Monthly Archives: June 2017
A photograph is a modicum of truth as it captures an instant in time, a scene reflective of precisely how everything appeared the moment the shutter was released. True? Not exactly. The realm of photography is filled with all sorts of trickery and inexactness. In fact, as early as there has been photography, there have been those using the medium to alter the way reality is captured and presented. Images on film do not appear precisely how even our own eyes view them. This is because of the effect of optics—cameras, as well as our own eyes, are merely just optical sensors. Both take in light photons and use them to gather information about the world. For our eyes, photons fall upon our retinas and are manifested by our brains into our vision. For a camera, the photons fall upon the film (or in digital photography are recorded on a computer) and render what we call a photograph. Under most circumstances, the images generated by a camera are similar to what we’d view in real life. But when the level of light gets low, a whole new world of photography opens up, one where the varying levels of light can create interesting scenes through different levels of exposure.
The following photographs I took at night as a few experiments in capturing the scenes of light and darkness around Camp Burgess.
The night sky is full of the light of stars. It’s beauty causes us to gaze heavenwards with wonder. Though our brain can process the combination of light and darkness just fine to render a starry image, a camera cannot simply point and shoot a scene from the night sky. The level of light is just too low to record anything but blackness. In order to photograph the night sky, the shutter of the camera must remain open longer than an instant. For as long as the camera’s shutter remains open, light falls on the sensors and the image being rendered is evolving. For this photo of the Big Dipper through the trees, I left my camera’s shutter open for 30 seconds. In the dimness of night, leaving the shutter open for that long enabled the stars, as well as the trees in the foreground, to appear in the scene. (If you’re having trouble seeing the images, then turn up your computer’s brightness)
The following four photographs all were shot from the same location.
Here is the night sky again, with the forest in the foreground. The exposure time was set for 30 seconds, which allowed the stars time to emit enough light to be captured in the image. The outline of the Milky Way can be scene across the sky. This is pretty standard night sky photography.
But I decided to use the optical sensing of the camera to my advantage to create some digital trickery. The night sky is great, but I wanted to see how some artificial light would look in the exposure. This is the same image as before, except that I shone my green star laser in front of the camera while it was recording the image. The streaks of green that were only temporary flashes in the sky look as if they were shining beacons from within the cosmos.
Instead of adding artificial light to the sky, for this image, I added extra light to the trees in the foreground. This is a photographic technique known as light painting. The additional light shone on a nearby object is captured during the long camera exposure, causing a highlighting effect on that object. With this, the details of the trees in the foreground can pop out.
For my final photograph of the series, I increased the exposure time from 30 seconds to a few minutes. The increased length that the shutter is open permits an accumulation of light to enter the camera sensor and be recorded in the image. The wonderful thing about exposures at night longer than a few minutes is the ability to capture star trails. Since the Earth is continually rotating, the placement of the stars changes in the course of the night. This change is below our threshold of perception, but not the camera’s. In a star trail photograph, the stars themselves appear to move across the sky, leaving a curved bright streak showcasing where they have been. I absolutely love star trails. Unfortunately, from my location in Sandwich, Massachusetts, the light pollution was too much to capture star trails. After just a few minutes, the light from the nearby city dominated the image. The resulting photograph looks like a foggy forest captured during daytime. But remember—this photograph was taken in the dark!
Some more fun with artificial lights here, and some more light painting. Here, I used my high-powered green star laser to write some words on the trees in the foreground. The light emitted from the laser is strong and concentrated enough to appear like a neon tube-light in the trees. “Base Glamp” is the nickname of where I’m working this summer.
More fun with lights in the dark. Similar to star trails, any moving artificial light that falls upon the camera’s sensor gets recorded as a streak in the image. Here I had a few friends walk through a field in the darkness as they shined a few flashlights and headlamps around while the exposure time was set for 30 seconds. The resulting light streaks and spotlighting effects always cause an unexpected result. Though the scene itself is nothing much, the very process of recording the image provides a good artistic flair.
