A Cape Cod Notebook 8/26/08

ListenReturning to the Land

By Robert Finch

Last week I spoke of the close relationship, born of necessity, that the old Cape Codders had with t he land, its wild creatures, and the natural materials around them. Today, of course, the culture of th at old, isolated peninsula is long gone, and with it have gone the long compulsory associations with the lan d that bred it. Once technology freed them from the drudgery and necessity of direct physical contact, most local residents chose to remove themselves, almost in revulsion, from the physical environment. Only in the case of local fishermen has the natural context of their work remained so awesome and so encompassing that the presence and effect of the sea on human character have continued to outweigh its purely material yield.

Still, the majority of us today, even those of us who profess to love the land and its history, woul d not wish to return to that earlier mode of life, even if we could. We have come back to the land with ne w eyes, new hands, new tools, and new perceptions. We have today much greater capacities for exploring and understanding the land, but the old choices remain. And most of us choose to "return to the land " in a highly selective and primarily visual manner, for recreation or for views. We engage mostly in brief stops or glances at some pleasing prospect in our swift passages between resorts, communities, homes, jobs, or marriages.

Today we lack the source, and hence the feeling, of seasonal ritual that gave our ancestors that "comprehensive awareness" of living in nature simultaneously in the past, present, and future. Our conscious need for nature is superficial and selective now. Our desire for communal ritual has been internalized into such expressions of our inner lives as football games, corporate retirements, and political campaigns. Local festivals on the Cape and Islands have multiplied in recent decades. The y spring up hopefully, but tend to wither away after a few years. And those that survive tend to have a forced or commercialized tinge to them, a sense that we are staging them, not for ourselves to celebrate our shared life, but to attract more tourists in the off-season. This is inevitable, since the joy and earnestness that traditional community festivals originated in, such as the celebrations of natu ral cycles of crop harvests, fish migrations, and animal births, are no longer there.

Despite the crowding of our summer beaches and the lip service we pay to the desirability of "gettin g back to nature," I think there is a deep reluctance in most people to reenter the natural world in a ny meaningful way. We still prefer our nature packaged and safe, on our own terms and time schedules, which of course is not nature at all. Perhaps we still sense it, unconsciously, as the source of too much pain and confinement, something we struggled out of at too great a cost to risk getting trapped by again. I find something ambivalent in my own feelings towards nature, especially when I'm strongly drawn to it. It's a reluctance to give myself entirely to it, that keeps me from pulling off to the side of the road and disappearing into the woods. Nature still seems too overwhelming, too cold, too real f or human sensibilities. And yet we must make those first tentative steps, as we enter a pond for the f irst time each summer, entering and remembering again, until we once more become acclimated to the feel of it.