severing the narrow, but contiguous, land mass in two. Provincetown, at the tip of the cape, was stranded on a newly formed island.
Alarmed by this development, the federal government rushed to plant sea grass and install fencing to build sand dunes and fill the gap. As part of the restoration program residents were encouraged, and threatened by law, to plant beach grass every spring. Within a few years expansive dunes began to form.
Over the proceeding decades and well into the 1800s of Thoreau’s visit, the practice of planting grass and installing fences had created another problem. The dunes had grown so extensive that the East Harbor was filling in with sand. In 1826, the state government issued a study that determined the dunes had extended more than four miles. This prompted the government to encourage more grass planting to block the spreading sand.
As Thoreau wrote,
“I was told that about thirty thousand dollars ($1,000,000 today) in all had been appropriated to this object, though it was complained that a great part of it was spent foolishly, as the public money is wont to be. 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 wheelbarrows, in order to make house-lots...Thus Cape Cod is anchored to the heavens, as it were, by a myriad little cables of beach-grass, and, if they should fail, would become a total wreck, and erelong go to the bottom.”
Beach grass planting is what has kept Cape Cod from becoming a total wreck and the beaches intact. But that 1826 report also noted that it was the removal of trees and shrubs that compounded the spread of sand in the first place. It was European settlers wrecking East Harbor in the eighteenth century by cutting down trees, letting the wind blow the sand away, resulting in the East Harbor being breached by the sea due to too little sand. And then, a century later, more settlers were wrecking East Harbor with too much sand through the planting of beach grass – destining it to be a vast sand dune.
Today East Harbor is hemmed in on the west by a highway atop a dike and sand dunes to the east still protected by sea grass. The highway was part of a reclamation project completed in 1868, just three years after Thoreau was there. This thin band of highway atop decades of accumulated sand and sod has turned the harbor into what some call Pilgrim Lake.
Since 1868 this body of water has gone from a salty marine environment into a manmade freshwater pond with a host of environmental problems. The stagnant water caused massive sand fly outbreaks, the proliferation of non-native plants, and large-scale fish kills. In 2001 one such kill prompted the installation of a 700 foot long, four-foot diameter culvert equipped with a valve for one-way drainage of stagnant water to the sea. After a year of little progress, authorities decided to keep the valve open to let salty tide water back into the harbor. By 2005 the invasive carp and cat-tail populations had declined, shellfish, sticklebacks, silversides, and sea squirts returned, and the water turned clear again.
Tourists have also bloomed to nuisance levels on Cape Cod. They’re drawn to sand dunes and salty air with quaint little villages here and there. My father-in-law’s friend, Rudy, wasn’t the only one intent on preserving the past. Much effort, with private and government money, has gone into preserving a certain historic cultural and environmental ideal of Cape Cod rooted in a colonial past. Out of Boston you pass Plymouth rock on Pilgrim Highway all the way to Pilgrim Lake. One of the roads I run down on the cape is called Whig, the nineteenth century conservative political party.
There is a lot of talk of conservation, preservation, and recreation on Cape Cod, but not so much about reservations. Even though the state is named after the Massachusett people. The Wampanoag people have lived in and around what is now Cape Cod since soon after that glacier melted. And they’re still there. One tribe resides on an island once connected to the mainland called Martha’s Vineyard. The other is on Cape Cod in Mashpee where nearly three thousand Mashpee Wampanoag are enrolled in the tribe. Mashpee is an anglicized word for Mâseepee: mâs means "large" and upee means "water" referring to the largest lake on Cape Cod – Mashpee Pond – where they were forced to settle by colonizers.
For the native humans to thrive in the harsh conditions the cape for nearly ten thousand years required a way of living that worked with or mimicked nature. You’d think the ‘enlightened’ European colonizers would have recognized this. Surely some did, especially in the beginning, but clearly, we’re still learning.
THE SHIFTING SANDS
My wife and I saw a significant reshaping of one beach we have frequented over the years. Waves had clearly taken a bigger bite than usual. To remediate and maintain the beach for tourists, the city had imported a swath of sand to supplant the loss. But it wasn’t the fine white sand that makes Cape Cod beaches so attractive, it was the brownish, dirty, gritty sand used to make concrete.