Low levels of ambient lighting at night provides an opportunity to capture scenes highlighted by a single light source. Here, the scene in the composition is dim and the only light source is from a single headlamp. Hence, the hands are illuminated while everything surrounding them fade into darkness of the nighttime.
Fire can also provide a source of light at night. The beauty of flames and glowing embers is pleasing to look at as well as to photograph. Compared to the stars, the light emitted by a fire is bright. It takes an exposure of only a few seconds to capture an image like this.
Finally, using my zoom lens, I can safely get close to the fire to photograph a macro of the glowing coals. Just a few seconds exposure captures the soft, glowing light of the embers but blurs the flames crawling from under the log on in the middle.
It should come as no big surprise to say that I am an introvert; by nature, I tend to keep to myself and be a generally private person. But my reservedness and hesitancy to join in on social situations does not equate to a dislike of spending time or sharing my life with others. Quite the opposite I’d say. Since socialization does not come easily to me, I tend to value the connections I’m able to forge all the much more. But as a rather shy and introverted person, forming those connections is often a monumental task. Though privacy is in my nature, it is a very obstinate part of me that is a challenge to overcome in order to know and being known by others.
But in regards to privacy, I’m not so much describing it as a physical need. I can easily do without a high level of physical privacy; I’ve lived with people in very close quarters in the past, and continue to do so unhesitatingly. Sharing bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens (and maybe even a ship’s hold) is no big deal to me. In fact, I currently live with three others in a giant platform tent. As one could imagine, a tent does not provide much personal privacy from those you share it with; all my personal effects and all my daily actions are on display for my tent-mates to bear witness. Nor is the tent even sealed off from the outside world, as the sheer necessity of ventilation keeps the flaps of the tent open for any gazing eyes. And, since the tent is my living quarters at the place where I work (a camp for children going on summer adventure trips), my daily life is exposed by close contact with many pairs of inquisitive eyes who I must interact with on both a personal and professional level. For all the lack of physical privacy, I’m very comfortable with the lifestyle. Limited privacy is just the unavoidable reality of living in tight quarters.
So when I consider myself a private person, it’s not because I seek out physical privacy to a higher degree than others; more accurately, it’s that I tend to be an emotionally private person. It is difficult to get to know me, and to those I’ve just met I may come off as cold, aloof, or disinterested. Maybe my reserve is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting myself from the perceived judgement of unfamiliar others. In any new social situation, I’m continually testing the waters to see if the temperature is right to expose just a little bit more of my inner self. Even the act of declaring an interest in something is risky for me. Always looking for social approval (and unfortunately, burdened too much by the need for it), I take relations with other people slowly and gradually, building off of the trust garnered from their acceptance. If I don’t perceive a sense of solidarity or acceptance from a group of people when I expose my inner workings, then it’s a hasty retreat back to my own private world. I don’t feel like people need to like the same things as I do; they just need to not make me feel less of a person for it.
As part of my private nature, I don’t put all of myself out on the table all at once. For me, the best is always yet to come, being saved away for when the moment is right. I am always holding something back, always keeping some part of my inner personality hidden and safe. These inner workings may be shared with others when the personal relationship has matured to an appropriate level. But that doesn’t occur until after so much of the hard groundwork of forming a friendship has taken place. I hate the phrase ‘instant friends’. I’ve never become instant friends with anyone. Instead, individuals who talk too much and share too much of themselves immediately are off-putting to me. Few things cause me to retreat into myself quicker than being in situations with many loud outgoing people. In a very social culture such as ours, I’ve found ways to manage my personal reactions in order to join in. In crowded places, I’ll seek out the quiet corners on the periphery. When not feeling a connection with the culture of a group, I’ve mastered the art of the slipping away unnoticed. Even living in close quarters with others, I have a knack for finding out-of-the-way places that are just out of sight. With all these situations, I’m usually lingering around with the hopes of forming connections with people, but am only just waiting for the right conditions to arrive in order to act.
