Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In This Place
A Cape Cod Notebook can be heard every Tuesday morning at 8:45am and afternoon at 5:45pm.It's commentary on the unique people, wildlife, and environment of our coastal region.A Cape Cod Notebook commentators include:Robert Finch, a nature writer living in Wellfleet who created, 'A Cape Cod Notebook.' It won the 2006 New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.

Under The Clay Cliffs

Robert Finch

On Monday afternoon I went out to Newcomb Hollow, where an enormous amount of sand had been removed from the beach by the new moon tides and easterly winds of the past couple of days. The beach erosion revealed a horizontal floor of blue clay that ran along the base of the cliffs for at least 200 feet in a band 20 to 30 feet wide. These wide, horizontal ledges were a mixture of solid-blue and yellow-reddish clay feathered with thin exfoliations of rust-colored iron oxide. The impression was that of walking over a slick and fragile tessellated marble floor.

I planned to go out the next morning to photograph these cliffs, but the next four days were full of wind and rain, with strong gusts from the northeast and east. I finally got out there yesterday afternoon just a little past high tide. The cut in the beach had softened and sloped considerably with subsequent overwashes, but to the south was a scene more reminiscent of the Oregon coast than Cape Cod.

Through a mist of shattering waves, a furious surf was flinging itself head-on, as if with self-destructive intent, full force against the lower third of the clay banks, bursting in tremendous crashes and flinging spray 12 to 15 feet into the air. There was no way to approach these cliffs by way of the beach. It would’ve been suicide to try it. Beyond this fury, several hundred yards to the south, the beach was exposed again, and lying upon it, like stranded sea beasts, were the wrecks of several trees. At this distance their size was impossible to gauge, but, as with all objects on the beach, they looked quite large.

The following morning the weather cleared and I went out to Newcomb Hollow again about an hour and a half before low tide. The wind, though still out of the northeast, had lessened, and with it the fury of yesterday’s surf, but the bluffs were still agitated. Up above the clay deposits a nearly continuous array of sand falls, blown back by the dry onshore wind, created a veil of white mist-smoke that swirled and rippled away south in the morning wind. A ten-foot-high scrub oak, on its way to becoming one of the stranded blackened skeletons on the beach beyond it, stood halfway down the slope, its yellow-brown leaves fluttering as if celebrating its own death.

At one point, as I stood looking up at the cliffs, a large section of blue clay slightly to my right detached itself from the bluff and fell over with an enormous THUMP at my feet. Further to the right and near the top of the cliff, a miniature avalanche of darker sand, at least six feet wide, streamed down the slope. It seemed that for once, the bluffs of the outer beach were not content with merely mimicking the ocean in its frozen form, but were actively trying to rival the sea’s motion in real time.

It was like watching something frozen and rusted come alive, with stiff but powerful movements of its limbs and torso, destroying itself in the effort. The beach and the cliff were once more on the move, in a symphony of form and motion.