A Cape Cod Notebook - 8/19/08

ListenNaming the Land

By Robert Finch

We often complain these days that we feel detached from the places where we live, that we feel unconnected to our geographical homes at some deep, primal level. To express this yearning, we often speak longingly about people in other cultures - those in the past, or those in remote places - who lived, as we put it, "closer to the land." I have heard this phrase applied many times to those van ished rural inhabitants of Cape Cod and the Islands who in a previous century made their living directly f rom the land and the sea around it.

It's not that past generations were any more dependent on the earth's resources than we are, but the y lived a life of direct, repetitive, physical involvement with the local landscape, which in turn gav e them a strong feeling of identification with it - a literal "sense of place." It's true, of course, that it was in many ways a very narrow sense of place. On Cape Cod a life of subsistence farming or fishing demanded tha t the inhabitants see and know the landscape primarily in terms of extracting a living from it. Thus, consciously at least, they were likely to look at a salt marsh as a source of cattle fodder or a pla ce to shoot shorebirds for market; to see a stranding of blackfish as a windfall of whale oil; to regard a stand of oak as so many cords of firewood or a cedar swamp as a place to be cleared for a cranberry bog. They often laid waste the landscape with a carelessness, even a vengeance, that the most confirmed city-dweller would find inexcusable today. Nature for the old Cape Codders was no object to be contemplated from all sides in a detached manner, but a part of their lives and livelihood, to be en tered directly into and without too much attention to environmental niceties.

These country people rarely experienced an aesthetic appreciation of their surroundings that was unyoked to some task or necessity that it signified. And yet because of this element of necessity, the landscape was palpable to them in a way that we have largely lost, despite our refined "appreciation " of its visual beauty and our much-mouthed "respect for the environment." Even if the old Cape Codders took more seriously than we do the Biblical injunction to "have dominion over the earth," they were at least in no danger of abstracting themselves totally from their surroundings or divorcing themselves from their fellow creatures. They felt contained by something larger than themselves and shared a deep sense of earnestness with the creatures they hooked and netted and shot.

From the limits of their lives, from their necessary contact with the lives around them, the old Cap e Codders gained an intimate folk-knowledge of the plants and animals they used, a knowledge that they expressed in the wonderful array of colloquial names that have almost entirely disappeared from common usage. Their world was filled with pinkwinks and pinkletinks, sawbellies and walleyes, timberdoodles and thistle birds, dead-limb birds and fly-up-the-creeks, quawks and sea swallows, thunderpumpers and bog suckers, peep-los, tee-os, and feebles - names that reflect a full range of sensory knowledge, genuine affection, and a casual intimacy with wild creatures that can only be cal led a feeling of being at home.