Although it is hard to get to know me, I understand the extreme value of knowing and being known by others. I crave that longing deep desire for meaningful relationships in life, of having a circle around you of those who you can trust. This is as essential to me as food and water—a requirement for my psychological well-being. Though I do not make close friends with many people, the friendships I do forge are unshakeable. Forming new friendships and deepening old ones is essential. But given my shyness, it is also an extremely difficult endeavor.
I’ve found a way to combat my own shyness and reserve, though. Since I am a private person, the basis of my strategy is to structure my life so as to naturally reduce the level of personal privacy in my daily happenings. What I’ve found that breaks down the social barriers is living closely with other people, forgoing traditional ideas of privacy in order to form a communal life. It takes a long time for me to develop comfort around new people, and even so much longer for friendships to form to the level of depth that I desire. The formation of friendships is not by chance and not by chemistry alone, but rather as the result of the long-term accumulation of all the small, insignificant interactions shared between two people. Daily life may not in and of itself provoke the most meaningful interactions, but it does provide the framework for it to take place. I’m bad at small talk, but I’m great at sharing space. Doing so helps break down the barriers I have with getting to be known by others. Every time I interact with someone in a positive way, no matter how small, I begin to develop a deeper sense of trust with that person. The interaction can be as trivial as making breakfast at the same time in the kitchen—it doesn’t even really matter if we are making our own separate meals either—the important part is that I know you’re there with me and accepting of my presence just by being in the room. Seeing others act out their quotidian lives—making food in the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, reading a book—helps me feel more trustful of them. Those daily interactions, fostered by the lack of personal privacy, form the basis of what is needed for me to open up to others.
It’s not that I don’t trust strangers—it’s just more natural to place confidence in the people I know well instead. Once that level of trust begins being reached in any relationship, then I’ll feel more comfortable offering up more of myself to them. My layers will be peeled back and I’ll begin to share more of my inner thoughts and past experiences, my embarrassments and insecurities as well. For me, my sharings are offered up as a valuable gift. If I don’t feel like these gifts of myself are well-received, then I will become more reserved and less likely to share again in the future. I do not like to talk about myself freely; it is only to those who have shown enough acceptance and fraternity who I feel comfortable enough around. There are only a few people in my life with who I feel I have reached that deep level of personal honesty. To me, being known in that manner is an incredible form of intimacy.
And it’s all so hard to achieve that level of intimacy in private. For me to reach that level, a lack of privacy is often needed. Hence, I enjoy (and probably require) living with people so closely, and it’s why I find it so beneficial to put myself in situations where there is a lack of physical privacy. With less physical privacy, the inner-lives of those around you (and yours as well) cannot be so well hidden. Those who I know best are the ones whom I’ve shared situations where personal privacy was lacking—roommates, housemates, camping buddies. I’ve also found that being in compromising situations—in the right circumstances—also helps friendships to grow rather quickly. Since I desire and yearn for being known both emotionally and intellectually, yet I am so shy and reserved, I have found that I require this lack of physical privacy to boost me along in my relationships. Otherwise, I’ve found, it takes years for such a deep level of friendship to develop—if it ever develops at all. So, I’ll gladly take the trade-off of having limited physical privacy. I don’t need that much of it anyway—especially when what is gained in return is being known at a deeper interpersonal level.
I’ve been on a killing spree lately. No rampant caterpillar can escape from my smash…or at least my smashing ire. I’m conducting this purge because I’m an environmentalist. Ecology has turned me into a cold-blooded killer.
