Two Shores, Two Lives

May 2, 2017

Last night, driving home from a movie in Dennis, I stopped at Linnell Landing on the Brewster shore to see if I could still see the Provincetown Monument from there. Instead, I saw my life, as it was, and as it is.

It was 9:30, but wondrously clear. A pale, draining light still glowed in the western sky. A waxing quarter moon hung high overhead, further lighting up the bay. The curved shore of the Bay was spread out and lit up like a copper necklace as if with the incandescent glow of the incipient season. I could trace the beacon on the water tower in Orleans, the soft lights of North Eastham, the sallow mercury vapor glow of Wellfleet Harbor, the clear jeweled spread of red, white and yellow lights at Provincetown, like rubies, diamonds, and amethysts thrown on a velvet sky, and the blinking, pulsing green light of Long Point at the end of it all.

Oh, how this view of the Bay has informed my life! For over twenty years I lived in Brewster, and this was my most frequented shore, this my most familiar view of the Bay. Now that I no longer regularly walk its shore, I can see how that view also formed my life as well. It gave me a circumscribed view, a sense of clear, definite boundaries and enclosed protection. It is in many ways the finest of views, spread out over these majestic tidal flats, where the seaward-flowing channels and streams wind out across the flats like pale blue scarves lit by moonlight. It was this view, the easy accesses to the bay from Brewster’s many town landings, that afforded and gave me so much when I lived here.

Now I live in Wellfleet, which, by contrast, is curiously blocked from easy, direct access to the Bay by its harbors, coves, islands, barrier beaches and marshes. In Brewster, a five-minute pick-me-up visit to the Bay was an easy and quick detour. In Wellfleet, one must make a conscious effort and a significant deviation from one’s route to reach the open Bay. And when one does the prospect is somehow less expansive. Instead of looking north, as the view from Brewster’s shore does, opening up to even larger bodies of water, the view from Wellfleet looks west, back toward Plymouth and the clotted landscape of the Republic.

Standing on the dark strand at Linnell Landing, my eyes were once again led north along the concave coastline by the string of interrupted lights along the shore. Once again I could hear the great grating roar of the low surf out beyond the tidal flats. I knew it came only from the offshore sand bars a mile or so out, but it seemed, as it always seemed, to come from farther out, much farther out, from beyond the gap between the Provincetown Hook and the mainland. It was a sound that was always leading me out, in imagination, beyond the safe, enclosed, nourishing circlet of the Bay into larger bays, then into open ocean, unknown waters. I no longer have a place on this shore. My bearings of nearly a quarter-century here are gone, and I no longer take anything for granted.

Robert Finch is taking some time off to write a new book. In his absence we're replaying some favorite essays. This week's essay originally aired in April, 2015.