Nameless Beaches a Lasting Signature of Cape Cod

May 21, 2014

Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region / flickr

Few things on the Outer Beach last long enough to acquire a name. Unlike, say, the coast of Maine,the sea here tends to quickly erase all physical evidence of specific sites and events. As a result the number of names associated with the Cape’s Atlantic shoreline is relatively few. There are perhaps a dozen or so large natural features on the Outer Beach that have acquired familiar and accepted names. These include Long Point, Race Point, Head of the Meadow, the Clay Pounds, Long Nook, Pamet, Newcomb, Cahoon, and Le Count Hollows, Coast Guard Beach, Nauset Spit, North Beach, and, finally, the constantly-shifting incarnations of Monomoy Island.          

And that’s about it. Beyond these geological macro-features, there’s little that endures on the beach long enough to acquire a name. Sand castles, messages in the sand, little stick figures, the charred remains of beach parties, last only until the next tide. Whales beach and, if not removed, are usually reclaimed by the sea within days or weeks. Their bones do not remain exposed for decades as they do on rockier or more protected shores. Further up the time scale, summer beach sculptures and edifices made from driftwood and other found material may last a season or more. Beach cottages, if they’re lucky, may remain for decades, but not much longer. Oddly, the well pipes of these vanished cottages may last much longer, protruding from the cliff faces and dunes, sucking air now instead of water.       

Ironically, the structures that may last the longest of all on the beach do so only after they have ceased to have any function. I’m talking of the carcasses of old wooden ships that were wrecked on the Outer Beach and subsequently buried in the sands. Years, decades, even centuries later, they are occasionally uncovered by wind and wave and show their old bones to new and wondering eyes

But the beach itself remains largely nameless. In fact you cannot even step onto the same beach twice. It is literally a river of sand, always changing, always moving. The most we can do is to impose our own personal nomenclature on its featureless length. And over the years I’ve done this, attaching invented names to the various places, objects, and events I’ve encountered there.  I have no illusions that these names will last any longer than hundreds of other names that once attached to its shifting sands.  Already many of the features and structures that have been part of my history here no longer exist, or have changed beyond recognition, but no matter. The Outer Beach may not support the rich assortment of historical names that decorate more enduring coastlines, but it is our beach nonetheless, and I find it fitting that it has become a National Seashore. For it is so axiomatically American, this beach. With each night tide it wipes out our history, providing us with a clean slate in the morning, our sins and soiled lives washed clean, with its corollary that nothing here lasts much beyond the day.