The standard picture of an environmentalist is often the gentle, peaceful hippie type, someone who expresses tender loving care for all plants and animals on the planet. They are caricatured as supporting all life and opposing all death and violence. As such, killing is not even remotely imagined as a tool that is in the environmentalist’s repertoire; in fact, it may be thought of as the antithesis. But the ecological household of nature operates differently from idealized notions of harmonious environmentalism. As the poet Tennyson would say, nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’; death, as well as life, are integral parts of nature. It is an eat or be eaten type of world, and death is as necessary to nature as every organism’s metabolism. Nature continues on unceasingly because it rests in an appropriate balance between the processes of life and death, fecundity and consumption. But unfortunately, the balance of nature can readily be tipped to a point of drastic change; there exist certain species that can escape their native habitats and alter the balance of the ecosystems in which they land. These species are known as non-native invasive species. Environmentalists and ecologists alike are thus faced with the quandary of whether it is right—and to what extent it is—to kill in order to restore the balance to native ecosystems.
One of the cast of characters that appears on the most harmful invasive species list is the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar dispar). This innocuous little caterpillar—and its flightless adult moth—seem relatively benign singularly, yet the monstrosity of their sheer numbers has been an extreme detriment to the northeastern United States. Native to Europe, the gypsy moth was intentionally brought to America less than 150 years ago in 1869. A man by the name of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot imported the non-native moths with the intent of interbreeding them with silk worms to develop a more resilient silkworm industry. Trouvelot’s experiment inevitably failed, and whether intentional or not, the moths were released from his residence just outside of Boston. Lacking any of their natural predators to keep their population in check, just twenty years later the first major outbreak of gypsy moths occurred in Massachusetts. Trees were defoliated, caterpillars covered everything, and frass (i.e. insect excrement) rained down on the town. Since then, the gypsy moths have started on their relentless march across the northeastern United States. Each year, the gypsy moths stake claim to new habitat, and with it they bring their trail of destruction. Entire sections of forest can be defoliated in an outbreak scenario, and the creatures can easily defoliate more than a million acres of hardwood forest in a given summer.
In early May, the next generation of gypsy moth caterpillars hatch from their over-wintering egg cases and commence their feast. They emerge by the millions and coat everything en masse. The tiny black-haired little crawlers make their visual appearance when they are about an eighth of an inch long, appearing on every natural or human-made object outdoors. The tiny caterpillars spin an elongated strand of silk and their long spikey hairs allow them to get carried by the wind to new places. To the casual observer, it seems like the tiny creatures are flying around. A young gypsy moth hopes to land on a palatable tree so it can begin its banquet and increase in size; barring an ideal landing zone, the caterpillars have a relentless drive to crawl over any obstacle to find a food source. In late spring, the observer can tell once again when the caterpillars have returned and can thus take action before much damage is done to the ecosystem. When the caterpillars are small, they are easy to destroy. Squashing the pests seems inconsequential. Pressing down upon them with a thumb produces nothing but a small black smear. Each caterpillar dispatched is gone forever and its life and memory are no more.
But as the creatures grow, they become harder and harder to kill both physically and psychologically. They have been feeding for weeks, turning native plant leaves into more gypsy moth biomass. The caterpillars have become larger, less fragile creatures. When they reach half an inch long, they are sizeable enough to squirt out a blob of dark-green or bright-yellow juice whenever they are squashed. At an inch long, they begin to display an adverse reaction to being squeezed; it takes increasing pressure before the caterpillar is popped and its life juices run down the leaves. As the caterpillars keep growing larger, their features become more distinguishable; they have become stronger and actively resist death now with all their might. Killing the destructive organisms is now more of a struggle, particularly a psychological battle for the executioner. The juice that gets on one’s hands sometimes runs a deep red, reminding the slayer that it once belonged to the realm of the living. The breached corpses of the caterpillars clench indefinitely to their leaves even in death, a chilling reminder of the life that once was. These things remind the exterminator that the organism dispatched just moments ago was a living, moving creature.
