CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE
In 1997, Kathy Hodge spent two weeks living in a dune shack built by painters Jan Gelb and Boris Margo. Part of National Parks program which invites artists to live within the park and record their impressions of the environment, the tiny historic shacks perch precariously atop the Provincetown dunes, without running water or electricity, sandy paths the only link to the nearest road.• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
John and I have made a meal of soup and bread, just before the sun slips below the dunes and the shack fills with darkness. Now we make the shack cozy with three kerosene lanterns and candles set upright in clamshells. I feel the closeness of the ocean although its sound is muffled by a cliff of sand that drops 20 feet from the plateau of dunegrass that is my front yard. Crickets raise sound from the deep sand and disperse it in a vibration that hovers over the grass. Only our own reflections are visible in the windows, except for small white lights that mark the horizon and the night journeys of boats.
My entry into the Provincelands as artist-in-residence began when a dusty rustoleum-gray pickup truck met myself and my husband at the tiny triangular lot of the service station where we left our car. The caretaker's key opened a gate off Rte 6, where the road ended and the truck sashayed and flowed down the sandy jeep trail. Our first stop was Zara's shack to drop off a fellow passenger and dune shack resident. Set back from the ocean and nestled in the dunes, Zara's is the newest shack and is snug, with a peaked roof, screened porch and a wood stove. After checking the pump and the propane we continue on down the trail towards the ocean, and the Margo-Gelb shack.
The truck settled into the sand at the base of the tall dunes which form the backside of the ocean cliffs. Struggling up the steep, soft slope, we carried art supplies, food and propane to last for my two week retreat. Dune grass whipped our shins as we followed a narrow path past a well-built outhouse to the shack. Resembling a weathered packing crate, the shack's sporadic shingles and silvered grey reinforcements reveal the upkeep of decades. A tilted platform wraps all four sides, like a storm tossed pier thrown inland and coming to rest against the shack. On the south and east thick and lushly fruited rose hips grip the sand in their roots and cling to the edge of the porch with thorny fingertips and bees.
The inside walls of the shack are much like the outside. Although crude, Margo-Gelb has the sheltered feel of a small wooden nest. One wall of the shack serves as a kitchen, with a tiny propane refrigerator and stove, a sink without faucets and enough pots, pans and dishes to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner. Twin beds and two plain tables nearly fill the rest of the room. On the table by the front window are three glass oil lamps, a bouquet of dune grass, binoculars and shells. A Red Cross flag stands in one corner, to be unfurled from the porch in an emergency. The nearest telephone is an hour's walk over the dunes.
With windows on all four sides, I can survey the entire landscape from my high vantage point. Vast expanses of sand beckon from the south-west window so we walked to what I called the area of nothingness. Nothing, just a rich and clean
We returned as the light was fading and realized that any activity, including dinner, not done soon would have to be done by kerosene lamps. I decide to let my watch wind wind down and let the position of the sun dictate my schedule.
The first night I fell asleep easily, too tired from the previous hectic week to mind the unfamiliar surroundings. I woke suddenly in the deep of the night. Energetic claws were scrabbling at the outside of the shack. The scrabbling became thumping dog-like footsteps on the flat roof, over my head to one corner, then back to the other. The heavy thump of the animal jumping down to the thick wood of the porch and a thud on the sand, then just the muffled rhythm of waves breaking below to lull me back to sleep.
I lay half awake with a sleepy recollection of a bright line of light, like rose and cream aluminum, bisecting three windows. When I roused myself enought to stumble outside, the light was steady and morning had been in progress for about an hour.
We walked on the beach towards Truro, the shapes of the landscape were clean and pure. Sky, triangular ocean wedge, cliffs topped with grass. We interrupt group of seagulls investigating a skate carcass and they skitter off, eyeing us with suspicious sideways looks. Tiny hunchbacked sanderlings race the waves on gangly legs. I notice a seagull track different from the others, as if it were dragging something in its beak along the sand. A sad explanation lay a few yards down the shore. One poor seagull wore it's wing like a tattered cape, hopelessly broken. He walked about dispassionately, still a strong bird, and I wondered if he knew the trouble he was in. We walked on.
Back at the shack, we rested our weary legs. Today was supposed to be spent exploring, but it was getting hot, so I set up my easel on the porch in the shade of the shack and the cool ocean breeze. I look north. Three horizontal stripes: sky, ocean and a field of shining seagrass. The most simple of abstractions. So simple I cannot make anything of my canvas. I will make a series of paintings from this vantage point, it presents an interesting challenge. But for now I'm frustrated in my attempt, so I walk around to the back of the shack where the dunes roll and wave, topped with spikes of dune grass and broken by shifting shadows. The vegetation provides endless detail. I am struck by hundreds of images I want to record.
