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).
“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.”
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.
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?