What right do I have in taking a fellow creature’s life? Especially if they cause little direct harm to me? Is the fate of the ecosystem dependent upon my action as a concerned ecologist? Or should the gypsy moths be left alone and nature allowed to run her course? As the gypsy moth caterpillars grow, they continue to become more and more of a nuisance, even reaching plague proportions. They feverishly eat leaves, turning the native oak trees into Swiss cheese. Infestations can defoliate entire trees and can even lead to tree death; entire sections of native hardwood forest can be denuded by these insects. In a quiet moment in the forests of New England, the very sound of destruction can be heard from the tree-tops. Close your eyes and listen—it is not a sprinkle of rain you are hearing, but the falling frass of the swarm. The oak trees, and other hardwoods, suffer at the mouths of these non-native herbivores. The other native creatures that depend on the forests for food and habitat are adversely affected too. The greed of the gypsy moth’s appetite knows no bounds. Is it thus justified to kill the caterpillars for the sake of the trees and the forest in general?
Should we as humans intervene in the situation of invasive species, even if it means the prescribed death of millions of organisms? It is a struggle that we as environmentalists and modern humans must face. Our civilized world has created a narrative that removes us from the brutal truth of ecological relationships and our impact on the natural world. The metabolism of life is neatly tucked away into the folds of textbooks or of the grocery store. We do not see where our food comes from, and we avert our eyes to predation in nature. We do not fully respect the fact that in order for the balance of nature to remain intact, life indeed must be taken. Death has become so unpalatable to our modern culture. It is thus exceedingly difficult to compromise a human distaste for killing with a commitment to the facts of ecology. I am both an environmentalist and an ecologist, yet I too struggle with the necessity of death. Humans are compassionate and sympathetic beings. It is hard to watch a young or injured animal die. We like to root for the underdog to survive. But not every organism in an ecosystem ever survives; it is not even physically possible for every organism in an ecosystem to survive. The balance of nature rests on the facts of metabolism—of life and death. When humans are responsible for bringing the balance of nature to a tipping-point, shouldn’t we also be responsible for correcting our wrongs? Isn’t killing another organism justified in the name of the ecological integrity of the whole system?
I encountered a similar moral dilemma surrounding the eradication of an invasive species when I was in Australia—only this example was more extreme. Instead of simply squashing caterpillars, the most-wanted organism was the cane toad. These creatures were much more relatable than a small caterpillar, and the moral qualms surrounding their eradication were much harder for me personally. The cane toad, a vertebrate, is much more closely related to human kind. Its blood and organs are similar to mine, and I felt as if I had some kind of evolutionary connection to the toad that I didn’t share with a caterpillar. Cane toads are also much larger—reaching up to the size of a dinner plate, and their deaths would prove all the more gruesome because of it. Though I knew intellectually how disruptive the cane toads were to the ecology of Australia, I individually had quite a few reservations about personally killing a cane toad.
Cane toads (Rhinella marina) were introduced to Australia from the tropical Americas in 1935 as a biological control method to combat the cane beetle, which was threatening Australia’s sugar cane crop. In 1935, 102 toads were released in agricultural areas in Queensland. From then to now, cane toad numbers have increased to more than 200 million in Australia today. Adding insult to injury, the introduced cane toads did not even control the cane beetles they were intended to ingest. Instead, cane toads wreak havoc by gorging themselves on native Australian fauna, eating native creatures directly and leaving less food for other native species. Additionally, the cane toads are highly poisonous and use their poison glands as their primary defense mechanism. Native Australian fauna, unfamiliar with the toads, see the meaty morsels as an easy meal. The cane toads do little to resist being bitten, and instead wait for the poison excreted from their skin to kill the pursuing predator. Instead of an easy meal, the Australian wildlife is poisoned to death. As the cane toads continued to hop into uncharted territory in the Australian bush, more and more native wildlife became diminished because of it.
Cane toads have become a much bemoaned villain in Australia, and the culture Down Under is unsympathetic to the toads. Aussies will use whatever means possible to exterminate a toad. Drivers use them as target practice in the road. Kids use them as cricket balls for sporting events. Humane ethicists advise either freezing or drowning the toads as the most humane method of dispatching the pests. I too, was taught by the Australians to combat the spread of the toads by any means possible. As a backpacker lacking any real resources for the job, I was told to use my most powerful weapon—namely, my boots. I was taught to bluntly kick around the cane toads until they stopped dead.
