categories: Our Best American Essays
You will be moving into your new home soon and, as ours is a small community, the neighborly thing for me to do would be to bring by a tin of cookies or fudge. Instead I send this letter. Cowardly by nature, I’ll probably slip it under your door. It’s not the sort of thing likely to elicit the smile brought on by a note from an old friend, or even the irritated glance aimed at junk mail, and you’ll surely toss it aside at some point. If I had the courage to stick around while you read my words, you’d no doubt turn to me and counter my own flimsy, idealistic arguments with more solid and practical ones. “What right do you have to tell me what to do with my land?” you’d ask. “I bought it with my own hard-earned money. Furthermore, if I hadn’t built my house here, the place would be checkered with subdivisions.”
You’d be right of course. And I should be grateful the land wasn’t further developed. But I’m an ingrate, and ingrates, by nature, complain.
“It’s a goddamn desecration of place,” another of your new neighbors said recently. That’s the word–desecration–that keeps coming up when I think of what you’ve done to your land. I don’t use the word lightly; in fact, I use it just as it was meant to be used.
I have walked the path to the bluff, your bluff, since I was a small child, first holding my mother’s hand, then exploring on my own. From a young age I understood that this land was different from the rest of Sesuit Neck. The sound of building is never far off onCape Cod, but neither is the sound of the ocean, and the ocean insists on wildness. Your property, due to a coincidence of wealth and geography, remained the wild heart of Sesuit. Stone’s bluff heaved out from the shore like a great whale-backed beast, a jutting heath transported directly from a 19th century romantic novel. Approaching it by beach from the harbor, you travel from tame to wild, first walking past the overdeveloped private beachfronts, then past the public beach and Bagley’s, and finally leaving all houses behind. As an adolescent I had a distinct sensation of relief when, moving past the last of the homes, no longer feeling windows or eyes staring down at me, I began to walk faster, excited, out to greet the bluff alone.
Part of what assured this solitude was the rocky terrain. Except at dead low tide, the land below the bluff could only be walked by jumping from rock to rock, and most beachgoers, fearing bloody shins, didn’t take the risk. But the brave were rewarded. Once past the sandy stretch, and headed toward the point, anything could happen. Seals basked on Tautog rock, floats of eiders bobbed off-shore, and, if you got there before dawn, you might see deer licking salt off the rocks. It was as if by walking less than a mile from the harbor, you’d passed through a door into another world.
Not a quiet world. Weather reached Stone’s bluff first, and, often, summer turned to fall when you arrived at the jutting spit. The sky above would pile up with clouds, enormous cloud continents with dark violet interiors and flashes of gold escaping from the coasts. Long shadows shafted down the sand, my own goofy dark doppelganger stretching out in front of me as I walked. Sometimes the open beach barely let me approach–warning me off with sand stinging my face. Gulls drifted by sideways. Trees and grasses bent and ran from water and wind. Light dry sand flew spectral over the darker sandbar sand like a curtain revealing the blue-grey ocean and purpled clouds. Even on the rare days when the waves rested, the rocks seethed with life. Barnacles hissed and crabs scuttled and swallows darted and swooped down from their cave homes in the brown cliff wall.
As with any good relationship, mine with the bluff deepened over time. After college I came to Cape Cod to write, and that fall, standing on the point like the bow of a ship, I watched as the wind swept out summer’s clinging heat and ushered in the clarifyingCapelight. It was below the bluff that I learned that nature can provoke two profound and opposite reactions: stunning you into a near doltish silence when faced with the ineffable, and causing you to run for your pen. The latter reaction was more common; lists gushed over the pages of my journal and punctuation fell away like something withered and dead. I recorded random sights and sensations: a red-tailed hawk treading air in the stiff wind…the smell of cut grass and grapes…the bloody mucous inside of a periwinkle….the smell of celebratory cigars wafting to the beach the day the cranberries were harvested…
Then, just as it was as good as it could get, it got better. The real weather blew in and the leafy world reddened, poison ivy and sumac bloodying the edges of the cranberry bog. Not wanting to squander any opportunity for joy, I often reached the beach before dawn to watch the show. When the birds called up morning that was my sign to wake and head to the bluff. Later, at sunset, I’d return to catch the dying rays of light, sipping a beer and watching a pumpkin orange moon rise.
This overindulgence, this binge of color, led to a long hangover, and I had to leaveCape Codfor a while. But over the years I’ve kept coming back. Gradually I’ve learned that for the bluff each time of year is both itself and a moving toward–the spare clutching of the pitch pines in mid-winter becoming the island bloom of late spring. For a while, in my twenties, I tried to write a novel, a kind of grandioseWutheringHeights, which I set on the bluff. Years later, older and calmer, I wrote a book of essays aboutCape Cod, and it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the bluff was the book’s main character. The book ended with the spreading of my father’s ashes out on the bay beyond Stone’s point, after which I walked out alone toward the bluff at sunset, seeking refuge.
