I came to sketching late in life. Even as a child I knew I had no exceptional talent for drawing, so I devoted my creative energies to another craft: that of writing. But I always felt I was missing out on something. In fact, many, if not most of the writers I’ve known, harbor the suspicion that drawing is somehow superior to writing, perhaps that is why so many of us writers take up drawing or painting in our later years.
I took up sketching seriously in my sixties. I began with the native plants of Newfoundland, when we used to go there in the summer. I began with the native plants there because they were all new to me, and I figured that I would be less likely to impose my ideas of what they were onto them. I had no illusions about my drawing skills. Nor did I feel any need to show anyone the results – for the value of sketching, for me at least, lies not in the product but in the process.
Sketching, I learned, asks us to pay attention, to really look, analytically and actively, at what it is one is trying to draw, be it a plant, a house, or a person. To sketch well, or even adequately, requires that you open yourself up completely to what it is you are trying to reproduce in two dimensions. The more you do this, the more the sketch itself will increase your understanding of your subject. I think this is what has motivated me to write for so long, and so constantly, about Cape Cod over the years.
In fact, if I had to pick a word to describe the kind of writing I’ve done about the Cape, it would probably be “sketching” that is, an attempt to bring out some essential aspect of what I see.
Like sketching itself, the beauty of Cape Cod inspires me to pay attention. It does so because what is beautiful here is invariably, ineluctably tied to what is mortal. The Cape’s beauty is heartbreakingly poignant, for it is passing even as we behold it. Whether it is the dunes of the Provincelands, the bluffs and barrier beaches of the outer beach, the transient flocks of shorebirds, or the Cape itself in all its varied splendor, its beauty says, “Watch now – pay attention to what is in front of you, for it will soon be gone."
How often I’ve come upon something entrancing on the beach: a stranded whale, an impromptu beach sculpture, and ancient Indian midden suddenly revealed by erosion, the remnants of an ancient shipwreck, century-old footprints and wagon wheel tracks revealed in a shelf of exposed marsh peat. My first impulse is to tell a friend about it – then, knowing that it would likely be gone, or utterly changed by the time I got back, I realize that my task is to pay attention to it, to open myself fully to it, now, in the moment, and try to capture, if not its essence then at least a telling expression of it in words, if I can.
It is no accident the terms we use to describe the Cape’s geographical features are taken from the human anatomy. We speak of its arms, necks, fingers, elbows, headlands, and so on... So, by extension, the Cape’s transient beauty teaches us also to pay attention not just to the landscape, but to our fellow sojourners who share with us this sandy bit of earth - on which we live for such a little time.