As an ecologist, I felt that I had to fulfill my duty to an already ravaged ecosystem. And the cane toads were not hard to find. I stayed in many places in Queensland and northern New South Wales where cane toads covered the ground like a plague. Knowing about their negative ecological impact, I was ready to do something about it. At one roadside campsite near a creek and some slickrock, I encountered an abundance of the bedeviled toads. I singled one out. I picked it up by its warty back. Having no predators and no defenses other than their poison, the cane toad made no effort to resist. It didn’t even seem perturbed by being picked up. Holding the toad in my hand, I prepared for what was about to come. I let go of the toad and drop kicked it. The toad went flying onto the slickrock. I made my way to the toad. Dazed, but alive, I found it again. I had already committed to the extermination of this particular toad; it would be cowardly to back out now. Thinking thusly, I repeated the entire process a few more times. With each drop kick I imparted, I knew I was doing damage to the toad. Yet after every kick the toad still groggily got itself back up. I could still tell that the toad was every bit as alive as I was. My efforts at eradicating it simply weren’t enough. The toad wouldn’t be dispatched easily. From the outside, my toad looked every bit a toad as it did before my encounter. But on the inside, I knew, I must have done some damage. I knew I needed to end the suffering promptly and just kill the toad quickly. But I just couldn’t bring myself to the point of squashing down on the toad with my boot against the rock. I was appalled at the thought of the blood and the gore of it all. So instead I did the cowardly thing. I left the toad where I found it, hoping that it would soon die of its injuries. It seemed probable that the toad would have died soon after, but I’ll never know for certain. At any rate, my actions would not have produced anything akin to a quick, painless death. And now, I had to live with being the cause of that death. Though my hatred of cane toads caused me to maim one of their own, it could not overcome my desire to not take a life; all my beliefs about ecological integrity could not manage to win over my sentiments and cause me to end the toad’s life once and for all.
It is still possible that the cane toad I kicked around lived on. If so, the toad lived but it was the ecosystem that suffered because of it. Each cane toad, each gypsy moth that continues to live on in a place outside its native ecosystem continues to tip the balance of ecological resiliency. One does not see the consequences of continued ignorance towards invasive species individually. But collectively, the oak trees will suffer because of it. The native Australian fauna will suffer because of it too. The ecosystem as a whole suffers because of it. And thus, when an organism is causing undue harm as an invasive species, is it right to let it continue on and undermine the integrity of the ecosystem? I think not.
Though killing is psychologically painful, it is often necessary and justified for the sake of ecology.
For More Information:
- Cane Toads: An Unnatural History
- And the best scene from the film…
- And the sequel…Cane Toads: The Conquest
Some 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, a giant lobe of the continental glacier that stretched across North America during the last ice age ground to a halt during what is known as the Wisconsin Stage, the most recent phase of the last global glaciation. For thousands of years, that small piece of the vast expanse of ice stayed relatively stagnant at its location, neither advancing nor retreating remarkably. Though the terminus of the glacier remained more or less in place, the ice itself continually moved, acting like a giant conveyor belt carrying a load of rocks and sediment scraped from the bedrock of continental North America. Year after year the glacier persisted, bringing layer upon layer of sediment with it. About 12,000 years ago, the planet began to warm dramatically; it was the end of the last ice age. The glacial lobe, melting in the rising global temperatures, retreated north to the arctic where snow persists year round. In its wake was left evidence of the glacier’s presence; on the expansive coastal plain just off the mainland of modern-day Massachusetts was a very conspicuous mound of sediment. That pile of debris, known as a terminal glacial moraine, was the genesis of Cape Cod.
