Someday it's going to stop raining. And when the sun finally returns, we'll open our doors to find that autumn is in full season. Until that time, it's best to find a good book and wait out the rain.
By Wyman Richardson-The Countryman Press, Woodstock, VT
by Jack Sheedy
There are two ways to experience Old Cape Cod. One way is to locate H.G. Wells and politely ask him if you can use his time machine. (Note: Set the controls for the year 1950 or earlier).
The other way is to get a copy of Wyman Richardson’s "The House on Nauset Marsh." Since Wells’s time machine was a figment of his imagination, it might be best if you go with “Plan B.”
The 50th anniversary edition of "The House on Nauset Marsh" recently hit bookstores, with a new introduction by Robert Finch, inviting readers to discover a Cape Cod that, sadly, is long gone. Thankfully, the Cape Cod National Seashore has preserved much of the natural surroundings that Richardson writes about in his classic book, but the Cape Cod flavor that visits each page like a drifting fog has been lost to more modern times.
What makes Richardson’s book such a good read is its casual feel. In today’s fast-paced, uptight world the book represents a leisurely canoe excursion upon an unspoiled salt marsh. It was a time when the only warmth you felt on a chilly November evening came from the brick hearth aflame with logs you split and hauled from yonder woodpile. The night’s dinner came from your own fishing pole, and the roasted duck from the barrel of your rifle. Mornings were cold until the woodstove was lit. And some days you did nothing but simply lived … no cell phones, e-mails, or voicemail to distract you from watching birds or observing the weather.
In his introduction, Finch compares "The House on Nauset Marsh" to other “worthy books written about Cape Cod’s outer shores,” such as Beston’s "The Outermost House" and Hay’s "The Great Beach." He writes, “In comparison, 'The House on Nauset Marsh' lacks the self-conscious literary ambition of those other works, not surprisingly, since they were written by professional writers who came to the Outer Beach specifically to write about it.” In contrast, Richardson was not a writer by occupation. He was a physician practicing in Boston who had spent his childhood at the family Farm House in Eastham. As an adult, the Farm House was his escape. During the 1940s he began to write of his experiences there, with his essays first appearing in The Atlantic Monthly before being published in book form.
"The content is largely undramatic and commonplace,” writes Finch, “and the style is deceptively casual, as if we were listening to stories told by a favorite relative ... In a sense it is the book’s very ‘artlessness’ that sets it apart from other classics of Cape Cod literature.”
After introducing the reader to the Farm House in a brief initial chapter, the book and its author spend much of the remaining 200-plus pages out of doors witnessing the natural surroundings – the locale consisting of the Salt Pond in Eastham, the marsh to the south, and the great beach to the east. In his travels by foot and by canoe, the author considers such subjects as how animals/birds find their way using landmarks and an internal compass, how they tell time, the intricacies of bird language, and whether or not animals show signs of intelligence.
A marked difference between Richardson’s book and those of Beston and Hay is that while the latter two authors were observing nature, Richardson was not only observing but also hunting and eating nature. Whether fishing for striped bass, gunning for a variety of ducks, or crabbing, Richardson’s Cape Cod represents a true picture of the place. Yes, nature is beautiful to look at, but at the end of the day you still have to eat.
The book abounds with subtle humor that makes the reader smile upon the simple life Richardson describes. In telling about a crabbing expedition out on the marsh, the cry of “Crab ho!” mimics on a much smaller scale the whalers’ cry of “Thar she blows!” In his chapter on “Bird Language” the author muses, “When it comes to humor, I must say that I have never heard a bird laugh. There have been times when I was sure that black ducks were laughing at me up their sleeves – or up their wings – but I never actually heard one do it.”
Perhaps the most pleasing philosophy offered in Richardson’s book is detailed in his chapter entitled “Do-Nothing Day.” The do-nothing day is just that – a day in which, due to “some combination involving both weather elements and human physiology” we “give up plans for the usual strenuous activities.” Such a day includes a casual breakfast followed by hours of watching birds, observing butterflies, and taking a stroll here or there.
Later in the day comes the preparation of the big meal of striped bass and creamed potatoes, “a process that will take one and one half to two hours.” After “a long nap,” and “a light supper of soup, toast, and jam,” the evening hours consist of sitting before the fire and occasionally stepping outside to view the northern lights.
“Yes, we have all kinds of days here at the Farm House,” writes the author. “They are all good, but one of the best is do-nothing day.”
Each chapter takes you on a different adventure – out on the marsh, a trek on the great beach, in all kinds of weather, experiencing the tides, the winds, the ice, and the fog. And by the end of each chapter you find yourself safely back at the Farm House “before a crackling fire with a glass in hand containing just a smitch of bourbon.” Life is good.