Change is the Constant Amid the Ocean and the Beach

Jan 10, 2017

Early last month, on my way home from a dentist appointment, I stopped at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham at the end of the day. I have a long history with this barrier beach, going back to the 1960s, when there were still a dozen or so beach shacks strung along its length. 

In February of 1978, I watched a great storm remove most of those shacks, including Henry Beston’s Outermost House, along with the National Seashore parking lot and most of the established line of dunes. By 1980 only two of the beach cottages remained, and now, of course, there are none.

Dusk was coming on and it was too late in the day for a walk along the beach, so I just stood at the overlook beside the old Coast Guard Station. Just in front of me were stands of bayberry bushes. A small flock of myrtle warblers flashed spots of winter yellow as they wheeled over the bushes and grabbed at the small, hard blue-gray fruit. A drying west wind blew across the marsh and the sand spit below me. A recent storm had washed tons of sand across the dune line and into the marsh, and now the wind was carrying it, grain by grain, back out to sea again. In a place like this, how do we know which way to lean?

A Seashore plaque in front of me reminded me that the “old” Coast Guard Station was, in fact, a newcomer. According to the plaque, the first life-saving station at Coast Guard Beach was built in 1872 and lay “350 yards southeast of this site,” a spot long under water. The old station had been moved inland once, but in 1937 the second location was so endangered that it was abandoned and the current station was built on top of this hill. It was last manned by the Coast Guard in 1947.

As I pondered the fate of this beach and its human past, I was suddenly surprised to hear noises – doors banging, sleepy voices – coming from the station behind me. In my preoccupation with the past I’d forgotten the building’s current role as the National Seashore’s Environmental Education Center. I turned and saw a yellow school bus, with “Brookline Public Schools” painted on its side, in the parking lot. Through the windows of the old station, frosted with the condensation of human breath, I could see the clouded forms of young blond-haired schoolgirls in flannel pajamas jumping on bunk beds. From these same rooms, and less comfortable beds, rugged “surf men” had once risen at all hours and seasons to patrol the winter beach.

Where and what, I wondered, would all this be when these girls are grandmothers? What will this beach be like then? Will the dunes have recovered, or will another storm wipe them out again? Will this building still be here, or will it, too, have succumbed to the implacable ocean? Still, in this changing succession of human use and human possession, are we not closer to the customs and habits of the old Cape Codders than to those who argue for either permanent occupation or total abandonment? We possess anything – a place, a house, a love, a child – by knowing when to embrace it, and when to let it go.

In a place of such naked exposure, things endure, but they do not remain. This is no place for permanence. Only those things that come and go, which change, or are allowed to, can persist: the ocean, the dunes, the dancing myrtle warblers, and, if we permit it, ourselves.

The essay originally aired on January 6, 2015.