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Imagining the Punkhorn

Town of Brewster

We tend to associate imagination with poets, artists, composers, theoretical physicists, and other creative types. But the ability to imagine new things or ideas can play a part in more prosaic endeavors, such as, well – let me give you an example:

In the early 1980s, when I lived in Brewster, I watched the town that I had come to love disappearing before my eyes. Brewster was then in the grip of an unprecedented wave of rampant development. Every week, it seemed, another sizable chunk of “undeveloped” land was given over to developers, corporations, and lawyers.

Responding to this threat, a town meeting in 1984 established the Brewster Land Acquisition Committee, of which I was appointed co-chairman. We were charged to develop a town-wide comprehensive plan to acquire open space sufficient to protect our forests, water supplies, wetlands, and wildlife.

Our efforts eventually focused on what was then the largest remaining intact piece of open space in Brewster. Situated in the southwest portion of the town, it encompassed some eight hundred acres, including several miles of pond shoreline, acres of former cranberry bogs, extensive pine and oak woodlands, and abundant wildlife. We hired professional biologists, botanists, assessors, cartographers, and financial planners. We mapped numerous endangered or threatened species, including a rare quaking bog.

Though vast in size, few townspeople had ever walked this region’s dense network of dirt roads. Most were not even aware of its existence. So anonymous was this treasure of natural communities that it had never acquired a formal name. It was known, if it was known at all, simply as “the woods.”

After we had mapped, measured, evaluated, and assessed this area, we realized there was one thing missing, the thing that above all else could make this area real to townspeople, real enough to support and vote to raise and appropriate nearly $8,000,000 for the acquisition of this land. That missing thing was a name. It didn’t have one, and so we had to invent one.

The name we finally came up with was the “Punkhorn.” As far as we could determine, the name derived from “punk,” a term for dry, decayed wood that could be used as tinder to start a fire, that was kept in a cow’s “horn,” as in “powder horn.”


The term didn’t have anything directly to do with the area that we were trying to preserve, but it had a nice, local, funky sound, and it gave us a hook on which to hang our proposals. We gave talks on “the Punkhorn,” held open meetings to discuss “the Punkhorn, and wrote letters to local newspapers touting the value of “the Punkhorn.” We led numerous walks introducing citizens of Brewster to “the Punkhorn.” Using a few scraps of historical evidence, we populated “the Punkhorn” with stories of former communal sheep pastures, granite quarries, and noted that it was said to have been the home of the last Native American in Brewster.

Apparently, it worked. In the final weeks before the special town meeting that would determine its fate, signs and posters sprung up in yards and on fences urging townspeople to “Save the Punkhorn,” put there by people who a few months ago had never heard of the name. And on March 9, 1987, thirty-five years ago, the voters of Brewster overwhelmingly approved the purchase and acquisition of some eight hundred acres of land for conservation, land henceforth to be known as “the Punkhorn Parklands.”

We had not only “saved” the Punkhorn, we had imagined it into being.

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.