A Cape Cod Notebook 6/24/08

Listen Millennium Grove II

BY Robert Finch

Last week I described my attempts to locate "Millennium Grove," the 19th century Methodist meeting campground in North Eastham that was described at length in Thoreau's Cape Cod. Thanks to the directions of some local residents, I finally found it on - where else? - Campground Road. If I hadn't known of its historic significance, I would, like most people, probably have passed it by unnoticed. The trees, mostly black oaks, are impressive only by Cape standards, and they're already overshadowed in height by the pitch pines, locusts and junipers that now surround them. The grove's boundaries, once fenced in, are now indefinite. None of the dozen or so houses that have been subsequently built on the original tract appear to be very old. Still, the present residents of Millennium Grove appear to feel some respect for the oaks, since very few of them have been cut down that did not need to be.

In the lush June shade of its new leaves, the grove still held a forceful, old druidic aspect. There were dozens of trees over a foot in diameter, and several that exceeded two feet. I made a quick foray into one deserted-looking front yard and threw my measuring tape around the waist of an old giant. It had a girth of over eight feet. In the shade of this sturdy mast the old Boston preacher, Father Taylor himself, might have preached, rousing and reassuring his "hearers" with the kind of nautical evangelism that Thoreau records:

"May every deck be stamped with the hallowed feet of godly captains!" he would roar. "He who takes care of every whale, and can vice him on a ton of herrings for breakfast, will find food for my babes!" he assured his congregation under the trees as they prepared to sacrifices clams instead of lambs to the glory of God.

Millennium Grove may still be the single most impressive stand of oaks on the Lower Cape, and for that reason alone it deserves our attention and respect. Changed though it is in appearance and use from the days of the old camp-meetings, I could still sense what drew the Methodist faithful there. As I stood gazing into its think green maze, I seemed to hear the thin ghostly murmurings of congregations beginning to simmer and the insistent scolding chattering of vanished preachers.

But then I looked up and saw the real source of my fancy. There were a half-dozen gray squirrels spread out in the trees above me. Some were stretched out flat along the trunks, chittering away. Others perched on the branches, flicking their tails like whips over their backs.

So, I thought, the trees, having outlasted their worshippers, have become a haven for gray squirrels. Gray squirrels prefer an oak habitat, and it's just possible that this locally dense population of squirrels has been isolated from other Cape gray squirrels for some time. Perhaps they've even become a separate sub-species, as the squirrels in Harvard Yard in Cambridge are said to be.

At any rate, these meek creatures have inherited the grove and, like small furry preachers, shouted insistently and possessively down on me from their green pulpits. They seemed just as certain as their human predecessors and, given the facts of tree succession, with more reason, that their leafy kingdom would continue to spread, oaks without end, amen.

myWGBH