In Willa Cather’s classic novel, My Ántonia, Jim Burden, the story’s narrator, reads a passage from Virgil about the notion of Patria. Jim’s teacher, Gaston Cleric, explains that it does not mean, country, as traditionally translated, but refers instead to the intimate rural village where Virgil was born. Eventually, Jim realizes that his own memories will continually be rooted in Black Hawk, Nebraska and the nearby prairie, his “Patria,” the place where he feels most “at home.”
When I first read this much beloved American narrative in legendary English teacher Wilbury Crockett’s junior English class at Wellesley (MA) High School in 1972, Mr. Crockett asked us to think about our particular Patria. As he said at the time, “It is that essential place where you can be unfettered and uninhibited, and think of time not as a straight line but as a circle.”
Even then, I knew what it was, raised my hand, and shared it freely with my classmates. My particular Patria is situated on a five-mile stretch of beach called Nauset in Orleans and Coast Guard in Eastham, which smugly juts out into the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean at the forearm of Cape Cod. In between the two communities is a natural cleft that parts the beaches in two, creating an intimate harbor called Nauset Inlet.
The waters off of this section of the ocean have been the site of more shipwrecks than any other span of coastline this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, one of the reasons that the Cape Cod Canal was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1909 and 1916 was that such treacherous seas at this distinct point of the Massachusetts coastline caused most ships to literally pause to a standstill on the way to either Boston or New York. “The Devil lies off the coast of Eastham,” wrote one New York sea captain in the 1880s, “and it is wise not to play a game of chance with him.”
Where the Cape is at its narrowest, the waters off of ocean side are most perilous. Incredibly, there are less than three miles of land between placid Cape Cod Bay and the intolerant North Atlantic at this point. A brisk east wind off the ocean frequently blows at seventy miles an hour; storm surges during winter nor’easters can take chunks of parking lots out to sea in a single gust. Over the last trio of winters, the Cape Cod National Seashore has had to replace three newly-constructed wooden staircases each April.
But when the ocean is tranquilizing, and the weather is accommodating, there is no spot on earth more breathtaking in both its immensity and grandeur. Created by Ice Age glaciers ten-thousand years ago, formed and redesigned by wind and tide, the peninsula’s shore is a naturalist’s paradise. “A wild, rank place without flattery,” is the way Henry David Thoreau described it in his posthumously published travel memoir, Cape Cod. Given the fact that most scientists believe that such a uniquely shaped peninsula has a shelf life of between 2,000-8,000 years left, no wonder naturalist John Hay called the Outer Cape, “this fragile outpost.”
Poet Sylvia Plath, who worshiped this particular stretch of land on the outer beach throughout her childhood summers, ended up spending an extended, eight-week honeymoon with her husband, Ted Hughes, in Eastham, a half-mile walk from Nauset Light Beach. Five years later in London, Plath memorialized my Patria in her confessional poem, “Daddy,” when she wrote… “And a head in the freakish Atlantic/Where it pours bean green over blue/In the waters off beautiful Nauset.”
Another frequent visitor to the Outer Beach, Norman Mailer, once wrote a letter to a friend about Nauset Beach’s “terrible beauty that lies beyond the reaches of mortality.” When President John F. Kennedy, a longtime resident of Hyannis Port, proposed making the outer beach a national park, he informed his Department of the Interior, Stuart Udall: “We need to preserve the Outer Cape for our grandchildren and their grandchildren so that they too can see the power of nature in its full and uncompromising splendor.”
I first walked this stretch of beach in 1956 when I was just beginning to walk. 63 years later, I still amble along its soft humps of sand no matter the season. As a young boy, I sprinted along the rivulets made by the tide and then fervently jumped over them. When I was 4, I got swept away by a rogue wave so fierce that it took me more than a 100 yards toward the Nauset Beach parking lot. I made my first sand castles by its shore the next summer, hoping that somehow my intrepid fortification would withstand both logic and Mother Nature.
As I grew older, I partook in countless games of Wiffleball, hoping that my yellow dart of a bat could somehow strike a ball hard enough to peel through the gale for a home run. As a teenager and young adult, I held the hands of a few girls, strolling with them to Nauset Inlet to show them the view while hoping they loved it as much as me.
Consequently, it was not surprising that one of those girls, my wife, a proud Canadian, shared the same adulation for the Outer Beach as I have. Over time, our two sons developed the same kind of long-term relationship with it. They too have felt its allure.
But it is not just those seamless summer days that make me return year after year. I also love the beach in the winter; during torrential April rainstorms; after a relentless January blizzard; in the evening chill of an early October day. During one fall nor’easter, a friend of my mother phoned her at Mum’s cottage in Eastham and asked her about the weather. “Simply glorious,” my mother, the quintessential New Englander, quipped, without a hint of irony. While Nauset’s loveliness has always seduced me, it is its inexorable power that has always transfixed me beyond any words to express it. I can never get enough of it.
Thus, as I reconnoiter through the seasons feeling both grateful and humbled to have lived so long, it is evident that the outer beach of Cape Cod has served as my personal North Star. After all, I have visited many places and have lived on both sides of the Atlantic, but I have always returned to my formidable and breathtaking Patria. In its azure waters, I see the ripples of childhood and promise in the morning tide. And when the sun begins to set over the ever-changing dunes twelve hours later, I realize now as an old man that each day on earth is measured in the enduring push-pull of the tides and the capriciousness of the sea.