A Cape Cod Notebook
5:53 pm
Tue April 22, 2014

Wellfleet's White Cedar Swamp: A Walk Through the Brain of Nature

Credit Ronald Barnes / flickr

I know of no more intensely picturesque and evocative a place than the White Cedar Swamp in South Wellfleet. It is one of the largest remaining cedar swamps on Cape Cod, most of which were cut down and turned into cranberry bogs in the 19th century. The “official” access to the White Cedar Swamp is a half-mile trail that starts from the Marconi Site near the National Seashore Headquarters. But I prefer to get to it by walking out Wireless Road, an old fire road that was the one used by Marconi when he was building his history-making wireless transmission station out in the dunes at the turn of the last century. 

Walking the old dirt road, its sandy and needle-strewn surface soft and yielding to my foot, I become aware of a low persistent roar. It is the surf, of course, heard a mile inland here, lending a sort of ground bass, or passacaglia, to this forest scene. The sound of it flows over and down the wooded contours of these hills like a tangible flood.

When I get to the entrance to the swamp, I walk down the slight grade to the boardwalk that winds through it. Usually I avoid officially-marked walking trails in the National Seashore. I suppose it’s a certain snobbishness; I don’t like to be told exactly where I am and what I should be looking at and noticing. Too often my experience has been that, on such marked and labeled trails, what one remembers is the signs rather than the experience of the place itself. But the White Cedar Swamp is so magical, so rich in wordless meaning, that I find it easy to ignore the directional and interpretive signs and simply fall under its spell- especially on a cool breezy sunny April morning like this.

As I walk along the boardwalk that winds through the swamp, I feel I am entering some enchanted place. In fact, the swamp has that supersaturated color, and pillared architecture of a 1940s Technicolor movie set, full of tea-steeped and needle-bottomed pools, green sphagnum islands struck with swords of gold light, and pale, creased, peeling, dusky cedar trunks that rise up into the dark canopy, holding onto night against the morning’s bright assault.

The morning light slides through the tall, dim columns of the cedars, creating a brilliant living chiaroscuro. There is a strange continuity here between the living, the dying and the dead. Moribund trees lean against live ones, while fallen trunks steep in the water at my feet, buried but preserved in the peat-dark water. I feel as if I am walking not so much through the heart of nature as through its brain. I sense a vast system of arboreal synapses and neurons that possesses its own wisdom, for what else is wisdom but a profound grasp of how things work at the deepest levels.  And at the same time it seems a deeply mythic place, encompassing a watery underworld, a silent and muffled Middle-Earth, with glimpses of a celestial overworld.

So I walk through this dim labyrinth as if through some vast vegetable consciousness until at last I emerge once again into the morning sun.