A Cape Cod Notebook 1/22/08

listenThe Elephant Field

By Robert Finch

I drove through Brewster the other evening at the coming of darkness, and as I did the s treets of this town seemed suddenly full of ghosts. It was a winter's night, the streets were lightly covered with new-fallen snow and empty of traffic, and the people of the town were invisible inside their lighted houses. Yet the landscape, the roads, and the buildings of this community were densely and richly inhabited with stories and voices from the past.

I lived and worked in Brewster for over twenty years, and at now when I drive through th ere I seem to see the place in my mind's eye, full of the past, with what Barry Lopez calls "memory moving across landscape." This isn't hard in a town like Brewster, where so much of its history is still vi sible in the form of old houses, churches, gristmills, windmills, herring runs, and venerable public building s like the Brewster Ladies Library, the First Parish Unitarian Church, and the Old Town Hall.

Some of the stories I see are "public" stories, that is, they're part of the town's com mon lore, a communal history that most old New England towns possess. These are stories that have either been set down in books, or are connected to well-known places or historical structures in town. But there are other tales and anecdotes, not so well-known, that survive only in oral memory. Many of these are about people or places in town that now exist only in the minds of a few individuals, and then often as stories heard from those who are no longer alive. Still, such stories can change the way we see a familiar, present landscape by giving it a depth of layering in the mind's eye.

Let me give you an example. Near the center of town, on Long Pond Road, there?s a twenty -acre tract of woods that is now town property. It's a piece of unmarked conservation land that I suspect few people in town even know exists. For me, however, these twenty acres are indelibly and forever known as 'the Elephant Field."

The property was donated to the town over three decades ago by Mariette Gervais Arthur. She was a lifelong Brewster resident who lived in an old house across the street from this property. One afternoon, as a member of the Conservation Commission, I was speaking with Mrs. Arthur about the terms of her gift. She told me that when she was a little girl the land, now a wooded tract, was an open field. One day a circus train came down Cape, heading to Orleans where they were to perform. Since there was no place for them to pasture the animals overnight in Orleans, they asked her father if th ey could use his field. He agreed, and so that evening there was a strange parade of circus animals fro m the Brewster train depot about a half-mile down what is now Route 137 to her father's field, where t hey spent the night. They departed the next morning, but the animals, and particularly the pachyderms, l eft such a strong and odiferous impression on the field that from that time on it was known locally as " the Elephant Field."

Today I doubt there is anyone alive who remembers that spectacle, but when I pass those woods I still see, through the eyes of an old woman now long dead, a field of ghostly elephants, munching on the long grass of a vanished Brewster pasture.