I only have time for a quick sketch before our planned walk to Pilgrim Lake. But I take a few extra minutes to chat with the driver of Arts Dune Tours, a jeep tour which creeps down the trail several times a day. The driver is very friendly and asks to see my sketch. The tourists in the jeep are polite but unimpressed. I deserve that assessment, but tomorrow I will do better.
My map indicated it was mile to Pilgrim Lake, but a dune mile equals three on a hard surface. Walking in my husband's footsteps was easier, but I soon got tired of looking at the ground, the landscape was so varied and strange it was not to be missed. Rose hips flourished in richly colored bunches, I nibbled on a few so red they were almost black, they were tastier, less sour than I remembered. We walked past areas with whitish green vegetation, and the sand around these patches seemed frosted white as well, as if they had been sprayed with artificial snow.
The trail gradually climbed towards the high dunes, whose broad sides were covered with yellow green fields of seagrass and bleached ochre sand. Reaching the crest of these dunes, the sound of Route 6, always within grudging earshot even at the shack, intensified. A few buildings came into view on the horizon and we looked down on Pilgrim Lake. From our vantage point, it seemed an unremarkable body of water, bordered on one side by the busy highway. All desire to stand on its shore vanished and we started back. The sun was setting behind a bank of clouds, breaking through in fleeting moments of crystalline beauty. A side path toward the ocean tempted us and we emerged on the shore.
A pale golden magenta sunset, hanging in sheets from the sky, lay on the wet sand, reflecting from the surface of the water in front, beside and behind us. I used to think sunsets were beautiful to look at, in the Provincelands light I walk through them.
Below the magical atmosphere, the sad scuffing tracks of the seagull were again drawn upon the sand. All the other gulls were gone to wherever they sleep, and I wondered where the injured one was. He could not follow without the ability to fly or swim. Then I spotted him further up on the sand, walking a few steps one way, stopping. All alone.
It is getting overcast as I sit in the lamplight, writing about my experiences out here and I feel an ache in my calves. Tomorrow I start to paint in earnest.
My first sun shower seems not so intimidating in the quiet privacy of early morning. I hang a blanket on the most exposed side, which blows in the wind and gives only the illusion of cover, but there is not a soul around, only the broad plateau of seagrass and the bright strip of blue ocean ahead. The bar of soap slips from my hands into the sand, and now I have pumice soap, which will come in handy scrubbing paint off my hands.
I climb a rise to meet John but stop short at the top as hundreds of swallows swoop and circle. Fluttering over me, like a cross between a butterfly and a hummingbird, they slide away, as if falling into a slit in the atmosphere. They seem to have no fear of me as they hover, their short black and white wings translucent and delicate in the sun.
Sitting in the dune's soft sand is as peaceful a setting as can be imagined, like sitting in your bed in flannel pajamas looking at a pretty picture book. Long furrows of grey clouds produce a fine mist dotting my drawing with pinpoint speckles that turn black as the charcoal smudges over the paper. Mist gives way to a weak sun. I am pleased with my first successful drawing of the dunes. I follow the trail as it dips down steeply and softly into a sudden thick wood. Crickets and rustling leaves. The ground below is firm and covered with pine needles, but sand pours in from all sides. This small holdout will not last much longer against the relentless dunes. As the trail climbs again the dunes become small and numerous, each one is unique. Strange dry blue plants, pitch pines and stunted black oak trees laden with acorns grow in the hollows. Rose hips and bayberry flourish, in the lowest spots are lush carpets of ripe cranberries.
I search for the path to the ocean and come upon another of the dune shacks and the reason the trail has followed the coast this far. The beach is seagull lined and covered with debris, both natural and manmade. I walk the tideline and take an inventory: Dozens of balloons, most faded but some still semi-inflated, 7 mylar balloons. “Surprise” “It's a boy” “It's a girl” “Over the Hill”, 2 unbroken light bulbs, 2 jars of mayonnaise, 1 troll, tin cans, bottles, bleach bottles. The balloons especially mystify me until I remember the frequent cruise ships on the horizon, and the celebrations they host, and the balloons that escape and ride the waves to the shore.
I confess I did not pick up any trash, having room in my backpack only for natural debris. Seagull feathers, 2 seagull skulls, and what seemed to be the jawbone of a fish. Reaching the beach below my shack I climb the cliff, pump a few gallons of water and indulge in a cold sun shower. Refreshed, I advantage of the last of the light to walk down the path through the seagrass lawn to draw until it was too dark to see. I then walked to the edge of the cliff and watched the waves crash in. The high tide had swept the beach clean.
John left this morning and although solitude was to be a big part of this experience, the sight of his silhouette growing tiny against the dunes is lonely. I pump water to do laundry in a bucket, then head into the dunes. Oil pastels are my medium this time and they are quick and satisfying. I get a good drawing. It will be interesting to view it back in the flat light of Warren.