It seemed a desperate and uncertain attempt at holding on to the allusive certainty of the past – a temporary patch covering the truth in a nostalgic myth of sand dunes and salty air. It’s a story that props up quaint little villages here and there. Should the truth be known of the impermanence of the cape, people may stop falling in love with old Cape Cod.
I couldn’t help noting the conflicting and contrasting nature of Cape Cod. Like the beach grass planted to preserve their primary tourist attraction – beaches – from the effects of wind, only to be thwarted by a rising and increasingly hostile sea. Or the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History’s display on the Wampanoag people portrayed as a distant past even though they thrive today. And the quaint neighborhood road signs that occasionally read Thickly Settled amidst a cape that itself has become thickly settled.
The tourism industry props up a nostalgic illusory image of a past that reaches just far enough back in time to perpetuate the story of colonial control, but not so far as to recognize a more native coexistent past. It’s part of a coordinated effort, buoyed by private and public dollars, to futilely maintain the physical geography of a sea-bound land mass largely made of sand and marsh. And for the most part, it’s all done for the tourism industry.
I can’t help but see it as a snake eating its own tail. The commodification of nature that is being destroyed by commodification. The increased commercialization of “local” only serves to increase property prices thus pushing out locals. Overcrowded tourism degrades the tourism experience. And a depleting of the very resources on which they depend, like water. And it’s all occurring amidst a changing climate.
In recent years Cape Cod has experienced levels of coastal hypoxia not recorded prior to 2017. Coastal hypoxia, or "dead zones," involves a decrease in oxygen levels in coastal waters. Most evidence points to the cause being – surprise – human-induced factors such as nutrient pollution from freshwater runoff and wastewater discharge.
In the last few summers, the bottom waters in Cape Cod Bay have suffered from low oxygen levels, which is unusual. Factors like warmer water, layering of water temperatures, and altered wind patterns are creating an environment prone to low oxygen near the seabed. These climate shifts are seriously affecting the types of plants and animals in and around Cape Cod. My wife and I would not have been swimming Scargo Lake last summer due to an outbreak of a harmful bacteria.
Cape Cod, like most of the colonized world, is a victim of cultural and environmental disruption. The influx of tourists since the mid twentieth century, like the influx of European colonizers centuries before, have disrupted the lifestyles and cultures of the very local communities they sought to enjoy. Instead, locals, like the Wampanoag before them, have been exploited and expunged leaving Cape Cod enshrined in a commercial haze of cultural hypoxia and an influx of mono-cultural human species. And it’s all surrounded by a coastal dead zone, an increasingly angry sea, shifting and volatile wind, and an uncertain future.
I can see centuries of colonial behavior more like an invasive species. We’ve been introduced to new habitats where we didn't historically exist, and we have disrupted native ecosystems. We grow our populations rapidly and seek to outcompete native species, natural resources, and ecosystems. Like invasive species we exploit and deplete local resources, alter food chains, and ecosystem dynamics. It’s all led to the transformation of landscapes and widespread habitat alteration.
But we humans, as native populations demonstrate, have unique capacities for complex decision-making, culture, and technology, which can be harnessed for both positive and negative impacts on ecosystems. Moreover, humans have the capacity to recognize and mitigate their impacts, making conscious efforts toward conservation and sustainability. And indeed, the ongoing restoration of East Harbor shows how possible this can be.
But to do this on a global scale requires us to not think of ourselves or the past as a stationary rock deposited by a glacier, but as a grain of sand at the beach. Grains of sand, when combined, give rise to complex emergent phenomenon like dunes and beaches. These emergent structures are not present in individual grains but emerge from their interactions with others and their co-arrangement.
Let’s grow even fonder of the sand dunes and salty air. If we want to maintain quaint little villages here and there, embrace uncertainty and reject despair. Let’s fall in love with the cape as the Wampanoag did, not the allusive nostalgic one experienced as a kid.
The Impact of Tourism on the Economy of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Lewis M. Alexander. Economic Geography. 1953.
Tourism to Cape Cod National Seashore contributes $750 million to local economy. U.S. National Park Service. 2023.
Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod. Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.
Unprecedented summer hypoxia in southern Cape Cod Bay: an ecological response to regional climate change? Scully, et al. Biogeosciences. 2022.