A Cape Cod Notebook 4/1/08

listenThe Overlapping Layers of History

By Robert Finch

Today I live in a place that is being occupied in a sense undreamt of by those who lived here only t wo or three generations ago. It's a land that we are coming to dominate to such an extent that we no longer recognize what it is we possess or dispossess. Each year the phone books grow thicker, each year the songbirds grow fewer, each year the summer crowds grow larger and the year-round traffic denser. And each year the face of this land, the creation of generations of close intimate contact between people and nature, grows more indistinct.

No longer do we inherit our home sites or acquire them through marriage. No longer do we hunker down to dig up a handful of soil, squeezing it, smelling it, letting it run through our fingers to f ind out its texture and sweetness. Expanding town water systems make it increasingly unnecessary for us to determine how far beneath our land the water table lies or what its quality is. In most cases, the only contact we have with the deeper nature of the place we build our houses is a five-minute percolation test, performed by the health agent, to see whether the ground will absorb our wastes at an acceptab le rate.

No longer do we estimate the standing cordage of the surrounding trees or identify the location of t he nearest spring. Rarely do we inquire into the species of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers or grass es already growing on our property. Instead they are swept away as the lot is "cleared" and replaced w ith alien imports. In recent decades landscaping has become a big business on the Cape and Islands. Homeowners spend large amounts of money to import stacks of sod squares from Georgia, piecing them together like green tiles to form an instant lawn on the scraped sandy soil, and then installin g expensive sprinkler systems to keep the grass artificially alive during our hot, dry summers. If a p roject is big enough, they may even truck in 20-foot sugar maples or Colorado blue spruces to replace the scraggly, undistinguished, local pitch pines.

Yet the longer I live here, the more these burgeoning current lives of ours, and the alterations we make in the land on their behalf, seem superficial in the literal sense. They are merely the most recent face, a veneer, a floating algal scum, if you will, on the deep, accumulated sea of history in this place. Everywhere I go in this land I see signs of past human use - in the woods, in the bogs, along the ro ads, on the beaches, and out on the tidal flats. Together they make an enduring pattern and a natural, seemly rhythm of alteration, use, withdrawal, and reclamation.

So in my mind the various overlapping layers of history, past and recently past, natural and human, blend and fuse together into one rich textured presence, just as the accumulated harvests of each autumn's falling leaves eventually decay and merge to form a new soil. My own life here, I realize, is only another layer, part of the topmost one, of this land's human compost. I will not withhold myse lf from it, though I know that the risks of loving something that has become so vulnerable are great. The call here is great, too, and promises so much. When I look out, I want to see something other than my own face staring back at me.