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Walking Cape Cod

In 1849, naturalist Henry David Thoreau walked the length of Cape Cod, turning the material from his rambles on the beach into lectures and the basis for his book Cape Cod. More than 160 years later, English professor Michael Thurston set out to walk from Eastham to Provincetown, following Thoreau's footsteps and finding surprising insights about his own life along the way.

/ Published August 15, 2012

Wandering Natural World and Psyche in the Henry David Thoreau Tradition

Every summer, professor Michael Thurston locks the door to his academic office in Western Massachusetts and sets off for the salty air and sandy shores of Cape Cod. For his quest, beach towels and coolers are not essential but good walking shoes are.

He is writing a book about Cape Cod, following the path that Henry David Thoreau trod more than 160 years earlier, from Eastham to Provincetown. On each visit, Thurston walks, he writes, then he walks some more. Sometimes it is a brisk walk, other times a ramble, picking up shells, stones, and sea glass along the beach. The juxtaposition of quiet self-reflection and the noisy seascape works well as Thurston considers both the unmistakable natural landscapes of the Outer Cape’s seashores and the craggy terrain of the human psyche.

While his companions sometimes include his daughters, there are certain others who are always along for the walk; they are a boisterous band of celebrated writers spanning centuries of literary accomplishment.

“When I’m on a 10-mile hike through the sand, I often have my own weird idiosyncratic soundtrack of literary thoughts going through my head—Shakespeare, Mark Doty, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, you name it,” says Thurston. “I will catch myself intoning their words out loud. It’s so unconscious, and sometimes I only realize that I’ve done it afterwards, when the words stop.

“It’s only a matter of time,” he adds, “before I will do this while I’m in a crowd of people.”

Which is why, says Thurston, professor of English language and literature and director of the American studies program, he prefers solitary, peripatetic walks on quiet beaches.

When the collective narrative of his walking thoughts becomes a book, it will be part literary criticism, part essay, part cultural history, and part autobiography. Thurston’s curiosity about shipwrecks, literal and figurative—the people, houses and landscapes that define New England’s distinctive sense of place—is also linked to this own musings as a single father spending fleeting time with his teenage daughters.

Michael Thurston

The Book

“On Cape Cod,” the first chapter of Thurston’s work in progress, was published in 2010 in The Massachusetts Review.

“We went to the Cape, [daughter] Abby and I to walk deliberately,” Thurston writes in this chapter, “to follow as one guidebook has it, the footsteps of Thoreau (or some of them), and to see, if we could, some of what he had so clearly seen but also (and this turned out to be easier) how things have changed in the intervening hundred and sixty years. These, at any rate, were my reasons. Or the ones I most readily claimed.”

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century New England naturalist and essayist, renowned for his desire to live in harmony with and close to nature, wrote Cape Cod, a collection of essays—recounting four walks he took on the Outer Cape in the 1850s.

As Thurston constructs his own narrative about 21st-century walks, he uses Thoreau’s model from the 19th century but refers often to other biographers, poets, and writers. Robert Pinksy, for instance, describes Thoreau’s eccentric and unique treatment of the natural world as a rapid shift ‘among whims, natural history, polemic, diary, research paper, parody, sermon, history, and wisecrack.’”

“Thoreau was really quite well read, as a natural historian and botanist. All that information funneled through his writings. But he’s an essayist in the best sense, and an essay is a wandering. To essay, to assai as in the Old French noun, is a trial, a test, in the literary tradition of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century essayist.

“Sometimes [Thoreau] even makes up his own etymology,” Thurston notes. “His tongue is so often in his cheek, that it makes me smile. But I think all of that gets missed when he gets adopted as somebody’s life coach or spirit guide. Obviously I want to avoid that and relate to Thoreau in a way that is so much more interesting.”

The Walks

So far, Thurston has walked from Eastham to Wellfleet. This summer he continued north to Truro and Provincetown.

Thurston takes inspiration from the places he sees and strives to understand, always coming back to his own observations, writing essays about his walks that offer a window of insight into his own life and personal challenges. “It’s the confluence of me with this landscape that makes so many insights available to write about.

“Thoreau liked a lot of things in nature more than he liked people. He was a loner. My own cranky, socially awkward self identifies with him,” notes Thurston. “But Thoreau says it’s really important that we know there are still places that are wild, because wild is not us. So we need these wild places.”

That’s why Thurston—who writes short fiction and poetry and is the author of two scholarly books about poetry including The Underworld in Twentieth-Century Poetry: From Pound and Eliot to Heaney and Walcott (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009) as well as essays on notable American, British, and Irish writers—says this work is the most personal thing he has ever written. While his short fiction and poetry are “always written in a protective code,” this is an unblushingly revealing project.

The sand and sea provide a vast landscape for beach walkers intent on self-reflection and discovery.

Yet Thurston admits that he is reluctant to reveal too much, wanting to be oblique. “So much contemporary literature is memoir right now. And it’s not all good; it’s self-indulgent.

“Anytime I feel myself getting in too deep [with personal details], I turn the writing back to the physical landscape of the Cape. I’m of course more comfortable with those kinds of details and insights,” he says.

Still, Thurston opens his first chapter, “On Cape Cod,” with the sentence: “It should begin with a shipwreck.” The shipwreck is a metaphor for the more personal relational wreck that Thurston was striving to make sense of when he began the project, transcribing his own thoughts, arranging the sequence of random events against a backdrop of the vast, changeable sea and an endless horizon.

“It’s important to start with a shipwreck,” Thurston says. “It’s a way of getting down to the bottom of things, to truth, death, and mortality. As Thoreau says, ‘We’re rendered beautiful by what we have endured; we acquire, by virtue of our wreckage, ‘a rarer and sublimer beauty still.’”

Likewise, Thoreau’s own first chapter in Cape Cod was titled “The Shipwreck” in which he describes himself “a lonely walker” in October 1849 on the beach at Cohasset, which was strewn with littoral wreckage and salvage “that would take many days to cart off,” two days after the brig St. John, from Galway, Ireland, broke apart on the rocks. He was the observer pondering the inconvenience and chaos of mortality.

“Thoreau knew he had tuberculosis. He didn’t have a lot of time left,” says Thurston, “so I think mortality is very prevalent in Cape Cod. Thoreau is trying to get to the bottom of things, to see through to that truth. As Hamlet said, ‘Death is the undiscovered country.’”

The other underlying truth, Thurston explains, is that “we’re changeable,” and it helps us to understand the nature of that idea. “I think that is why Thoreau is so fascinated by the littoral, by the changeable sea and the open spaces of the beach.”

So Thurston notes in “On Cape Cod”: “We are all, most of the time, somewhere between high and low water mark. Are we all, then, anomalous? A definitional impossibility. But we see ourselves as such, don’t we—marking as norms the low and high, the one to be delivered from, the other to be aspired to? A sort of chaos reigns. We see havens from it. Long walks on the beach, the tortuous twists, semantic and syntactic games, in the work of a writer whose footsteps we follow.”