Stony Brook Road on Cape Cod

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Many years ago I read “The Run” by John Hay.  It’s about the alewives run on Stony Brook in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  We visited the stream along the old Grist mill soon after reading the book.  This year after a pre-Cape re-reading of “The Primal Place” by Robert Finch, we did a Brewster explore, including Stony Brook.  Finch lived on the Stony Brook Road near the Red Top cemetery for many years when he worked in the Cape Cod Natural History Museum on Route 6A.  Hay was a founder of the Museum.   I was just finishing Finch’s 2017 book, “The Outer Beach: a thousand-mile walk on Cape Cod’s Atlantic Shore.”  I would need more Cape reading.  So we stopped in the Brewster bookstore.

I purchased two books.  “The Lost Hero: Captain Asa Eldridge and the Maritime  trade that shaped America” by Vincent Miles.  Eldridge was from Yarmouth, south of Brewster and Stony Brook.  The other book was the real surprise, “The Prophet of Dry Hill: lessons from a life in nature” (2005), by David Gessner. When I looked at Gessner’s books, I recognized and remembered reading  “Soaring with Fidel: an osprey odyssey from Cape Cod to Cuba” (2008).

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“Dry Hill” it turns out was/is  on Stony Brook Road, near Red Top cemetery.  Small world.  The prophet was John Hay of “the run.”  He wrote over a dozen books, in his “writing shack” above a plain house on Dry Hill, a property he bought after World War II.  Hay was drawn to Cape Cod, Brewster and Stony Brook Road because the author Conrad Aiken lived there.  Hay worshiped Aiken.  I’ve never read any of his writings which include novels, essays and poetry.  I don’t think Aiken wrote directly about Cape Cod as Hay, Finch and Gessner did.  But all seemed to follow in a tradition of Cape Nature writing started by Henry David Thoreau “Cape Cod” and Henry Beston “The Outermost House.”

Gessner, an aspiring writer rented a house in Brewster overlooking Cape Cod Bay on Stephen Phillips Road.  It’s not far from the Sesuit Harbor Cafe where Diane and I had lunch the day of our Brewster explore.  The wait was too long, the picnic tables seem to be set in a dusty parking lot but the seafood was fantastic.  My lobster roll hosted an entire lobster and Diane’s grilled tuna sandwich was the best tuna she’s ever tasted.  Even the fries were tasty.

It’s the late 1990s.  Gessner fantasizes about writing a biography about John Hay.  It never happens; they become friends.  He eventually writes about the friendship. He braves the dream and calls Hay.  He was gracious and invited David to visit Dry Hill.  For about a year, Gessner visits John and his wife, Kristi.  Some days they walk around the property.  They visit the alewives run at the mill.  They drive to the beach, walk, watch birds, terns are John’s speciality,  they soak in the ocean.  John picks various Cape plants inhaling the smell of each.  They walk the dog.  Most of all, they talk.

John has a bit of the curmudgeon about him.  Since he purchased Dry Hill in 1946, the Cape has become too crowded.  Too many people, too many cars, too many trophy homes. John shares his life’s philosophy with David.  It includes “live simply so others can live.”  But central is his relationship with nature and the world.  John discovered this immersion in nature when he observed and wrote about the alewives.  Their lives and man’s life wasn’t a straight line but moved in circles.   Cycles. Seasons.  Somehow John wants to move out of self into, to be part of the natural world.  He wants space, openness, to be rooted in the land.  His tenure on Dry Hill is about sixty years. With Gessner he enjoys remembering the past.  His days and cocktail evenings with Aiken, his mentor?   I understand but I’ll need to re-read “The Prophet of Dry Hill.”

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I identified with John and Kristi’s aging limitations.  Physically and mentally it gets difficult.  A short walk becomes a challenge.  Can I make it uphill.  I’ve accepted that this morning I didn’t go on the kayak trip, three hours, up and down was too much.  And riding a bike, don’t think so.  But I can walk, sit on the beach, enjoy the sun, the surf and even today’s rain.

