THE house in the 50-year-old photograph has the prim neatness characteristic of a Cape Cod cottage: a tidy box of weather-beaten shingles and white trim, with a low picket fence joining it to the garage. Between the house and the garage, just above the pickets, a pond is framed, ripples darkened by the wind, extending in waves to a heavily wooded shore on the far side. The summer sky at the top of the picture seems to stretch in all directions, without limits. In fact, the whole scene luxuriates in a sense of space, as if the earth on this June day were a bottomlessly rich natural resource, with enough ponds and pine woods for every living human being, unto the second and third generation. Today Cape Cod is on its way to becoming a narrow recreational platform, overpopulated to the point of polluting its own freshwater wells. What a symbolic - and real - crisis we have here! A photographer by picking the right time of day and angle-editing the focus, can still produce an idyllic stretch of beach and a dune untracked by buggy tires. But the scene so recorded is a work of art rather than an environmental fact, like the space in the 50-year-old photograph.
Almost 60 years ago - when the man who bought the two acres fronting on the pond erected his four-bedroom cottage and two-car garage (all for $7,000) - the roads to the Cape were so deserted that the thought of a flat tire during one particularly lonely stretch became the nightmare of the cottage-commuter - a hopeless mechanic and a fellow not ungiven to worrying. The children in the back seat loudly counted the cars, coming and going, to encourage their father. But the numbers were few - fewer than the miles covered - and the knuckles grew white on the steering wheel.
Today, on weekends, the traffic crawls to and from the Cape, bumper to bumper on the bridges over the canal.
While nature last winter eroded the Chatham shore to the point that houses threatened to topple into the sea, it is the tide of tourists in the summer that threatens to push the people already on the Cape right off the Provincetown tip.
Cape Cod has become a flight from the city - grossly overbooked.
Paul Tsongas, a former senator from Massachusetts, has proposed a Draconian solution: a moratorium on all building on the Cape.
The conservationists chanting ``Save the Cape - if it's not too late'' are squared off against the developers and retailers, shouting, ``There's always room for one more.''
The man who built the cottage in the photograph planned to retire there. But he sold the house more than 40 years ago when he judged the Cape to be getting too crowded - back then!
Today the two-acre lot has been subdivided to accommodate three more dwellings. Then there was the farmer up the road who turned carpenter to build the cottage in the picture. His own turn-of-the-century house and barn were torn down years ago to make room for half a dozen cottages, occupying the field where he grew corn and his wife grew gladioluses and the pasture where his cows grazed, supplying milk to the neighborhood. The summer children in bare feet carried it home at sunset, still warm in the bottle.
Cape Cod pastoral.
And now: Cape Cod honky-tonk, with Hyannis on its way to becoming Atlantic City.
Well, it's not quite that bad. But when the neon signs blink ``No vacancy'' at the sea gulls and the beer cans pile up in the sand along the side roads like aluminum seashells, what would a Rip Van Winkle think who built the house in the 50-year-old photograph?
Or what would Thoreau say, who called Cape Cod the ``bared and bended arm of Massachusetts'' and walked the length of it? Indeed, a group called the Thoreau Country Conservation Alliance, Inc. - opposing development near Walden Pond - is supporting Tsongas's self-described ``crusade'' to save the Cape.
Thoreau wrote a poem called ``My Life Is Like a Stroll Upon the Beach.'' But now, on a hot day, he couldn't even get near the Walden water for the mob lining the shore, and he would have to ``Excuse me!'' his way along many a Cape beach on a weekend, as if he were threading his way on a city sidewalk.
A sobering thought for an environmentalist (or anybody else) to entertain! - especially while looking at a 50-year-old photograph that might as well be 100 years old.
A Wednesday and Friday column