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One way to pass the time on the Cape and Islands

Liz Lerner

On a crisp, sunny, calm afternoon in late October, the Wellfleet Harbor parking lot is one-third full, this despite the fact that Mac’s Restaurant and Seafood on the Pier have been closed for weeks. On the south side of the harbor, the benches that line the pier are equally populated.

The object of attention for those on the benches is obvious, both to the eye and the ear: Just offshore two large industrial cranes, resembling metallic kinetic dinosaur sculptures and attached to even larger barges, are dredging the channel into the harbor. Having just dumped its load of sand and muck onto the barge, the nearer crane retracts its steel-girder neck to a loud groan of gears and cables that sound as if some sea-beast has just emerged from its subterranean cave. It swings its long arm in slow but steady motion in a wide arc, then extends it out nearly straight, positioning itself in the air where it left off less than a minute before, opens its clamshell mouth-bucket and then, as if it has been suddenly beheaded, drops it into the water with an enormous splash. Tethered only by a steel cable, the bucket sinks down like a harpooned whale deep-diving into the mud bottom, only to rise again as the cable is retracted, now full of another load of spoil, which it swings back and, opening the bucket once again, dumps another load onto the waiting barge.

And that’s it: a slow cycle, less than a minute in length, repeated over and over in the same rhythm and pace. I wonder, why do they stay, these bench-sitters and crane-watchers? They can take it all in in one cycle, assured that it will repeat itself with no apparent variation. What continues to hold their attention? It would be like watching a play in which the same three or four lines were repeated over and over, virtually unaltered, for the entire length of the performance – in this case a performance that, I am told, is repeated 24/7 for an entire month. Are we here on the Cape so starved for entertainment in this post-Columbus Day, COVID-deprived world that we manage to find some novelty, however simplistic and repetitive, in such a mindless display?

But that, I think, is the wrong question to ask, and a faulty interpretation of what these crane watchers are looking at. Human beings, it seems to me, have a deep, if inexplicable, affinity for repetitive motion on a grand scale, or even a not-so-grand scale. This is why we can stand next to a waterfall, or sit before an open fire, watching it for hours on end, and never be bored.

The most common example of this on the Cape is, of course, the hypnotic draw of the surf for beachgoers. Go to any ocean beach on a sunny summer’s day, when the human presence is packed tightly together, and watch: Maybe one or two out of every hundred people are turned towards the bluffs or the parking lot. The rest are looking at the ocean surf. It doesn’t matter whether or not there are any boats on the water, or seals popping up, or terns feeding on sand eels or surfers riding the waves. The surf doesn’t even have to be very high. In fact it seems to have its greatest pull not when there is massive, crashing surf, but only modest two-to-three-foot swells, breaking in repeated periods of six to seven beats per minute. Robert Frost documented this phenomenon long before I noticed it in his short and deceptively simple poem, “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” which ends, “They cannot look out far./ They cannot look in deep./ But when was that ever a bar/ To any watch they keep?”

So we watch the cranes, like ancient creaking dancers, engaged in their endlessly repeated, endlessly fascinating pas de deux.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.