The Great Fiction | WCAI

The Great Fiction

Jun 26, 2018

Credit L. Lerner

It’s with mixed feelings that I must tell you this will be my last Cape Cod Notebook broadcast for a while.  Mixed feelings because I have greatly enjoyed doing these weekly programs over the past thirteen years. On the other hand, the reason for this leave is that I have recently been named a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for 2018. 

This year-long stipend will enable me to work on a project I‘ve been wanting to do for some time.


But I’m also happy to announce that while I’m taking this sabbatical, WCAI will continue to broadcast A Cape Cod Notebook, featuring guest commentaries from other Cape and Island writers. I look forward to hearing some interesting new voices in this spot over the coming year, and hope you will, too. 

Now - while thinking about what to write for my last program, it occurred to me that this might be an appropriate time to make a confession regarding these radio pieces, one that the more perceptive of you may already have guessed.  And that is that many, if not most of them, rest upon a great fiction.

Now wait – I’m not confessing to making up anything. I don’t invent the kind of fictional material that gets so many journalists in trouble. Everything I’ve described in these broadcasts actually did happen and, to the best of my memory, as they happened.

The fiction I am talking about is a temporal one. That is, when I begin a piece, as I often do, by saying “Yesterday” or “Recently,” or “The other day,” or “Last week,” the truth is that it often actually took place last month, or last year, or even ten years, or twenty, or in rare cases even longer ago. In other words, I often update the context for dramatic immediacy. My justification for doing this has been the belief that nature is reliably cyclical, that in general the seasonal parade of events is roughly the same from year to year, and so that placing an event that actually occurred some time ago in a more recent time-frame was an acceptable use of “poetic license.”  

You may disagree, but in any case, why am I confessing to this now? Well, because, over the course of these broadcasts, my premise that nature is essentially cyclical, and reliably repeatable, has become harder and harder to maintain. Over the years I’ve been doing this program, the local landscape and its wildlife have been undergoing deep changes: for instance, oaks now outnumber pitch pines as the Cape’s most common tree species; many species have declined drastically – songbirds in particular; shorebirds such as the red knot; and most dramatically, right whales, which seem to be on the verge of extinction.  

On the other hand, a several species have introduced themselves or greatly increased their numbers on this peninsula in recent years: coyotes, fisher cats, wild turkeys, grey seals, great white sharks, and even a black bear.  

But even more telling are the deeper changes the Cape has felt from the effects of climate change. Sea levels are rising more and more rapidly. When I arrived on the Cape in the 1970s, the average annual rate of erosion on the Outer Beach was three feet per year. Now in many stretches of that beach the rate has more than doubled. Winter storms appear to be more frequent and more severe, increasing the risk of serious coastal flooding. And so on.

Of course none of this should surprise us.  We live on one of the most mutable pieces of real-estate on the globe. But the changes that have been taking place over the last few decades are of a different order and an unprecedented pace. Whatever other and more significant consequences these accelerating changes portend, they have taught me that I can no longer write about this place as one with reliable repetition. I can no longer confidently say “Recently” when writing about something that happened 15 years ago because the accelerating pace of change will likely give me the lie. For better or worse, all we can reliably write about now is what is happening at the present moment, to chronical the nature of the Cape and Islands as it is rather than as it has been, even if that means encountering an increasingly unfamiliar place. 


Till next time, then…