A Cape Cod Notebook 3/25/08

listenThe Permanence of Change

By Robert Finch

On my way home from a dentist appointment in Hyannis, I stopped at the end of the afternoon at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. I have a long history with this barrier beach, going back to the 1960 s, when there were still a dozen or so beach shacks strung along its length. In February of 1978, I watched a great storm remove most of those shacks, including Henry Beston's Outermost House, along with the National Seashore parking lot and most of the established line of dunes. By 1980 only two o f the beach cottages remained, and now there are none.

I didn't have time for a walk along the beach that afternoon, so I stood at the overlook beside the old Coast Guard Station. Just in front of me were stands of bayberry bushes. A small flock of myrtle warblers flashed spots of winter yellow as they wheeled over the bushes and grabbed at the small, ha rd blue-gray fruit. A drying west wind blew across the marsh and the sand spit below me. A recent stor m had washed tons of sand across the dune line and into the marsh, and now the wind was carrying it, grain by grain, back out to sea again. In a place like this, how do we know which way to lean?

A Seashore plaque in front of me reminded me that the "old" Coast Guard Station was, in fact, a newcomer. The first life-saving station, built in 1872, lay "350 yards southeast of this site," a sp ot long under water. The old station had been moved inland once, but in 1937 the second location was so endangered that it was abandoned and the current station was built on top of this hill. It was last manned by the Coast Guard in 1947.

As I pondered the fate of this beach and its human past, I was suddenly surprised to hear noises - doors banging, sleepy voices - coming from the station behind me. In my preoccupation with the past I had forgotten the building's current role as the Seashore's Environmental Education Center. I turned and saw a yellow school bus, with "Brookline Public Schools" painted on its side, in the parking lot . Through the windows of the old station, frosted with the condensation of human breath, I could see the clouded forms of young blond-haired schoolgirls in flannel pajamas lying on bunk beds. From these same rooms, and less comfortable beds, rugged surf men had once risen at all hours and seasons to patrol the beach.

Where and what, I wondered, would all this be when these girls were grandmothers? What would this beach be like then? Would this building still be here, or would it, too, have succumbed to the implacable ocean? Still, in this changing succession of human use and human possession, are we not closer to the customs and habits of the old Cape Codders than to those who argue for either permanen t occupation or total abandonment? We possess anything - a place, a house, a love - by knowing when to let go, and when to return.

In a place of such naked exposure, things endure, but they do not remain. This is no place for permanence. Only those things that come and go, which change, or are allowed to, can remain: the ocean, the dunes, the dancing myrtle warblers, and, if we permit it, ourselves.