A Cape Cod Notebook 1/1/08

listenNauset Spit on New Year's Day

By Robert Finch

Every year, I try to take a walk on New Year's Day on Nauset Beach in Orleans. I began this practic e over forty years ago and it's never lost its novelty or failed to present me with discovery. Every place on Cape Cod and the Islands changes, of course, but Nauset Beach seems to experience change of a higher order than most. This was, in fact, scientifically confirmed a few years ago when studies of the coastline here revealed that the average rate of erosion on Nauset Beach is seven feet per year, ne arly twice the average for most other sections of the ocean beach.

Last year I arrived at the beach on New Year's morning at 6 a.m. It was quite cold, about twenty degrees, clear and still dark. The lightest breezes flowed out of the northwest, due to turn northe ast and bring in some snow by late afternoon. Offshore a high bank of smoky clouds delayed the coming of dawn. Three lighted ships moved slowly and smoothly north along the horizon.

The sea was calm and flat gray, a sheet of shimmering metal. The tide was low and rising with small breakers purling and curling in, spreading out from the middle in both directions like the final, qu iet, repeated chords of Barber's Adagio for Strings. I took a last sip of coffee, pulled up my hood, and got out of the car.

Setting off north toward the inlet to Nauset Harbor, I kept to the inner edge of the dune ridge. My bones were still cold from sleep, but steady movement soon warmed them up. The back dunes wore a winter-blasted look: ragged, wiry, gray mops of poverty grass dotted the colorless sand between irregular, brittle mats of lime-green reindeer lichen. The wind scythed through the wheat-colored winter beach grass, stirring dry stands of old cattail reeds and setting them to rattling like saber s. Weak yellow light began to seep in from the east. The only bright spots of color on the landscape were th e shriveled Chinese-red rose hips, dangling like forgotten Christmas ornaments from the bare, rounded, spiked clumps of beach rose.

Eventually I came out onto the broad flat sandy plain of Nauset Spit, where piping plovers and least terns nest in summer. Now, inexplicably, I began to find the dead bodies of birds, half-covered with wind-driven sand. There were several eiders, a headless cormorant and a headless brant, two large Canada geese and numerous gulls in their characteristic smashed or slapped-down postures. Many of these bodies looked like they had been worried at by dogs or coyotes.

At first I kicked up each of these bodies, inspecting them for possible causes of death: traces of o il, shotgun pellets, emaciation, infection. I was trying to determine whether they had died by some huma n agency or were just part of nature's great mortality. Eventually though, I stopped examining the st iff forms. The distinction between human and natural death begins to blur and lose significance in such a place. This wide, open, gravelly plain is surely one of the great natural stages of this or any othe r land. It possesses a kind of submissive power and integrity born of its naked exposure. Here, on the firs t morning of a new year, among a graveyard of birds serving as their own half-hidden markers, it spoke of bare survival, without benefit of man's flattery, whose only mercy is the driving cover of the wi nd.