When I travel, I like to read about the people and places associated with my destination. When in Rome; read about the Romans. This year while on Cape Cod, I read several books. The first was “On Whale Island: a place I never meant to leave,” by Daniel Hays. It’s a memoir about building and living in an isolated house in Nova Scotia for a year. A bit of Walden? The second was “The Last Lobster: boom or bust for Maine’s greatest fishery,” by Christopher White. White lives in Stonington and explores the lobster fishery. Neither of these is about Cape Cod but they are about the sea and perfect Cape reading. (See my posts “Getting Away”and “The Lobstah will Come.)
The third book was a Cape Cod memoir, “The Watch at Peaked Hill: Outer Cape Cod shack life, 1953-2003,” by Josephine Breen Del Deo. I bought this on a previous trip, but didn’t get to read it. Started it this trip and finished it yesterday. Josephine, her husband, Salvatore, two children and eventually grandchildren summer in a shack owned by Frenchie, an actress drawn to Proviencetown and the dunes. Josephine is a philosopher writer; Salvatore is a painter.
In the 1960s they and most other dune shack residents support the federal government’s creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore. They are assured they will have rights to the shacks for themselves and posterity. But almost immediately after the Seashore is created the National Park Service takes an unfavorable view of the shacks. They are evidence of humans on the dunes. When a few shack dwellers die; the Park Service burn or tear down their shacks. Much of the book is the record of preservationists attempt to save the shacks; and the right of the owners to live in them.
There are meetings, reports, court cases, testimony, and it drags on for decades. Josephine uses journal entries, hers and others, to make the dry legal fight personal. I found it interesting that even though the shacks were eligible for National Historic designation, they were not saved. The Park Service legalize argued the legislation for the Seashore protected “improved structures.” Since the shacks had no improvements they weren’t protected. Preservationists argued it wasn’t just the protection of a structure but a “way of life.”
And “way of life”is the heart of “Peaked Hill.” Del Deo writes beautifully about the dunes, the ocean, grasses, sand, swallows, storms, fish. She draws strength, sustenance, excitement, joy from the landscape. She writes poetry and prose. Salvatore paints. They grill sea bass; have a glass of wine at sunset. She reflects on the famous (Eugene O’Neill) and the unknown who have lived in the shacks. I want to extract her reflections, allow them sink into my consciousness.
In the past when I’ve seen private property intrude into parks, national or state, I’ve thought, hope they can be bought out. I’m not so sure now. Some of the Proviencetown shacks are now owned by non profit groups that rent them. Sounds good. But Del Deo argues a weekly rental is not the same as generations passing the dune shack life to the next generation. A few are still owned by families.
This year Diane and I spent a day on the Race Point beach. It’s not far from many of the shacks, the area of the extant Peaked Hill life saving station. Wouldn’t it be great to rent a shack. To experience a totally unique way of life. At the least, next year we might take Art’s Dune tour, which goes by the shacks. I also just discovered that biplane rides over the dunes can be charted at the Proviencetown airport. To join if only for moments Del Deos, O’Neill, Thoreau, Beston And all those that have lived life on the Cape Cod, Provincetown dunes.