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The Guardians of Cape Cod

Beston made a mid-winter visit to Cape Cod in early 1923 to spend some time with the coastguardsmen of the Cape, about whom he planned to write an article for the monthly magazine The World’s Work. While this was not Beston’s first trip to the Cape, the research that he did for the article exposed him to a different aspect of the great outer beach of Cape Cod that stretches from Provincetown south to Monomoy Point, approximately fifty in Beston’s words, “wild, breaker-beaten miles.” In many ways, the Coast Guard’s duties along the Cape’s Atlantic coast harkened back to the pre-twentieth century era of sailing ships; the sight of commercial and fishing vessels under sail had not vanished from the New England coast even as late as the 1920s. Coast Guard stations were positioned about six miles apart along the length of the beach, with eight men based at each station. The coastguardsmen continuously patrolled the beach looking for any sign of a ship in danger of foundering on the treacherous sand bars hidden just offshore. The men were trained to warn vessels away from dangerous waters and, should the need arise, to use cannons fitted with “breeches buoys” or to launch surf boats into the crashing waves to rescue the crew and passengers of any ship in peril. Beston stayed at the Race Point Station near Provincetown for several days, talking with the men about the life of a “surfman” and accompanying them on their nightly patrols along the beach. This was an aspect of the Cape with which most people were unfamiliar, Beston wrote: “There are two Cape Cods in the world, one the picturesque and familiar land of toy windmills, picnickers and motorists, the other the Cape that the sailors see, the Cape of the wild, houseless outer shore, the countless tragic wrecks, the sand bars and the shoals.”

“The Wardens of Cape Cod,” which came out several months later in the December 1923 issue of The World’s Work is a paean to the courage and steadfastness of the Cape’s coastguardsmen, who patrolled the great beach day and night throughout the year no matter what the weather might bring, frequently risking life and limb to rescue stranded sailors.Although the coastguardsmen of Cape Cod were central to the piece Beston wrote for The World’s Work, there was another aspect to the article that foreshadows the turn toward nature writing that he would soon take. On one windy night patrol along the beach, Beston and his coast guard companion found a loon crouched on the shoreline, its feathers matted together with sand and fuel oil; “The oil kills the wild fowl by thousands on the Cape,” Beston wrote, “for it gums their feathers together when they have settled in a pool of it.” The two men turned on their flashlight to get a better view, and the “motionless, calm ray of the electric lamp lent an ironic serenity to the vast, wild dark, and the dying creature lifted its eyes to the white ray, dark, uncomprehending eyes awaiting something incomprehensible and dread.” Beston felt himself irresistibly drawn toward such awesome, sublime aspects of the great beach, a place where—not far from the great city of Boston—life could hinge on a whim of the weather and ocean, and where the beach portrayed “Nature in the elemental mood, thirty miles where night reveals no welcoming window light, and the world vanishes into a darkness full of unutterable mystery, keen, moist, ocean smells, and thundering sound.” This was a landscape where, as Henry Thoreau described Mount Katahdin in The Maine Woods, there is a sense that human beings are but spectral, transient presences in “vast and Titanic” nature: “Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?”

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