A Cape Cod Notebook

by Robert Finch

A Cape Cod Notebook can be heard every Tuesday morning at 8:45am and afternoon at 5:45pm.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of seven collections of essays, most recently a collection of his radio scripts, published by On Cape Publications. He is co-editor of "The Norton Book of Nature Writing."

A Cape Cod Notebook won the 2006 New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.

For archives of A Cape Cod Notebook, including programs dating from before November 2012, go to the Cape Cod Notebook Archives

Robert Finch

Last week I traced Thoreau’s 1857 walk on Cape Cod, which led him through a substantial forest in what is now Nickerson State Park in Brewster. His Journal of that walk gives us a rare glimpse into the life of the few people then inhabiting what is now the state park, including two women he met, one “with a child in her arms” and another “mending a fence….using an ax.”

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Cape Cod, Thoreau’s classic account of his visits to this sandy peninsula. Of the four visits he made to the Cape from 1849 to 1957, the first three provided the material he used in his book, which was published posthumously in 1865. His last trip, taken in June of 1857, is distinctive for several reasons. 

aposematic herpetologist / flickr / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ - cropped image

Something has gone wrong with the eggs. Something has gone wrong with the amphibian eggs I gathered from the bog in back of the house in April and placed in an aquarium on top of my piano. At first everything seemed to be going well. After a week or so the first salamander larvae hatched, small speckled tear drops with red external gills. After another week some of the frog’s eggs hatched into tiny polliwogs.

nd-nʎ / flickr

The nomenclature of the beach is a rich and sometimes confusing one. Take, for instance, the word “comber” – C-O-M-B-E-R. It can be applied to both “a breaking wave,” as in “the foam-flecked combers raced toward the shore,” and to one who scours the beach for found treasure, as in “beachcomber.” Both uses refer to something that is found on the beach, and so one would think the linguistic connection between the two words would be obvious. But, in fact, it’s not. Bear with me, then, while I do a little etymological sleuthing.

Robert Finch

One of the most widespread and fascinating phenomena to be found on the cliff face of the outer beach is what I call sand-leaves, or sand-pseudopods. These are distinct, ropy strands of sand and clay that flow down the face of the cliff and expand at the bottom into a bulbous, organic shape. Eerily organic in appearance, these leaves of sand can form almost anywhere and at any time of the year, though they are most common on uniformly sandy scarps interrupted by horizontal clay layers.

Wikimedia Commons

One of my regrets is that I came to the Cape too late to ride the passenger train along the Lower Cape to Provincetown. I missed it by many years, since passenger service to P-Town ceased in 1938. In 1964, when I first lived in Orleans, the freight train still ran as far as the old cement plant off Nauset Road in North Eastham. The train delivered coal at the old Snow’s hardware store, and my wife and I, living on a very short budget, used to go down and glean pieces of coal that had fallen off into the tracks for our stove.

Allison Richards / flikr

 One never knows what one is going to find on the outer beach. One day last month I drove out to Newcomb Hollow. When I arrived at the parking lot, there were about a half dozen cars there from all over the Northeast: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey – as well as one from Illinois - an unusual diversity of visitors, I thought, for this time of year.

When I arrived at Le Count Hollow, the slope had been cut several feet up from the bottom by recent storm waves. It was an hour past high tide, and the waves, all foam and milk for several hundred yards out, had the hollow, grinding roar of a receding storm surf.

Along the upper beach there was a nearly continuous ribbon, or river, of rockweed and kelp, from a few feet to several yards wide. Rockweed, as its name implies, grows on submerged rocks. Where does so much rockweed grow off our sandy shore? Where was it all ripped from?

Harvesting Bog Eggs

Apr 28, 2015
Pete and Noe Woods / flickr

In late March the shallow, tea-colored waters in the bog behind our house become full of small, round, gelatinous clumps of frog and salamander eggs stuck to submerged or floating objects. One spring I thought of collecting some of these egg masses and watching how they might develop. At the time I knew little about what I was doing and next to nothing about the different types of eggs I found there or what they might develop into. Whatever I learned, I learned afterward. I suppose that is the motto of the amateur naturalist: Collect now, identify later.

Raam Dev / flickr

Last week, on my way home from visiting friends in Vermont, I stopped in southern New Hampshire to climb Mt. Monadnock. It is one of those mountains that is not very impressive from a distance, but magnificent from close up. There was still a light covering of snow on its flanks, and a veil of cloud lifted briefly from the summit, tempting me on.