'The Outer Beach' captures the sense of enchantment found on Cape Cod

Robert Finch is today's best, most perceptive Cape Cod writer in a line extending all the way back to Henry David Thoreau.

The Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod's Atlantic Shore By Robert Finch WW Norton 352 pp.

The fate of Cape Cod's Outer Beach, the curving bulwark it presents to the Atlantic Ocean, the outside of the hooked elbow that shelters Cape Cod Bay, is as easy to see as looking at a map. At the crook of the elbow is Pleasant Bay, protected by the thin ribbon of North Beach, and farther north Nauset Marsh is protected only by the wisp of Nauset Beach. Farther still north, barely a quarter of a mile separates the eastern coves of Wellfleet Harbor from the Outer Beach. Against these fragile barriers an Atlantic made more ferocious than ever by the planet's changing climate hammers relentlessly. Storms are fiercer and more frequent; beaches wither and split. Just as the spur of Cape extending south into Nantucket Sound broke eventually into Monomoy Island and its fragments, so too the Outer Beach will sunder where it's slimmest. Inevitably, the Cape will end at Orleans, with strings of islands extending north and south.

It's this inherent fragility that has always lent the Cape the air of evanescence that is a key element of its magic. Its very existence seems so improbable – a thin, elegant hook reaching out into the ocean – that spending time there can induce a feeling of enchantment that has led visitors, and especially visiting writers, to feel themselves re-imagined while they were there.

In his many books on Cape Cod, author Robert Finch has often touched on this feeling of re-invention. In his latest, The Outer Beach, for instance, he wishes at one point that he were staying at the Cape for a year instead of a few weeks. “I would let the personal dry up or seep slowly out, regarding all inner turmoil as external, the torturous and self-conscious processes of thought as trivial and of no account,” he writes. “I would let my mind be picked clean by the crows and ants and bleached by the sun, ride this thin spar of sand as it slides back and forth between the tides. I would let all feelings and their objects drift out with the daily currents and wait to see what came back ashore at the end of each week.”

Year-long residence or no, Finch does a fine job of capturing the essence of the place. He's our best, most perceptive Cape Cod writer in a line extending back through Wyman Richardson, author of "The House on Nauset Marsh," to Henry Beston, author of "The Outermost House," reaching all the way to Henry David Thoreau, whose 1865 "Cape Cod" is the grandfather of all books like Finch's "The Outer Beach."

The 1,000 miles mentioned in the subtitle of Finch's book is a cumulative number: It's the amount of strolling he estimates he's done in half a century of walking the Outer Beach in all seasons and all weathers. The chapters are collections of moments and observations spanning decades, capturing the outer Cape in all its changeable moods, moving town by town and area by area along the curve of the shore. There are vivid moments – a beached whale carcass, notable Cape ruins, a random encounter with one of the Outer Beach's rare freshwater springs, persistent drifting fogs – interwoven deftly with affectionate portraits of Cape people, and with stories of Finch's own family and friends. Finch is always acutely sensitive to changing light and changing seasons; his books always have a richly impressionistic flavor, and none more so than The Outer Beach, since the time-span of the writings in it allows readers to watch Finch's own perceptions changing over the years.

The theme remains the same over time, however, the tense duet of waste and wonder. Finch is firmly under the sway of the Cape, a sway that will be familiar to anybody who's spent any time there. He's clearly in love with the place, every beach sparrow and piece of driftwood and hidden inlet of it. But simultaneously his own accounts over time underscore the unhappy realities. The Outer Beach's glacial bluffs are eroding at an average rate of roughly three feet a year, and that rate is only likely to increase as the new century's weather patterns grow more severe. At one point in "The Outer Beach," Finch notices the eroded face of a dune: “It had fully given itself to the forces of the sea now, and old, beach-buggy ruts, fast filling in with grass and sand but still discernible along the edge of marshes and through the dunes, had that poignancy and air of self-pity that seems, invariably, to attach itself to fallen arrogance.”

Finch's spectrum of narratives ranges widely over the world as well as over time, but he keeps coming back to the Outer Beach, standing on the beach during a powerful storm, feeling the very land beneath his feet wearing away in what he refers to as the “deteriorating in the rain of time.”  And yet like so many Cape lovers before him, he can't help but feel rejuvenated just the same.

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