Sunday, September 30, 2012

On the Level

Photo by Karen Maxfield
Cape Cod's Provincetown seems to occupy a thin horizontal space between the sea and sky

Tom Hylton wrote something once in an Op-Ed that I have always remembered.

Photo by Evan Brandt
Provincetown's library dominates this scene from
MacMillian Wharf
I don't recall the quote exactly, but the essence of it is this: "We all know what a nice town looks like. It's where we go on vacation."

That observation (and who hasn't gone to a favorite place and, while sipping cocktails after a near-perfect day, pondered the idea of never going back?) always makes me think of Provincetown, Mass.

Situated at the very tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown was the vacation of choice for us and in-laws for many years until the arrival of children and a bum economy made it unsustainable.

We returned this year for a family event and several things about it struck me.

Photo by Karen Maxfield
The former Fat Jack's Cafe
First, and I don't know why this should surprise me, but I was pleased to see how little had changed.

Too often, as I age, the delight in the shiny and the new is replaced by the regret at the loss of the old and the venerable it most likely replaced.

Of course change is inevitable, and the tavern in which we once spent much of our savings, Fat Jack's, is now just another biker bar.

And while anything that sticks that far out into the volatile North Atlantic is bound to see constant change, particularly in its shoreline and seascapes, the essence of Provincetown, at least to the casual observer, seemed much as I remembered it.

The essence of that place is unique in several ways.

First of all, the quality of light in Provincetown has attracted painters and artists for decades in an attempt to capture it.

The town is overflowing with galleries that themselves overflow with the result of those attempts at capture, some more successful than others.

Photo by Dylan Brandt
Sunset and sunrise both happen over the water in Provincetown.
It is also one of the few places on the East Coast -- the Del/Mar/Va peninsula being another -- where you can watch the sun rise and set over large bodies of water without moving a muscle.

Personally, I think one reason for the quality of the light there is that the tip of the cape is surrounded by water that is, for the most part, far from shore.

All of which leads me to an aspect of Provincetown which only crystallized for me as I was arranging our photos from the trip.

It is a place of horizontal lines.

Photo by Evan Brandt
It doesn't take much distance to see how horizontal lines dominate
Provincetown views, as in this shot of Long Point
as seen from the sea.
Shore lines; water lines; tide lines, all with the gentle leftward curve; and horizon lines as straight and as blue as a the center of a sapphire.

And rising amid all this leveling is the 252-foot vertical spire of Provincetown's Pilgrim Monument.

This pleasing contrast is most prominent from the sea and it's where it first dawned on me as we headed back from a very successful meeting with some hungry humpback whales.

It was also singular in photos we took of the Cape Cod Bay shoreline near the condo we rented, and in a series of sunset photos my son took.

I was struck by the thinness of the part of the picture that we humans inhabit, and the vastness of the sky above and sea below.

This smallness was emphasized on the whale watch.
Photo by Evan Brandt
A mother humpback and her calf feed in the rich waters off Cape Cod.

A ship  that holds nearly 300 eager whale watchers looks large at the dock, but put it out in the middle of the sea and you can start feeling insignificant.

That smallness gets magnified when confronted with a single animal living just below the surface of the water that nearly dwarfs the size of a boat that looked large from shore.

As long as 52 feet and weighing in at as much as 80,000 pounds, these graceful behemoths move at their own stately place and can remind us that to them, our comparative size as well as our furtive, fast-lane, twitter-paced lifestyle must seem like an insect does to us.

The naturalist offering commentary on the trip also made an observation that altered my perspective even more.

Speaking of the blubber which insulates whales from the cold and provides some of their buoyancy, he said, "imagine living in a world where your tendency is always to float upward instead of to fall downward."

Better yet, imagine living your life as a never-ending series of held breaths as whales do.
Photo by Karen Maxfield
It's not hard to feel small in a place like this.
(Race Point Lifesaving
Station at moonrise.)

It is certainly enough to give one pause. 

And pausing almost always provides its own reward.

As a journalist, I often spend time trying to put myself in other people's shoes. But putting yourself in another species' shoes, so to speak, can be both a fascinating and unsettling experience.

I spend a lot of time writing about how we humans affect the world around us and, as a result, those other occupants of the planet often left out of such considerations.

And while these ruminations do not undermine those facts, it does help me to understand how some people would consider it impossible that the smallness of us could affect the vastness of everything else.

Photo by Karen Maxfield
The things that loom large in our lives can be put into the proper perspective when viewed amidst the vastness of the world we inhabit; a perspective I find to be best contemplated while planted firmly in a comfy chair by the sea.

1 comment:

  1. Evan, great piece; and the last photo by Karen is awesome (in fact, it shoulda been first!).

    It's been a couple of years since we were last in Provincetown, and far, far more since we lived close enough (Fall River MA) to go there almost monthly. I miss it a lot. Best paella ever served was found there; sadly, that place closed when the economy tanked. Chef was a genius.

    Thanks for reviving some great memories.