It rained overnight, interludes of rushing torrents which beat on the plywood roof like a drum. The sun rises as the last veil of rain moves out over the ocean. A smudged arc of dark clouds rotates in the west, harboring beneath it a glowing dark blue, a color not pure, but possessing a vibrant intensity. To the east is a faceted and transparent sunrise, weakly crystallizing as dark clouds move quickly over it. A red disc appears for a moment free of the cloud bank, then is blotted out by straggling storm clouds. They collect overhead and begin dipping in inverted pyramids of a dry gray, stacking cone texture. I slip back into the shack, rattling latches and grabbing drawing materials, but as I emerge, the dark clouds have become like spun charcoal and move off, herdlike.
Two dunes rise out of the sand like the tense, muscular curve of a horse's long neck. I complete an oil pastel and move on, hesitating, then backtracking to the front of the same dunes, which from a new angle rise up like lions, manes of roots surround their blunt summits. This drawing will be more about texture than color, so I use charcoal. Yet a third view of the front of the far beast is magnificent. A dying dune, its exposed roots swirl on its crown in tangled aberesque. I sit at its feet and begin another drawing. A paste of color covers my hands and my crayons are gritty with sand. Two insistent black flies have been harrassing me until I am so aggravated I make a futile attempt to stab them with my pocket knife. The light and my energy are fading, so I pack up for the day.
By the full moon I explore the dunes. The soft sand and textured vegetation soften the moonlight so it hovers over the dunes like ghosts. In contrast, as it falls on the Stonehenge-like ruin of a Coast Guard station, it becomes dramatic and casts sharp black shadows.
My solitude is broken when friend arrives with muffins imported from Providence, which we enjoy with the last of the coffee. Mary and I spend the morning sketching before an excursion into town. After four days completely alone in my shack, I'm ready to see people. The Fine Arts Work Center of Provincetown is hosting an exhibit of the 1996 artists in residence. I feel a twinge of jealousy viewing the different interpretations of "my" shack, which makes me anxious to get back and work, to make it mine again. I part from my friend and stop at the Heritage Museum to view the dune shack exhibit. I discover that mine is the third shack that painters Boris Margo and Jan Gelb built in the 50's to replace the others which were destroyed by weather and erosion. Impatient now to get back to my shack, I walk quickly, sneakers crunching in the roadside gravel as I cross Rte. 6 and into the woods. My feet hit the sand like slow motion, I shift into dune mode, take off my sneakers, look around and let my shoulders drop. What will I do when I can't come back here?
My last painting from the porch is finished and put it on the wall with eight others. I did make progress. The shapes have become simpler and the colors more pure. The rest of the day I walk the dunes. Following a bridle path I pick up a rusty horseshoe for luck. It pays off when I find half a dozen bushes of ripe beach plums. I climb to the summit of a mountainous dune and can see the water on three sides: the wide ocean east, the round harbor west and to the north and Race Point, a gleaming gold. Through binoculars I find my shack, the water towers of Truro, and the streets of Provincetown. The wind persuades me down. Putting on socks I pick my way through pine needles, lichen and mushrooms, ducking as full bristled branches spring across my path, while full skirted pitch pines block my way entirely. Lichen cling to my socks, occasional pine needles cause me to jump and hop a few steps.
Everywhere my path is crossed by deer tracks, some fresh with sand scattered behind. Running from me? I have the feeling they are nearby watching and I peer into the dark sheltered areas. I find a shotgun shell. As I emerge from the scrub forest I search the final line of dunes for access to the shore. I try a narrow trail by a tiny sandy garden still producing flowers and, to my surprise, tomatoes! At the top is the shack Mission Bell, boarded up for the season, and a path to the ocean. The tide is out and a wide clean slope of sand lies between the jeep tracks and the water, which is as still as a lake and so clear I can see the transparent insides of jellyfish floating by. Reflecting aqua where the ripples of underlying sand are deeper, the shallower water looks pink in contrast. The water bleeds its color into the sky as the sun approaches the horizon. Fishermen's jeeps form small flocks and a bigger flock of seagulls keeps a short flight ahead of me. As I climb the cliff to my shack the sun becomes a glowing ruby disc and stains the sky before it is swallowed by the sea.
A gusty wind blew all night and this morning blew the clouds in. I've walked all through the dunes these past two weeks and especially love the bare mounds of sand rising against the sky. I love the beach because you can find wild ocean things there and the water was clear and cold for swimming. Then there are the still, proud pyramids of dunes, crowned with tangled roots and dying rose hips. The swallows were spiraling madly when I arrived, but in a few days they left. The marsh hawk was a daily visitor, although the beast on the roof visited only once. Sad to go, I remind myself that I can return to spend a day in the Provincelands. But I may not get another chance to live within, and that is a very different thing. I'm waiting for my ride out listening, to the gusts push and shove against the walls. The shack creaks, but does not rock in the wind. I was in a panic all morning that I wouldn't be ready in time. But now I sit, waiting for the horn to honk. I am wearing good clean clothes I have saved from paint these two weeks. I have on shoes and makeup. I have money in my pocket. I'm ready to go.