Lawrence Brown: Preserving Cape Cod
“You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod,” goes the old classic. But what about the new Cape? Our population doubles every summer as folks pour in. It seems people are coming for the same things they’ve always been coming here for – and it’s more than any physical asset specifically. It’s an experience.
A little pre-history: Historians are convinced that modern humanity survived the Pliocene Drought by hanging out along Africa’s shorelines. Some theories suggest we became more erect and lost most of our body hair by becoming semi-aquatic, wading into deeper waters to escape predators, learning to swim – and liking it.
“Look,” they point out, “see what human children do when you bring them to the beach!” First of all, there’s this unbounded joy – like a homecoming. Then the kids fan out along the beach and just like little hunter-gatherers, they bring back the husks of crabs and smelly things that were at least recently alive and pile them up at their parents’ feet. Dogs, our ancient best friends, do the same thing with the same boundless delight. This goes way back.
Thank God our predecessors created our National Seashore and began to preserve our public beach system. We might well look like Miami Beach if they hadn’t, the ocean views walled off by high-rise condos and hotels.
It’s a tightrope act, balancing the commercial interests in monetizing the Cape and its tourists with the ecological and aesthetic interests in preserving the natural beauty here. We can’t wreck the place in a diminishing-returns struggle to extract every penny from each square foot of land — and from the pockets of the folks who come to be on it.
Recently, I sat down with the directors of the Barnstable Land Trust. Our family supports their efforts every year and it was a chance to see where our donations (and yours, I hope) are going.
The fundamental goal is to set aside undeveloped land to be protected as open space forever. The Trust began doing this during the big building boom of the 1980s and has been hard at work ever since. Many regular Cape Codders discovered the Trust’s 1,100 acres for the first time during the pandemic. The town has set aside an additional 11,000 acres, part of a network of set-asides that lace and grace the town of Barnstable. What a remedy for social isolation: to find new fields and marshes and new wooded trails to explore, made and maintained by the Trust. It was something the regulars, folks like us who only use the bridges when we have to, benefitted from the most.
There is another concern. Cape Cod has only one aquifer… one source of natural fresh water. Our central aquifer has already been under assault from plumes of contamination from the airport and the military base. As our population grows, there are additional concerns about sewage, additional toxins and nitrates from fertilizers and other sources.
If we poison our only aquifer system, there’s no back-up. We’ll be buying bottled water from the mainland after that – forever. Pollute the estuaries and the ecosystem dies. The water stinks and the marine environment everybody loves and comes to see will degrade. It would be the end of the Cape as we know it.
Fortunately, old Mother Nature is astonishingly effective in cleaning up its own act, and even at cleaning up after us – provided we leave it alone. Open spaces, especially marshes, act as carbon sinks. They filter our ground water naturally. If there was ever a place where the needs of nature and commerce intersect, we’re living on it.
May I suggest checking out the Barnstable Land Trust’s website. In addition to funding donations, property owners can consider donating land in their wills, or creating covenants that protect parcels of undeveloped land in perpetuity.
You can visit the BLT’s office on 6A in W. Barnstable, meet some delightful people and get literature that shows you all the neat places you can visit.
I think the key insight to take from all this is that — everything will still work, the beaches, the restaurants, hotels, the boating, the nature trails… all will continue to make our fortunes here, so long as the song still rings true: “You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod.”
Lawrence Brown is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.