At its start, Cape Cod was little more remarkable than a hilly mound of debris pocked with depressions rising above a broad plain, for off the coast of New England the continental shelf is wide and gradually slopes down to the sea. At the end of the last ice age, with much of the world’s water being locked up in the melting glaciers, the ocean water was much lower than it is presently. For thousands of years after the glacier’s retreat, Cape Cod as we know it was not surrounded by water; it was surrounded by land. Gradually, as the Atlantic began to rise from glacial meltwater, the mound of sand and rocks finally became a peninsula about 3,500 years ago; a very primitive Cape Cod could now be identified by its shoreline. But it was not yet the Cape Cod we know today. It would still take thousands of years more to mold the landscape into its present form.
But even the Cape Cod of today was not the Cape Cod of yesterday, and will not be the Cape Cod of tomorrow. Geologic forces act with gusto on this geologic infant. All around the coast of the Cape is a blanket of sand—the telltale sign of active erosion. Sand moves quite readily in the wind and waves; there is nothing quite so solid about the Cape, no feature quite so permanent. Though formed of sand and rock, the Cape is little more than a giant sand castle in the midst of an angry Atlantic. To find a solid foundation—bedrock—one must burrow hundreds to thousands of feet down. With no solid foundation, the Cape exists in a state of flux. Just twelve thousand years after its creation, the Cape is dramatically different than the day the glaciers retreated. Cape Cod has never found its state of geological stasis.
Incessantly, wind and water work their relentless magic on the Cape, continually transforming the landscape. Though everywhere on the Cape has potential for rapid erosion, nowhere is this process more apparent than on the Eastern seaboard. Unprotected from the vast fury of the Atlantic, the eastern shore faces the brunt of its unmitigated ocean waves. The force of winds and waves cumulatively wash away the beaches lining the shore, which undermines the land above from the base. As more beach disappears into the water, land from above will tumble down to replenish the beach sands. Thousands of years of water undercutting the land have resulted in the wall of characteristic oceanside sand cliffs that line the eastern shore, and the continuously lapping ocean waves have eroded Cape Cod’s initially irregular eastern shore smooth into a long, continuous beach. Taking a look towards the cliffs above reliably reveals how high the land once sat.
On its eastern shore, Cape Cod loses about three feet of land every year. At its narrowest point just south of Wellfleet, little more than a mile of land separates Cape Cod Bay from the Atlantic. Given the current rate of erosion, the outermost peninsula of Cape Cod will become an island separated from the mainland in less than two millennia. Even on the time-scale of a human life, the rate of erosion is unmistakable. Glancing up at any seaside cliff, one is likely to see the underground remains of society ghastly exposed. Drainpipes emerge from the cliffs, leading nowhere, draining nothing. Electrical cables dangle limp and useless. Large chunks of asphalt lie at the base of the cliffs, evidence of past roads and parking lots. All of this evidence points to the fact that the eastern edge of the Cape was once purposely settled with the intention of staying permanently. But not even modern development could stand up to the forces of erosion over time. Eventually, even this evidence of habitation too shall disappear.
Along with the sand, much of the history of Cape Cod has fallen down the cliffs and disappeared into the hungry mouth of the ocean. The first twin lighthouses at Chatham have long since tumbled into the sea; later lighthouses would be built on moveable bases to prevent a similar fate. The landing spot of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable connecting America to continental Europe in 1879 is no more; that spot where messages were relayed across the ocean now lies more than 300 feet out to sea. As the pursuit of land by the ocean continues, more buildings face the dilemma of either moving or falling into the ocean. Man’s few accomplishments, even as groundbreaking and historic as they may be, are ultimately fleeting and ephemeral. Nothing can stop the onslaught of the elements over time. The ocean serves as a reminder for man to keep his humility.
