Some of you may recall—or perhaps may have seen—the dramatic geological event that occurred last summer at the Cahoon Hollow parking lot in Wellfleet. On the morning of August 19, after receiving six to seven inches of rain the day before, a large portion of the parking lot collapsed, creating a steep gully or ravine about 25 feet wide and 40 feet long, opening down onto the beach.
The ravine was made even more dramatic by the effect it had on human interests. For one thing, the portion of the parking lot that collapsed was directly in front of the Beachcomber, a popular summer restaurant and music venue housed in one of the historic Life-Saving Service stations built in 1872. In addition, a car belonging to one of the Beachcomber staff fell into the ravine and had to be lifted out of it by crane. And, of course, the town closed the parking lot for safety reasons, put up numerous barriers, and prohibited access to the beach. However, the beach being by nature a place that encourages mild lawlessness, an informal diagonal footpath to the beach was quickly established.
A few weeks ago, around the autumnal equinox, I visited Cahoon Hollow in the late afternoon and found a curious structure on the beach. Just in front of the gully someone, or someones, had erected one of those impromptu beach structures that are commonly found along the shore. This one consisted of two tree trunks, each about 6”-8” in diameter and about 10’ tall, set about 4’ apart. At the top of these two trunks a much narrower branch had been laid across the gap, each end resting in the crook of a branch stump on the trunks. It formed, in essence, a wooden version of a dolmen, one of those prehistoric stone structures consisting of two upright pillars bridged by a capstone, most famously seen at the stone circle at Stonehenge.
I admired the effort and skill it took to erect such an edifice on the beach, but would probably have given it no further thought. After walking a quarter-mile or so north on the beach, however, I turned around and started walking back. This was about 5:50 p.m. All of the beach was now in the shadow of the bluffs above it – except for the section directly in front of the collapsed parking lot. Here a brilliant shaft of light suddenly poured through the ravine, illuminating the wooden dolmen on the beach in a transfiguring light, much as it does at Stonehenge at the winter solstice.
Was this a coincidence? It seemed a stretch to think that this ephemeral beach structure was not only consciously designed to visually imitate a megalithic structure, but was actually placed so as to ape the function of what many consider to be the most famous prehistoric astronomical calendar in the world. On the other hand, it was only a few days before the fall equinox and the shadows cast by the shaft of sunlight against the wooden structure were almost exactly perpendicular to the beach, as if placed deliberately so.
The structure only lasted until the next moon tide, but it has left in my mind a lasting memory of how natural events and human imagination can combine to suggest antiquity here on the ever-changing beach.