That bleak morning just before Christmas, Provincetown was set back on its haunches by a roaring winter wind and a surging southeast 11-foot-plus tide. The beach and abutting properties glistened with sea foam. There was flooding. Sand blurred the air and froze tight to what was left of decks, and to buildings, sidewalks, and streets. Eel grass festooned many surfaces and hung in trees on lichen-laden branches, like tinsel. A cold metallic brilliance braced the air, in an atmosphere of seaweed and shellfish, salt and mud. Crying gulls sailed overhead, eventually landing to prospect the fresh-tossed sand for what the harbor had spewed up.
People were on the beach, too, mostly silent, eyeing the receding waters with a new perspective, something between respect for and fear of nature’s pitiless violence. They surveyed the damage in hushed tones and reverent postures. Along the beach and up over the shattered bulkheads were flotsam and jetsam, ripped-off shingles, shards of boards and beams, railings, and a great many sets of stairs — the products of the storm. Some enterprising types were busy scavenging. I was there, stunned like everyone else, wanting to bear witness to the fury, to the destroyed decks and damaged homes and businesses — to simply be there.
But as I looked around at all the devastation, my old beachcombing habit exerted itself. My gaze turned down as usual. I spied a tiny bit of purple, about the size of my thumbnail. At first I thought it was a bit of a quahog shell, but when I picked it up I discovered that it was a bit of pottery, or crockery, or dishware. Amid all the chaos, I was immediately fixated on this bright little thing. I have seen many larger and brighter pieces over the years, but for some reason this one intrigued me.
I reflected on its history. What larger entity was it part of — a platter, a plate, a bowl, a cup? Who made it and where? Who used it and how long ago — 100 years, 200? Did a proud woman once serve a Sunday dinner to her family on its larger self? Did a young child take her first spoonful of oatmeal from the bowl it decorated? Did an old man sip his afternoon tea over this very bit of a rim of a cup? Was it lovingly washed for decades before chipping away or breaking off? Or perhaps this piece in my hand was part of a cup full of gin tossed from Lewis Wharf in 1916 by a besotted Eugene O’Neill after the premiere of his first play, Bound East for Cardiff.
The purple was dulled by myriad hairline fractures and edged in green and a bit of blue, with a delicate crenellated border. It looked old, and as it dried it became duller still and looked even older. How long had it been buried in the sand? In the past, the beach had been considered a proper disposal place, depending on the tide’s flushing action, long before there was a town dump. All sorts of rubbish ended up there: pottery, crockery, ceramics, dishware, clay pipes, medicine bottles. The beautiful book Lost and Found: Time, Tide, and Treasures by Amy Heller and Gail Browne features many of these things.
The harbor beach is a hybrid habitat, neither land nor sea but both. It exists on the margin of our town; woodlands and dunes and marshes represent the other border, but the town faces the bay and that is its focus. People have walked this sand for centuries. The Cape has a lived-in aspect, wild and natural but also historic, bearing the marks of those who have come before us.
These artifacts that we find give us only the smallest clues as to what their lives were like. Did they survive wars, smallpox or tuberculosis, the Depression, the waxing and waning of the fishing industry? Did they lose loved ones at sea? What were their hopes and dreams? Could they even imagine the way we live today? Did they experience a storm or two like this one?
Did they love this place as much as we do?