Where the Woods Are the Woods

Feb 12, 2019

Credit J. Junker

My friend Ken sent me a clipping from the Cape Cod Times a few weeks ago that really amused me and got me thinking.   It’s a story about a man who discovered the jaw bone of a Right Whale in Yarmouth Port, collected it, and sold it a couple days later.   The story was amusing because the man acts and sounds like a Damon Runyon character, but there are elements of the tale that highlight the special nature of Cape Cod.

I am fully aware that it is illegal to pick up, own, and certainly to sell the remains of any marine mammal, especially a critically endangered species like the North Atlantic Right Whale. That’s not funny at all.

But the context of the story is what makes it so interesting.  He did not find this bone on the beach: he found it in “the woods”.  Specifically, he was going into the woods to relieve himself  when he discovered the bone in a mulch pile, and, according to him, thought it was abandoned.  We will leave it to the legal system to judge the veracity of this assessment, but-just sayin’- the bone was directly behind the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) Building, which is quite imposing and fairly obvious. 

If there is any room for sympathy for this guy it lies in his partial defense of his actions: He came from Vermont, he said, where “the woods are the woods”…”I guess every patch on the Cape belongs to someone.” 

You said it, buddy.

Although I doubt Vermont has any virgin tracts of land just waiting to be explored and utilized, it is probably possible to think so when confronted with vistas of mountains, meadows, and forests that seem to go on forever. 

This sandy isthmus we call the “Narrow Land” has next to zero area that can be so confused.  Especially in this 21st century, ownership is all. Signs and fences predominate.  I have erected plenty of signs in my time- interpretive and otherwise- and I always do so with mixed feelings.  Can’t we just let a place be- without naming it, describing it, protecting it?  Sadly, no.  Wilderness is contained. 

Unless you are gazing out to sea, walking a deserted stretch of beach, or hiking through the dunes, you are probably seeing the limits of your surroundings.  Even the nature trails in most towns are in close proximity to houses, although there are places where you can have the illusion of being in the wild.   Many of our natural areas are only recently naturalized, when their previous uses became outdated- there are signs of old roads, homesteads, cranberry farms, and the like.  I hike every day where, a hundred years ago, I would have been flattened by a steaming locomotive.  We take what we can get.

I am not even going to begin to describe the extreme irony of the issue of the whale bone: a little more than a hundred years ago, this would have been considered a commodity (although Right Whale “whale bone” was actually its baleen, not the jaw itself, and baleen as a product plummeted in value late in the 19th century when the age of the fashionable 17-inch waist went out of style, and corsets with it.)  Whales are now seen as wildlife to be protected, not potential money-makers- at least in these parts. 

I am so glad to live in an age that reveres the wild animals we share our planet with, so proud that most of us believe in protecting our land as well.  But there is a small part of me that wishes I could have been around when there was more unrestricted freedom, less of a programmed experience of being in Nature - back when “the woods were the woods.”