 

“The Prophet of Dry Hill” ends when John and Kristi move permanently to Maine.  David accepts a job at a southern university.  His bayside rental is sold and the new owners will tear it down, one old Cape house, replacing it with a bigger, newer, John would be appalled.

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I need to reread “The Run.”  And I have a copy of John Hay’s “The Great Beach.”  Maybe Thoreau and Beston.  But most of all I need to follow John’s footsteps on the beach, to the birds, the surf, the peepers in the woods,  to become one with the natural world.  The sands are shifting.  Where am I?

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Cape Cod’s Oldest Shipwreck

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The shoals off Orleans on Cape Cod where we’ve rented for the past six years is often referred to as the “graveyard of the Atlantic.”  Thousands of ships have run aground or sank there.  Another Atlantic graveyard is off the Outer Banks in North Carolina.  I also remember the shoals off Nantucket labeled “graveyard of the Atlantic.”  The Andrea Doria, an Italian ocean liner collided with the MS Stockholm in 1956 sunk there.  Forty-six people died.  Remains from the ship were displayed in the historic life saving station museum across the street from our Nantucket rental.

My first Cape Cod book this season was “Cape Cod’s Oldest Shipwreck: the desperate crossing of the Sparrow-Hawk,” by Marc C. Wilkins.  A History Press imprint, so I wasn’t expecting a lot.  They tend to be written by amateurs.  But it was a good story. The Sparrow-Hawk (named after a Cape family, Sparrow, that discovered it’s remains, we don’t really know the ship’s name) left England in 1626.  Bound for Virginia, John Fells and John Sibsey shipped off with a boatload of Irish servants/workers to make a fortune in tobacco culture. Their ship was only about 50 feet.  The Captain’s name was Johnson.  Planning was not the best.  There were too few provisions and water, especially since they were sailing the northern route in winter.  The year was 1626.

Captain Johnson was sick.  The ship (like the Mayflower) approached Cape Cod rather than Virginia.  In rough water they ran aground at Nauset between Chatham and Orleans.  Not far from our Orleans rental.  The crew freed the ship but they were grounded a second time and the ship was lost.  William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation rescued them and it is through his writing that we know something of their fate.

The rough “rowdy bunch” of Irish did not get along with the pious Puritans.  John Fells also complicated their relationship when he got his maid pregnant.  In 1627 Bradford arranged for two barks to take the group to Jamestown, Virginia.  It seems Fells and Sibsey did become involved in the tobacco trade.  Their ship, later christened “Sparrow-Hawk” was covered by the shifting sands of the Cape’s “graveyard.”

 

The “old shippe” appeared briefly in 1782 and then it wasn’t seen again until 1863 when the bones of the Sparrow-Hawk surfaced.  A local Amos Otis made drawings of of the remains.  Many Cape Codders took souvenirs from the wreck.  There was considerable interest in this “oldest shipwreck.”  In 1865, the remains were moved and displayed in Boston Commons.  Despite its history and symbolism, the Sparrow-Hawk was sold and put in storage in Providence, R.I.  Eventually the Massachusetts Historical Society gave the remains to the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth, Massachusetts.   In 2005 it returned briefly to the Cape to be displayed in the Cape Cod Maritime Museum in Hyannis.  We could have viewed the Sparrow- Hawk then.  The author Wilkins and others studied the remains in an attempt to understand the construction and history of the ship.

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The Sparrow-Hawk was returned to storage in Plymouth until recently when some Swedish scientist-historians have unpacked the remains and are attempting to date the timbers and confirm the “legend” surrounding the ship.  Was she the 1626 wreck that Bradford wrote about?  Is she the “oldest wreck” along our Atlantic coast?  Did she transport a boatload of Irish farmers and English gentlemen to Cape Cod in search of the American dream?  History is always questions.

Last week I sat on the beach at Pleasant Bay.  I gazed across at marshlands, out to the Atlantic and thought about the story and the skeleton of the Sparrow-Hawk.  A fascinating trace of history.  A voyage that brought some of the earliest settlers to these shores nearly 400 years ago.  Amazing.  Someday we’ll get to Plymouth to view the Sparrow-Hawk.

 

 

 

 

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