A Cape Cod Notebook 2/5/08

listenA Minor Loss

By Robert Finch

This week marks the 30th anniversary of what has come to be known as "The Great Storm of 1978." On February 6-7 of that year, record storm tides and hurricane force winds battered the Cape and Islands and dumped over 30" of snow in the Boston area. I'm sure there will be any number of reminiscences of that historic storm printed and broadcast during this week, recounting accounts of the loss of beach property and shifts in the face of the land. But I'd like to mention one in particular that stands out in my memory, though from a monetary point of view, it was a minor loss.

On the second day of the storm, ocean surges broke through the upper end of Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, smashing apart the 600-car National Seashore Parking Lot that was located just below the old Coast Guard Station. The dunes along the mile and a half of barrier beach were virtually flattened. The storm surges cut sheer- twenty-foot high gouges in the dunes, and from the bluff above the beach the long sand spit looked like a series of small mounded islands separated by crashing waves.

There were then eight cottages remaining on the beach, and five of them were carried off in the storm. Some were totally destroyed, some had floated out into the marsh and were floating there like houseboats. One had been carried all the way across Nauset Marsh to the town landing on the mainland side, a mile to the west.

One of the houses that were destroyed was the Fo'c'sle, Henry Beston's small cottage where he lived for a year a half-century earlier and where he wrote his classic Cape Cod book, The Outermost House. I first heard about the fate of this structure Tuesday morning when a friend called me up and asked, "Did you hear that the Outermost House perished?" His choice of words struck me as curious, but somehow appropriate. "Perish" is a word that is usually reserved for souls, thoughts, and principles of human liberty, but somehow the passing of this little house seemed to warrant such a solemn word.

Later in the day I stood with the crowds on the bluff overlooking Coast Guard Beach, which had suffered such a sea change. I thought of the Outermost House, which had been scattered and swept out to sea through Nauset inlet. I thought that Henry Beston would have approved of its fate. At the end of the book, Beston makes his famous statement that "Creation is here and now." Its converse, of course, is that destruction is also here and now, and at this moment that seemed to be the stronger truth. But they are really two sides of the same coin, or rather, a single, indistinguishable process that we humans have divided into "creative" and "destructive" forces in order to express its effects on our own interests.

Beston had no expectations of immortality for his little house. Even during his lifetime the Fo'c'sle had had to be moved back several times from its original site in the face of the eroding beach. The house, after all, had been but a shell for the book. He knew where it was he lived.