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LIFE AND DEATH AND STAR WARS IN THE DUNES

The great and terrible beauty in Robert Frost’s work.

I experience my first touch of regret

for a voyage undertaken

too early, while wholly too late.

~ Melissa Duckworth, from the poem “Adrift”, first published in The MacGuffin, 2004

On my last day in Provincetown there was one place I’d never been: The Dunes. While most known, probably, for the presence of dune shacks—where famous writers and artists stayed to work—they’re also a popular tourist destination. But when we pulled the car over at an entrance point on Route 6, I had no idea—although I’d seen pictures—what venturing in would mean.

In 1974, my father wrote a paper called “Robert Frost: An Alternate View.” Not a very exciting title, I know, but accurate. His paper establishes that “the stereotyped portrait of Robert Frost is that of an American romantic—a “Farmer Brown,” so to speak—who loved nature and wrote affectionately about it”[1] and then posits to the contrary: that “Frost is presenting a view of natural process which is always uncaring and often cruel and heartless”[2] and that he “pictures a dark and hostile world bent on breaking the spirit of man.”[3]

My journey into The Dunes brought his thesis alive. Just like in Frost’s poetry, everywhere there was a strange beauty born of nature’s violence. Sea grasses whipped in the wind left intricate geometric patterns in the sand; a tree repeatedly brow-beaten by storms seemed to be rooted on both ends, forming a graceful arch; a freshly-dead seal carcass’ blood gleamed like a ruby against a monotonous beach. Simultaneously, there was the ugly presence of man-made objects in various states of decay. A rusted washing machine; shattered wine bottles; cracked and sand-filled plastic containers; splintered painted boards. This lent the landscape an unsettling air: these objects were alien beings in a warring world in which they couldn’t possibly survive.

But, as my father wrote, “The darkness, however, offers a strange fascination that entices man. It is a lure of beauty that is commingled with a lure of destruction.”[4] The Dunes is a beautiful and irresistible danger-fraught wasteland.

Like many situations in life.


[1] Charles W. Petersen, Robert Frost: An Alternate View. (Unpublished: April 30, 1974), p. 1

[2] Ibid., p. 3

[3] Ibid., p.17

[4] Ibid., p. 8

This was taken from a high point up off of Route 6 and shows The Dunes, where we were headed. The body of water you see in this photo has an interesting history. Originally, it was called East Harbor, and was Provincetown fishing fleet’s winter home. 1868, however, brought the construction of a dike to accommodate a railway and a roadway (where several seasonal resorts and cottages sit now). In 1910, the US Geological Survey re-named the body of water Pilgrim Lake.

The name stuck until 2008, when the USGS agreed to change the name back to East Harbor. If you’d like a much more detailed history, here’s a great article by the Provincetown Banner’s Kaimi Rose Lum.

The video below shows the full panoramic view: from this hill, you can see Truro, P-Town, and the bay beyond.

Here’s the path that connects Route 6 and The Dunes.

A second shot of the path; I really love these trees. They’re so beautifully skeletal.

We joked about how the scene resembles Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s homestead in the original Star Wars (1977)—a spot of civilization in a wasteland. We were also joking about how the piece of junk—because of the distance we weren’t sure what it was—looks like an R-2 Unit. My very first impression, though: a desert oasis.

This is a hallowed-out area that’s referred to as “The Bowl.”

I decided to walk above “The Bowl,” while Pete walked just around its inside rim. On the way back, however, he took my way, and it suddenly occurred to him—probably because he’d never seen it from higher up—that it looks like a crater. Although this probably was just created by wind erosion, it’s a fun notion.

We worked our way down from the rim of “The Bowl” and the landscape opened up enough so that we could see the beach: our destination. Yes. It is far. It is very far. What you can’t get a sense of in this photo is depth. Between here and there are many, many ups and downs and twists and turns.

These dot the valleys in particular. The wind blows down the weak-stemmed sea grass and pins it against the sand. Then the grass turns like the hands of a clock, creating these circular patterns. It reminds me of crop circles.

We're looking back at The Dunes; we’re now on the beach. That’s a log where we took a break and ate a couple of Nestle’s Crunch bars. We were the only people who had walked, or made it as far as, the beach since high tide that morning. (In fact, Pete noted that despite all the cars that were parked near ours, we hadn’t seen or heard anyone else). Those are our boot-prints; the rest of the area was smooth.

The beach.

* WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT AHEAD: ANIMAL CARCASS. IF SQUEAMISH, YOU MAY NOT WANT TO CONTINUE, OR SCROLL QUICKLY DOWN THROUGH TO THE NEXT RED TYPE YOU SEE*


Major. Score. Well, for me, anyway. When we were sitting on this quiet beach with not a soul around us, we noticed two large sea birds picking away at a carcass—a stunning dollop of red against miles of brown monotony. “That looks like a seal,” Pete said. I don’t know how he could tell what it was from that far away, but it turned out he was right. I’ve never actually seen a beached dead mammal up close, and having volunteered at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and helped out with animal rehabilitation, this was exciting—and a perfect example of what I’d discovered on our journey about the violence of nature.

Although Pete noted he thought it odd there were only two birds around the carcass—two birds who politely stepped away and let me take my photos and then returned when I was done—the markings in the sand indicate that there probably had been more than just these two at one time. I also thought—because of the brightness of the blood, the moistness of the innards, and the lack of smell—that the animal had been killed very recently (within the past twelve hours, maybe?) and most likely washed ashore and was left behind as the tide started pulling out. I took these photos at 12:45, and the last high tide was at 11. So it could have either been left behind just then, or left behind earlier, when the tide pulled out at 4 in the morning. I’d probably have a better answer if I’d paid attention to how wet the sand was. I’m regretting that now.

Of course, nobody knows when or how this poor creature died. But I have my romantic notions about shark attacks and boat propellers because of the way the body is twisted. While there’s a possibility that the seal washed up intact and then a large animal ravaged it, I don’t know if coyotes or whatever would have left this much meat behind. WHERE ARE YOU, BRUCE SHILLINGLAW, MARINE BIO GUY EXTRAORDINAIRE? YOU’RE GOOD AT THIS STUFF! COMMENT!

Because I just wanted more for the record, the video below is a roundabout of the carcass. There’s no sound except the wind, so it’s actually eerie.

* END GRAPHIC CONTENT*

We’re headed back now, and we have a long way to go. At the right of the picture, in the distance, there’s a notch. That’s where we’re headed, and there are several more treacherous ups and downs beyond that before we get back to the car.

The Dali Tree: This really does seem to be one tree, and it does seem to have roots at both ends; while it could be two that have grown into each other over time, it’d probably take an expert to figure that out. What I like most about it is how reminiscent it is of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. I could see a melting clock draped over this thing, no problem.

The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931

This is the other side of the abandoned junk I photographed earlier.

The video, below, shows Pete checking it out. It’s an old washing machine, turned upside-down, and it’s full of wine bottles and trash.

That’s Pete laying down in the sand next to it. At first, this was an attempt to make another Star Wars reference—because of how far away it is and you don’t know what you’re looking at and there are just miles of sand, you could imagine that it was a small crashed ship and a dead pilot, I guess. Or a droid and a dead guy. But…

…but on second thought, this is a creepy end-note to this post. That nature is, as Dad put it, “a dark and hostile world bent on breaking the spirit of man”—and that nature always, in the end, succeeds.


THE BIRDS

Here in Provincetown, there are lots of birds. Seagulls, mostly, but other species, too, and they always seem to billow en masse from behind the houses across the street from mine—the ones that front the beach. Peter, the next-door neighbor, jokes constantly about how it would be easy, living here, for one to fall into the trap of thinking you’re living in Hitchcock’s The Birds. I thought he was clever and cool, of course, but silly at the same time.

Until last Friday. I drove the other resident, Sigrid, to the airport. It’s just a tiny little strip and building, and although it isn’t far from town at all, once you reach the end of Conwell Street, you are driving through towering dunes and huddling woods. All of it, from what I understand, is natural preserve, complete with walking and biking trails that go for miles.

On the way back, I pulled into a parking lot at one of the trail heads. Of course, the place was deserted, and I decided to take a few photos. As I stood there, camera at the ready, I heard something that sounded like a cat purring, very close to my ear. I looked around, and saw nothing. The “cat” purred again. Was there an animal nearby? It was pleasantly spooky, and I have to confess although it was ten in the morning and sunny, I was having reservations about staying too much longer.

Again, the cat purr. Then, I felt something brush my cheek.

It was a bird’s wing.

Chickadees. There were chickadees surrounding me. In the trees above my head, at my feet, in the beach scrub. The “cat” purring was the sound of their wings. I had never in my life heard what a bird fluttering its wings sounded like up close. There was something very peaceful about it, and intimately creepy at the same time. Sure, they were cute. But the way they were fearless, came so close to my ears, and were overly vocal…I think they wanted me to follow them into the woods.

I chose not to go, and then when I returned to the apartment, there were several of them hanging around outside my slider.

It occurred to me that perhaps Peter wasn’t being silly at all.

The wild dunes.

Here is the trail entrance,  in case any of you are in P-Town and want to visit the spot.

This is near where I parked.

The beginning of the path.

Look at how close they came!

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