History erased by the changing faces of Cape Cod


GIVE ME A SUMMER BREAK:A beach beloved in childhood has been washed away, but the seals are flourishing in Nantucket Sound, writes KATE HOLMQUIST

MY BEACH IS gone. Cockle Cove. The beach where I played as a young child 45 years ago, the beach where I discovered horseshoe crabs, where I learned to swim, where I was married 25 years ago, the beach where my children took their first taste of sand and where they in turn learned to swim. The beach where I hoped one day to play with my grandchildren. She’s gone. She used to stretch as far as a Brittas Bay or Kerry or Mayo beach. We used to joke that at low tide you could nearly walk to Monomoy Island a few kilometres beyond.

The tides and currents are so strong here in Nantucket Sound that every year the beach changes and you never know what you’ll find. But this summer, there’s nothing to find. The sea has been eating away at her for years and a storm finally took her out in the spring. I’d heard about it, but that was different from actually standing at the edge of the beach parking lot and staring down into a crevasse. I comfort myself by thinking it’s nature’s way.

It’s 6.30am in Chatham, Massachusetts. My first dawn on Cape Cod, one of those golden, pink and blue mornings. I’ve walked from the house with a cup of coffee in my hand to greet the day. A pick-up pulls in behind me. I vaguely know the driver, who grew up in the area. He works for the parks department and has helped care for the beach since the mid-1970s. He points out huge boulders that were put in place in winter in an attempt to protect the beach, but these were washed away like pebbles. They can’t replace the boulders because it’s horseshoe crab egg-laying season. The conservationists have decided that these plentiful scavengers should take precedence.

The “conservationists” in Boston – there’s an edge to the way he pronounces this plural noun – started the problem 40 years ago when they built a jetty about 2km to the southeast to protect an endangered bog. Cockle Cove started changing shape as the sea dumped sand to the northwest, enlarging the beach there. One thing led to another, with sand being pumped by the town from here to there, and more breakwaters being built. It wasn’t nature at all that did this, he thinks.

Meanwhile, the dot-commers moved in during the 1990s, buying up the traditional two- and three-bedroom single-storey shingled Cape Cod cottages and turning them into 10-bedroom palaces that make the beach a kilometre to my left look like a mini-Hamptons. These houses are empty most of the time. Sprinklers on timers turn on and off to water lawns.

The “dot-commers” – by my friend’s tone I can see they rank even lower than the “conservationists” – have residency status and vote in town meetings by absentee ballot. Their influence now far outweighs that of people who actually struggle to make a modest living in the town year-round. It’s probably a coincidence, but the dot-commers’ beach is okay.

I have to be going, I tell my friend from the parks department. After breakfast (in our traditionally quaint four-room hovel), the kids and I are going out on a boat to see the seals near Monomoy Island. He looks at me askance. “You know what the fishermen call the seals?” He looks slightly embarrassed. “The other red meat.” One grey seal eats 68kg of fish per day. In the 1970s, there were no seals in the sound because for more than 40 years fishermen were offered a bounty on each seal killed. When the conservationists stopped the practice, the seal population grew to its present 12,000. Now, there are no more bluefish and striped bass, and fewer crabs and clams, because the seals are eating them all. Now fishermen with no fish to catch bring people to see the seals.

The next day I meet another conservation doubter – a ranger at the National Seashore. This is a pristine dune and bog paradise created by John F Kennedy in the 1960s and regularly voted as one of the top 10 beaches in the US. Legislation in 1969 allowed the government to take people’s houses away. These were the sort of ramshackle houses you see in Edward Hopper paintings of the Cape, with that special pastel light. My guide points out the swans in the distance. “Before the swans came, we had 20 different kinds of birds here. Now we only have swans. I hate those swans.”

Swans, seals, do-gooders, dot-commers – it’s the Darwinian inevitability that makes me wonder. The changes wrought by the sea and by politics leave me only with my pastel memories of Cockle Cove beach. Now, every morning on my walks, I pass by dozens of wealthy joggers who have no idea what this place was like 45 years ago. I can’t help seeing the women as swans and the men as seals.