Though the eastern shore is rapidly eroding and the Cape loses about 5 to 6 acres of land every year, not all of the elements work to destroy land. Land that is lost will eventually result in land that is created. However, on Cape Cod it is a losing battle; for every acre of land lost, only ½ acre of new land will be created. The rest of the sediment vanishes into the ocean depths. Summer winds transport eroded material along the shore southwards, adding to the sand island of Monomoy off the Cape’s elbow. Strong winter Nor’easters transport most of the sediment down-cape to the curling fist at Provincetown. Here, currents slow and the transported sediments are deposited, forming the classic recurve shape of a sand spit. At the very tip of the Cape, the area known as the Province Lands has been formed very recently, an accumulation of the sandy corpse of the easternmost Cape. The Province Lands are not a glacial feature, but a geologically infantile accumulation of water-deposited sand. But even where deposition occurs, erosion is present also. Just south of Race Point, where sand from the eastern Cape is coming to rest, waves off of Cape Cod Bay move sand south around the Provincetown Harbor towards Long Point. Erosion happens on many scales—a fractal pattern of sand spits develops.
Water is one factor in the continual re-shaping of Cape Cod; wind is another. Unprotected from higher surrounding landforms, Cape Cod is continually ravaged by winds whipping across the seas. Historically, the erosional effect of these winds has been tempered by a layer of vegetation growing on the sandy soil. Though the soil on Cape Cod is poor and holds very little organic matter, these fragile soils once supported great hardwood and softwood forests. Millennia after the glaciers retreated, pioneering species gradually built a thin soil in the sand; larger and lusher trees were then able to grow, a magnificent forest of large pines, oaks, and in places even the nutrient-demanding beech tree. Upon landing in the New World at the Province Lands in 1620, the Mayflower Pilgrims scouted the area and remarked on the majesty of the Cape’s forests, being “compassed about to the very sea with oaks, pines, juniper, sassafras, and other sweet wood.” Though the pilgrims moved on to settle permanently in Plymouth, more European settlers were soon to follow in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. With rapidity the native forests of the Cape were cut down for firewood and agriculture; the thin fragile soil was exposed to the unforgiving winds. The layer of green that held down the topography of Cape Cod was removed, and the fertility of the soil lost with it. By the mid-1800’s, man’s feeble attempts to eke out a living by farming the Cape all but ended. Today the stabilizing forests are in regeneration, the scraggly pitch pines being the first to reappear where man once tilled.
This story of human-induced erosion played out all across the Cape, but nowhere else was its effect as marked or as lasting as in the Province Lands. Though the native vegetation recolonized most of the Cape, not all places were able to return to mature forests. The sandy hills of the Province Lands, once denuded of their forests, created a perpetually shifting dunefield. As the dunes go on their continual relentless march, human habitations and historic buildings are engulfed by the drifting dunes without human intervention. Even today’s darling jewel of Cape Cod tourist towns, Provincetown, was critically threatened by the shifting sands; the fledgling town was close to being abandoned in the 1700’s as sands started to engulf the village. To allow the blowing sand to pass underneath unopposed into Provincetown harbor, residents began building houses on pillars. Efforts to combat the unceasing erosion happened nearly as soon as the dunes started moving. As early as the 1650’s, a law was passed in Provincetown forbidding the trampling of dune vegetation. Such conservation laws continue today, and Provincetown was saved from imminent burial. But the tip of the Cape is far from its pre-colonization state; the winds and sand continue to remind inhabitants of this fact. Paths and roads along Cape Cod’s sandy tip are continuously blanketed by a layer of sand. The Province Lands Dunes—as beautiful as they may be—are a man-made creation, one that has outrun his own control. Though the initial disturbance was created by humans, the relentless winds took over the process of dune movement and continues on to this day.
Everywhere on Cape Cod, change to the landscape is occurring. Much of it—the seemingly inconsequential movement of a single salt grain—happens ever so minutely and imperceptibly. Cumulatively, the effects of erosion serve as a reminder of the impermanence of humans and their accomplishments. Nothing, ultimately, lasts forever. Not even a feature as large and well-known as Cape Cod can last. Ultimately, all things are washed away into the sea.
For Additional Reading: O'Brien, Greg (2003). A Guide to Nature on Cape Cod and the Islands. Hyannis, MA: Codfish Press. Strahler, Arthur N. (1966). A Geologist's View of Cape Cod. Garden City, NY: The Natural History Press.