Cape Cod is a place of small mysteries. Sometimes the mysteries are so obvious we don’t recognize them. Take Merrick Island.
Merrick Island is one of a half dozen or so islands that line the western boundary of Wellfleet Harbor. Besides Merrick, these islands include Great Beach Hill, Great Island, Griffith, and Bound Brook.
Once a true island, Merrick is now bordered on the north by the Herring River, on the west and south by marsh and wet meadow, and on the east by the meandering black top of Old County Road. But it is the woods of Merrick Island that are a mystery. Most of the upland forest of Wellfleet’s islands is either pure pitch pine barrens, as on Great Island, or, more commonly, mixture of older pitch pine and younger oaks succeeding them. Merrick, on the other hand, is almost pure oak, with only a handful of tall, older pines scattered on its ridges and slopes.
Most of the trees on its ridges are typical cutover sprout oaks, gnarled and stunted and rarely over thirty feet in height. On its steep slopes there are a number of thick, sizable oaks, though also misshapen – and on the lowland of its east side, bordering the county road, are some of the biggest and tallest oaks I have ever seen growing wild in the town, but one of these, recently downed and cut up, showed that these oaks were only about fifty years old.
The uniqueness of Merrick’s forest cover is most apparent in the fall, when its oaks form a coat of deep golden leaves, and also in the winter, when its bleak barren leafless contours are exposed, and its few scattered pines stand out like green fires.
What caused Merrick to maintain such a pure but varied oak cover? The answer may lie in its unique topography. The slopes of Merrick Island are unusually steep compared to the others. My guess is that the island was used for woodcutting, but not pasture, and that the trees on the steep northern slopes may not have been clear cut, partly due to the difficulty of access, but possibly also to prevent erosion of the soil into the river. Being an island may also have isolated it from the numerous brushfires that plagued the Cape earlier in the previous century. All of these factors may account for the persistence of an original oak forest on its slopes.
Every landscape is initially taken for granted, for we have nothing to compare it to except what we have known elsewhere, but as we get to know a landscape, it becomes both more familiar and more mysterious, just like a person. Gradually we begin to compare it to itself, rather than to our image or idea of it. We begin to notice inconsistencies, departures from pattern, inexplicable appearances, seemingly whimsical absences, arrivals, departures, transitions, appetites, omissions, stubborn consistencies, and unanticipated changes.
The mystery of Merrick Island’s oaks is not a dramatic or profound one. My guesses as to its origin may or may not be accurate, but it is only through long familiarity, with landscapes or with individuals, that the real mysteries begin to emerge.