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Stories in nature never end

Kathy Shorr

Stories in the natural world have no true beginnings or endings. In writing about them, we choose a place to start and a place to end, knowing that nature continues to write the story long after we have abandoned it. This is particularly true of a place like Cape Cod, which is that proverbial and literal river of sand into which we cannot step in the same place twice.

I ran into an example of this the other day when I was exploring some oceanfront cottages in the southern part of my town. I wrote a piece about one of these cottages some fourteen years ago. It was a very old beach cottage, built in the 1920s and it belonged to our friend – let’s call her “Em.”

What intrigued me about it was that it was only a few yards from the edge of the bluff and it was obviously in the process of being moved. There was nothing very unusual about this, except that the cottage was not being moved back but sideways. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. Basically, there was a road directly behind Em’s cottage, so moving the cottage back was not an option. On the other hand, the cliff had eroded irregularly, so that the part of the lot next to the cottage extended about thirty feet beyond it. Figuring what was then an average annual erosion rate on the Outer Beach of three feet per year, Em could probably expect to gain, at most, an extra ten years or so before the cottage finally tumbled into the sea.

When I first wrote about it, I admired the move as an acknowledgment by the owner that she could not avoid the inevitable, but only postpone it for a while.

And that’s where the story ended — at the time. What I didn’t know was that the story continued in a surprising and unpredictable way. Several years later the cottage was once again at the edge of the bluff, and this time Em had no place to move it. But she wanted to save the building, so she struck a bargain with the owners of the lot across the road directly behind her. For the sum of one dollar, she sold the cottage to them and had it moved onto their lot, thus extending its life for at least a few decades.

But the story doesn’t end there either. Em sold the cottage, but not her eroding lot. Though she couldn’t have a cottage on it anymore, she built a deck and regularly used it to commune with the ocean and the beach. She even built a snow fence along the road with a latched gate to give it a formal sense of possession.

In time, of course, the remaining portion of the lot eroded to the point where it couldn’t even support a deck, and after a reprieve of a dozen or so years, Em finally bowed to the inevitable, albeit, I felt, with grace and humility.

But not completely. As I said at the beginning, stories in nature go on without us, even when we have ended them. I had not been to the site of Em’s cottage in a few years, and when I visited it a few weeks ago, the latched gate was still there, giving entrance to a vanished world of memories and an endless realm of wind, sand, and sea.

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.