The Sands of Monomoy

Jul 11, 2017

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
Credit Zachary Cava/USFWS / https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsnortheast/4622277760

August, 1977. I have been burned. I sit here in the cool morning shade of our oaks and I can feel my face burning, radiating the heat of yesterday’s sun, sun that glinted off emerald swells, bone- and shell-strewn sands, silvered flats. Was it only yesterday I was there? It seems a thousand days away. Yet last night in my sleep I still felt the rocking of the waters beneath me, heard and saw the rush and rise of ten thousand wings before me, and drank in the clean tide of solitude that rolled over the flats, across the rippling expanses of marsh grass, the hidden, salty ponds, and the hollows and gentle rises of the dune battlements.

I feel a lump in the pocket of my jeans, reach down, and pull out a handful of sand. It is not ordinary Cape Cod sand, but an extremely fine variety, twice-sifted, water-milled, and wind-distilled. There are over a thousand grains to the square centimeter. They roll and flow into the veins of my palm almost like water, like diamond dust. They are the sands of Monomoy.

Monomoy Island drops off the chin of Chatham like the beard of the Cape, the barbel of its Cod-fish. Like beards and barbels it is an outgrowth of the main body, though at the moment a disconnected one. A product of wind and sea, it is composed of glacial material worn from the cliffs of the Outer Beach to the north, carried southward by strong longshore currents, and deposited below Pleasant Bay, first as an underwater bar, then as exposed shoals, and finally as an eight-mile barrier island of low sand dunes, sculptured by the wind and held tenuously stable by beach grass.

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge Map
Credit U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If Cape Cod is a metaphor for time, a constantly changing land form registering the geological hours, then Monomoy Island is its sweep second hand, caught in the grip of the same forces of change, but recording them much more quickly and visibly. It is the cartographer’s despair and the coastal geologist’s delight.

Seen from the air, the long, thin island appears as some giant seabird, soaring seaward out of Nantucket Sound, its great wings feathered out into the marshes and flats to the west. Seen in time-lapse photography, it would appear to form the southern end of a twenty-mile whip of barrier beaches and barrier islands lashing the inner coast of Chatham, dissolving and re-forming over and over again through the centuries.

There is something about the nature of Monomoy that invites metaphor, as though with enough images we might somehow shackle its shifting, protean shape. It seems, in its constant mutations, an image itself, illusory, ephemeral; yet it is as rooted in reality as the Rockies, and its changes merely attest to the intensity of its existence.

Robert Finch’s latest book, just published, is "The Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod’s Atlantic Shore.”