Saga of the Clay Pounds: Part 2

Oct 17, 2017

Highland Lighthouse, North Truro, Mass. c.1890’s
Credit /

Last week, talking about the Clay Pounds, I mentioned that, despite their dramatic appearance and the significant part they played in the Cape’s maritime history, relatively few people visit the Clay Pounds today.  The problem is one of access. 

One guide book blithely directs the reader to “go to Cape Cod [Highland] Light, North Truro, descend to the beach, and walk north.” I wonder if the author of the guide ever attempted this, since at Highland Light the cliffs are 129 feet high and drop steeply to the beach. A longer but safer approach is to drive a mile or so north of the light to the town’s Coast Guard Beach and walk south about ¾ mile.

This is part 2 of a 2-part essay. Click here for part 1. 

On a day in early October, I set off from the town landing towards the Pounds. As I approached them the beach had a remote and slightly menacing feel to it. Thin wires on old wooden poles trailed northward. The bluff had a ragged, torn quality to it, and its base had been ripped by winter storms.

From the beach, the Clay Pounds look like some geological abstraction of a great woolly mammoth: a mass of black, ravined outcrops of clay surmounted by shaggy crests of beach plum, bayberry and beach grass. To my mind they are the Badlands of the Cape: long, thick, blue-black mounds of slimy, slippery clay, cracked and fissured, gullied out and smearing the beach below. Composed primarily of dirty yellow-brown and sandy blue clays, the Pounds lack the splendor and variety of the famous clay deposits on the Vineyard’s Gay Head, but what they lack in aesthetic appeal they make up for in sheer mass and extent. The clay occupies an irregular band in the central third of the cliffs, about forty feet thick, and for all its apparent solidity, it appears to be wearing away as fast as the sands around it. The crest is full of the debris of misplaced faith in the Clay Pounds resistance: There are sections of concrete block foundations, drainpipes, old iron well pipes, and the exposed half of a buried cesspool (what a day it must have been when that went!).

The clay cliffs were still wet from last week’s light rain. But even on their driest days, their flanks glisten with seeps and small streams of water that taste sweet and clear. It is, in fact, the only place I know of where fresh water regularly runs out onto the Outer Beach. This constant moisture in the cliffs supports vegetation radically different from other parts of Cape Cod’s glacial scarp.  Instead of beach grass, seaside goldenrod, dusty miller and other cliff-beach plants, the ravaged face of the Clay Pounds is covered with upland grasses, tufts of clover, and large flat red-stemmed flowers.

This upland vegetation, growing on the broken face of these cliffs, gives them the aspect of a wrecked prairie, a lushly grassed-over expanse that has collapsed and imploded. Its face is raked with ragged, raw, yawning fissures. In the cracked maws of its large gullies are sections of brick walls and foundations from some former structures. For all of its massive scale and unusual aspects, I cannot help but think of the Clay Pounds as an ugly thing, reminding me less of a natural environment and more of one of the abandoned industrial sites that dotted the landscape of my urban childhood.