Perhaps by now you’ve put this letter aside. But if I’ve gone overboard with my descriptions it’s only to try and impress upon you how much your land means to me. To convince you that, to the degree that places can be sacred to human beings, I hold this place sacred. Assuming that I have at least partly convinced you of this, I can begin to address what you have chosen to do to my sacred place.
In these times, half of truly loving a place is a healthy hate. Hate is a strong word, of course, and one that is often fenced out of the reasonable pastures of the nature essay. But hate is what I feel and hate, as well as love, is what compels me to write today. I apologize in advance if some of the things I’m about to say sound rude and unneighborly. But I would contend that you have acted quite discourteously yourself, that you came to Sesuit Neck, not like a neighbor or friend, but like a conqueror from another land, first unleashing a fleet of trucks like tanks rumbling through our streets, then securing a beachhead, and finally razing our beloved capitol. This is not generally considered polite behavior.
Furthermore, you seem not to have bothered to take the time (and it can take some time) to learn about the place you’ve moved to, but rather, acting with an intruder’s mentality, have imposed your ideas from the outside. You’ll be happy to know that there are many in the neighborhood who insist you are a “good guy,” and I’m sure that in person you can be charming. I can be fairly charming myself, and perhaps if we’d met under different circumstances, we might have drunk a beer or two and become friends. But while I’ve no doubt that you’re a “good guy,” I also have no doubt that it’s good guys like you, with your blissfully thoughtless adhesion to old-time progress and just plain BIGness, who are destroying sacred places like this one all over the world.
But before I work myself into full froth, let me climb down from my soap box and get specific. Your house. Since humans first settled here they built their homes low and strong, a logical and organic reaction to the daily assault of wind and water. This is how things grow onCape Cod, and how they have long been built, a response that evolved directly from place, and an intimate knowledge of that place. For inspiration you need have looked no farther than the pitch pines and scrub oaks that crawl mangily across the humpback of your new back yard, a yard you’ll find to be one of the windiest places on earth. If you had been in a listening mood, the trees would have spoken directly to you, whispering “stay low,” and, heeding that advice, you could have still built a large and beautiful structure. But, you may have reasoned, with modern building materials and techniques making the old restraints irrelevant, why not spread as far and high as I can go? Why merely become part of the bluff when you could rise above it? Why indeed. Well, stifling the moralist’s urge to tell you to go back and read the story of Icarus, I’ll suggest there were simpler reasons.
You might have paused and considered your neighbors. Not just the deer whose paths have forever weaved through the brambles you tore down or the swallows who for countless generations have made their homes in the undercusp of the bluff where tractors now rumble, but the three hundred or so homo sapiens who dwell here in different seasons. You might have, dare I mention it in this day and age, minded your manners, and said, well, since I’m tearing down this mansion, this neighborhood landmark, I’ll consider the others who live here and, while of course building a large place, will try to fit gracefully into my new home. This was not the option you chose. The house you chose to build would dwarf a shopping mall. Proof of that is the way it seems to dwarf what had previously been the Neck’s most prominent feature, the bluff itself. For the first time since I was born the silhouette from the beach is not of humped land descending like the back of a sleeping giant, but of a castle sprouting into the air, proclaiming dominion over its once wild surroundings.
Instead of wisely sitting back from the ocean, your building peers over at those of us who still try to walk this spit. In a way I admire your nerve, daring the ocean. But of course you believe you can control large forces. This winter I felt the ground shake as earth-moving machines dumped more of the $300,000 worth of fill. Most of the old mansion, which looked like a dollhouse beside your plywood palace, has been torn down, and most of the fields and brambles ripped up. Meanwhile your grandson patrols the grounds in a golf cart, scaring off deer and neighbors, yelling at one long time resident to “stay off my property.” Below the bluff the sounds of the ocean are now punctuated by the backward beeping, the mating call of trucks that invades every moment of our waking lives. Most of us were sure the frame was complete a few weeks ago, since your house already rose several stories above any structure we’d ever seen in these parts, besides Scargo and the water towers. But then you added a final room on top of it all, an observatory or walled-in widow’s walk, as if to say, “Why not go just a little bit higher?”
Despite my state of high dudgeon, I, walking below on the beach, have looked up and fantasized about being the carpenter sinking those final nails, staring out at the neck from that wooden aerie. I’m not above the urge for a dream house myself, and I’d have been happy for you if you’d built a grand house, even an enormous house. That this would have been fairly easy should be evinced by the simple fact of the previous home. The bluff is of such magnificent scale that a mansion–a mansion!–was able to fit snugly into place. But the sad and frustrating thing, the thing that causes me daily depressions and stabbing pains–and this is especially sad if your are indeed a “good guy”–is that a dream house or mansion wasn’t good enough for you. You could not tolerate merely becoming part of this beautiful, beautiful bluff, but had to dominate it. Yes, dominate. Sometimes the sexual metaphor is unavoidable. You haven’t exactly sidled up and wooed this land have you?
