The other day a big wind came directly from the south, and the waves in the harbor were high and crazy. At high tide, spray broke over Route 6A by the hotels just past Snail Road. The deck at the Cape Codder guest house shuddered with each pounding. Standing there felt reckless and exciting. I went home and took a hot shower.
So much in our modern lives is artificial. We live indoors and regulate our environments to suit our needs; defy distance by traveling in cars, boats, and planes; do our hunting and gathering for the most part in supermarkets; skirt death and disease with modern medicine.
And those of us who live along or near the shore build protections from the very reason for our being there — the water. Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, refers to “the great mass of people”: “Nothing will content them but the extremist limit of the land … They must get as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in.” I would add: without the water rushing in on them.
But a distinction must be made. Any of us can visit the shoreline and retreat when necessary, but those of us who live by the water must have fortifications to do so. Another distinction: I am mostly addressing the bayside realities of the Outer Cape, specifically Provincetown, as opposed to the houses on bluffs and coastal banks on the oceanside.
The fortifications that protect our waterfront dwellings are various: there are haphazard stretches of riprap and more orderly sloped rock revetments; there are bulkheads or seawalls, which can be granite, concrete, or timber and now even heavy-duty vinyl. The timbers were once tarred, then creosoted, and are now pressure-treated; some are buttressed; some have steel sheeting; and many are further protected by wooden pilings.
These defenses are formidable. But all barriers are temporary, though their lifespans far exceed a human’s. Water will eventually have its way; the shoreline was not meant to be stable. Has it always been armored in this way? Probably not. Back in the mid-19th century, over 50 wharves jutted into Provincetown Harbor, and many of the buildings on the water were commercial enterprises. The modest waterfront dwellings that did exist on this “inhabited beach,” as Thoreau called Provincetown in Cape Cod, were moved when they got into trouble. Many were on hickory pilings as well. There must have been a more easygoing relationship with the water.
I cannot go back that far. But I did talk with Bill Fitts, whose Turtle Woodworks crew built dozens of bulkheads starting in the mid-1960s, mostly in Provincetown. Bill is a modest man, an artist and a craftsman whose approach blended the artistic with a workman’s problem-solving perspective in every project. Each had a turtle carved into the top of a piling. The turtle, Bill explained, represented armor and longevity and was the Native American symbol for the Earth itself. It never occurred to him that turtles were also slow! He did take his time, “doing it right.”
Bill deliberated at a site, studying the wave energy and erosion patterns, developing the tools he needed for the job (20-pound mauls, he said, not hammers). And he studied the work of others down to the nuts and bolts. He learned from an earlier practitioner, Jimmy Thomas and his Bone Dome crew, especially Tom Soames. Jimmy, in turn, learned how to drive pilings from the trap-boat fishermen who drove them for the many weirs that once existed in our harbor.
I also talked with Gordon Peabody, who was a member of the Turtle Woodworks crew in the late 1970s. Gordon learned a great deal on that job and is now recognized as an expert in coastal processes and our responses to them. He is also a bit of a philosopher. He points out that the real growth in bulkheads came with the town’s transition from a fishing to a tourism economy: “cosmopolitan” homes had greater value and needed greater risk reduction. Now, when “there are more restaurants than fishing boats,” bulkheads are in order. And, in fact, the entire harborside is armored.
Walking in the East End, I saw some Turtle Woodworks creations today. Many are fronted by pilings, some snaggle-toothed and weathered, looking like decrepit bonsai, others stout and firm, like the terra-cotta soldiers of ancient China. After big winds and high tides, all are festooned with eelgrass. Attached barnacles attest to the aquatic phase of their existence. And the water will come. The unrelenting onslaught of the waves is guaranteed. You can almost feel the bulkheads and pilings bracing for the next hit. How many millions of tons of water have they experienced over the decades?
Are they permanent? Look to the testimony of the sand, which used to be rock.