Nauset 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
over forty years ago and it's never lost its novelty or failed to present me with discovery. Every
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
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
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
repeated chords of Barber's Adagio for Strings. I took a last sip of coffee, pulled up my hood, and
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
yellow light began to seep in from the east. The only bright spots of color on the landscape were th
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
shotgun pellets, emaciation, infection. I was trying to determine whether they had died by some huma
agency or were just part of nature's great mortality. Eventually though, I stopped examining the st
forms. The distinction between human and natural death begins to blur and lose significance in such
place. This wide, open, gravelly plain is surely one of the great natural stages of this or any othe
It possesses a kind of submissive power and integrity born of its naked exposure. Here, on the firs
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