As I write I try to hold myself back, to temper my impulse to use words like “rape.” After all it’s only a piece of land. This sort of thing is going on every day, and we’d better inure ourselves to it. “Sesuit Neck was ruined already,” said a neighbor, and maybe so. But in this neighborhood two things have mercifully slowed the rush. One is the marsh, which winds through Sesuit Neck like a mucky subconscious, and the other is the land below your new home. Ticks and stink make walking the marsh on a daily basis impractical, so most often I go to Stone’s to have my few moments in a world without people. But not completely without people, and that is the paradox of that bit of land, it’s a place for the community as well as the solitaire. Below the bluff I may run into J.C., who collects shells for his driveway and gathers wood for his fire, or dog walkers who want a minute free to think. That is what this point has really meant to the neighborhood: a place where you could go to get away, a place where seals and wild birds exist.
“Our neighborhood Holiday Inn,” an old friend of my father’s calls your new home. People grumble, now that the true scale of your attack is being revealed, but I’ve noticed that few express outrage. They are used to it, you see, the gradual decline and destruction brought on by “improvements.” Used to having every brambled corner of the neck torn up, every copse of locust chopped down. They accept it as “progress,” the way of things, which I, of course, should also do.
Again I apologize. My parents raised me to be courteous, and fanaticism doesn’t come naturally.
It’s been a long road to get to where I am today. Please understand that if I sound angry it’s only because I’m being stripped of 36 years of connection and memory. I understand that, according to the law, your deeds and title say more than my little essays about who has the right to this land. It’s yours unequivocally to do with as you will, and, again according to law, my love for this land means nothing.
The truth is, if I keep calm, I really do think I understand what you’ve tried to do. You’re obviously an ambitious man and in that we are alike. While your workers hammer away up on the hill, I hammer away at my keyboard. Like you, I dream of creating something big, something great, and, like you, I sometimes feel as if my passion for this controls me, not me it. But we are in control more than we admit, more than it’s fashionable to say these days. I don’t suggest the laughable premise that humans are rational creatures, or that reason controls our lives. What I do suggest is that our imaginations can be nudged, and work best if nudged earthward. For me it’s been a question of learning that, when my words rise too high they become brittle; that they are better when connected to earth. That is, I want my books to be like a goodCape Codhouse that seems to grow out of the surrounding ground. It’s not that I’ve given up ambition. Hardly. It’s just that my ambition now is to stay closer to the earth.
Perhaps you thought you could simply plow into and over our Neck without any cries of protest from us humble villagers. Well, this is my cry and it won’t be my last. I’m a relatively young man with a long writing life ahead of me and, as long as I have strength to type, I plan on making your home into the symbol of everything I despise. I admit to taking some vindictive pleasure in this. But that is my worst motive. I have better ones. I write today with a purpose. I’m tired of creating lyrical nature essays. This piece really is for an audience of one–that is, for you. And, keeping that in mind, I’d like to swallow my anger and change my tone. Impotent rage gets old fast. I’m ready to stop ranting and turn this letter into what it really is.
What it really is is a plea. An appeal to your better instincts–to the “good guy” in you my neighbors speak of–to the amateur not the professional, to the man whose wild impulse made him want to live on this wind-swept bluff, not the man who built to dominate it. An appeal to the quieter, deeper voices inside you, to your own marshy subconscious.
My plea is this. Leave the beach wild, and leave as much of the bluff wild as you can. This morning I saw the orange florescent paint on the rocks you plan to plow away, and the fleet of tractors close to the bluff’s edge, close enough to possibly scare off the swallows. Smoke wound out of the briars as if the bluff were a chimney; the sand on the beach vibrated. It looked and felt to me, as it must to the birds, like the end of the world. Hyperbolic perhaps, but true. Everything I know about the world, everything I love and hate, comes down to this single place.
Please have the tractors back up. Let the rim by the cliff’s edge remain the territory of the deer and birds and of the coyote I saw hunting there the other day. Let the beach remain a place where people need to risk bloody shins to walk. Don’t turn what has been home, classroom, gymnasium, observatory, study, and wild place into mere beach.
Leave it inaccessible. Resist the urge to domesticate, to tame. Give this one gift to your neighborhood–a last patch of wildness–and I guarantee you will be surprised how much your neighborhood gives back to you.
By now you are truly sick of me and my thundering.
Who can blame you?
But let me try to end on a courteous note. Maybe we will never share that beer, but, perhaps, in the end, we can be considerate neighbors. While this isn’t exactly a tin of fudge, it isn’t a letter bomb either. My fantasy is that you will reconsider, pause, and keep the bluff as wild as you can. Perhaps if you do this, your house, despite its grand ambitions, will begin to take root in the land, connecting to the earth so it can weather the blasts of wind that will blow up from the sea.
Finally, bear in mind that if my words sound occasionally venomous, it’s because this is a difficult time for me. It used to be that I was pulled out to the bluff, that I almost couldn’t help walking there, my feet leading me excitedly to that place beyond human eyes where the seals were. Now I have to decide, on a day-to-day basis, whether I’m up for the depression, anger, and fear that will surely well up if I head in that direction. For me it’s a time of loss. So please remember that, if there is hate in this letter, it was born of the opposite emotion. To put it as bluntly as possible, I love your land. In time I hope you will too.