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Cape Cod Stories: Placing with Thoreau

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Cape Cod Stories Whale Tale

There is something ironically bold and unoriginal about placing yourself where other writers have gone before. Placing literally. Placing figuratively.

This year I am placing myself on Cape Cod.

It happened first by an almost casual decision. Where would I go this summer, to build our regional library of literary tours? It has become important to me to not simply “tour” literary history on the cloud of the internet, on an e-reader, or a random pick from the library, but rather to really place myself (and, therefore Tweetspeak) in actual settings—to meet people, touch landscapes, breathe different qualities of air (if you don’t believe me, try it sometime; taste the air; it differs wherever you go).

The Cape will be salt. And I love salt maybe more than the average person who simply takes it up in a fast-food diet, unawares. I have even been told by a doctor—God bless her—to add salt liberally, drink it mixed with water if I like—to balance my surprisingly low blood pressure. You might not take me for a person who has low blood pressure, but the natural state of my body is so calm as to set the medical establishment to wondering about my viability for Olympic-level sports. Not that anyone has ever taken me for the type to win Olympic gold on the luge, but that is another story entirely, set in winter, and perhaps not important here.

It so happened that, around the time I made the casual-like decision to place myself in Cape Cod this summer, I earned the editorial reputation of possibly not appreciating the essay form—or at least not the writerly choice to meander in words—because I cut a dear and talented writer’s one-hundred-and-ninety-six-word opening down to, as one reader put it, a single sentence and a half, and posted the editorial evidence here. A few days later, I noticed I had done this on the exact date, one year later, as when I had offered gold in celebration of our T.S. Poetry Press Oprah appearance. June 12, 2012, Oprah. June 12, 2013, an Olympic-sized editorial cut and post, by an editor with decidedly low blood pressure. I noticed this dating coincidence, because the radical editorial post moved into our “Popular” widget and began inching its way up to rival Oprah. What could it possibly mean?

In preparation for my placement on Cape Cod, I began to read Cape Cod Stories. I don’t buy books anymore. My house is salt-box small and my book collection has outgrown the few available spaces where it can hang out calmly and not give the house dwellers high blood pressure. Cape Cod Stories is a library selection. But I might buy it nevertheless. It feels like such a deliciously kitschy thing to do. And, in the opening essay, Adam Gopnik, who I actually met last year on a literary tour to Massachusetts (where he shook my hand under the tall trees at the beautiful Mount in Lenox)—in the opening essay, Adam (which strikes me as such a quintessential name for my purposes, because it was owned by a representative of humankind who was first “placed” in a landscape so he could stop being a cloudy presence in the mind of God)—Adam, as I was saying, admits (through the device of “a friend writes”) that he perched himself on a dune with Thoreau’s Cape Cod in hand. Adam Gopnik (or his supposed friend) thus placed himself, both literally and figuratively, on Cape Cod. Literally, in the salt air, on the salt sand. Figuratively, in the esteemed haunt of writers we have come to hold in a place of awe—Norman Mailer, John Cheever, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Melville, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Allan Poe, Thoreau (as I already mentioned), and Anonymous.

Yes, Anonymous was on Cape Cod. And, at least so far, (I have not finished reading Cape Cod Stories), Anonymous is the funniest, most visceral writer in the book. He is also a terrible speller. Or perhaps that is how whalers spelled things in the 1900s, when they needed to set down, for posterity, that on January 12th their Olympic-sized whale got away due to the persistence of the “Capting” who went on “reeding over the departid” (the departed being one Peter White—ship’s cook—who had been made to eat the “potatoe barging becaus there was too many cockroches & other incests ect. in it”): “So ends, our won whale, the only whale we seen yit—gorn.”

You have noticed, no doubt, that Anonymous’s entry was written on the 12th of a month that begins with a J—it being not summer at all, but the deepest winter season (believe me, that is no easy thing for the blood pressure, on a Northeastern ocean in the dead of January, 1900s or otherwise). He admitted, in far fewer words than Melville, that his single hope for the elusive whale was gone. Whether it was the fault of the potatoes, the insects (where did they come from in winter?), or poor Peter White, seems immaterial.

I will think of Anonymous this summer when I taste the salt air and look out over the sea. I will think of him when I take my bought-copy of Cape Cod Stories to the sun-bleached dunes and perhaps (it remains to be seen) leave my library copy of Thoreau’s Cape Cod back home.

Photo by hdreisler, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing

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Your Comments

6 Comments so far

  1. My maternal grandparents lived many years on Cape Cod. It’s true, the air there is different and the ocean full of wonder.

  2. I think I would enjoy reading of Anonymous’ gorn whale.

    And I wonder if Anonymous had as much trouble spelling his own name as I did.

  3. Chris Yokel says:

    Welcome to my part of the world :-)

  4. So this post is now a blue thread woven into my day. And that is a story for another time. But this dovetails the circumstances of my wet and rainy day, filled with humor. I needed to hear this from you today. For all sorts of reasons. And that is a story for another time.
    L.L., I like this side of you. But I haven’t met a side of you I didn’t like. And that too would be a conversation for another time. So you are telling me that when the Laura’s pair up as writer/editor they rival Oprah in popularity. I have to sit with that for awhil.

  5. Enjoy your coast!

    P.S. I have the same low blood pressure/salt thing, too. No wonder I like you!


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  1. Cape Cod Writers Center Conference | - August 20, 2013

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