The Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod's Atlantic Shore

By Robert Find

W.W. Norton & Company, 2017; 329 pages; $26.95

The Outer Beach that nature writer Robert Finch has walked for forty years is not a place but a process, a landscape marked by continuous change. Of course, that’s true of everything, as we’ve been aware since at least the time of Heraclitus. But on the roughly 30 miles of sandy Atlantic shoreline from Monomoy Island north to Provincetown, Massachusetts, change is rapid and often dramatic. Each year, fifty-five acres of precious Cape Cod real estate is lost to the sea; a single winter storm can resculpt miles of dunes and cliffs. 

Finch has written short pieces about a wide variety of outdoor themes on the Cape for as long as he’s been walking its beaches, but in this collection, arranged geographically south-to-north and chronologically past-to-present at each location, he can’t avoid a sense of profound fatalism. Though he writes fondly of the cries of gulls or the taste of ripe beach plums, he also waxes contemplative after close encounters with recently departed deer, humpback whales, harbor seals, and sea birds. Inland, he notes, where infirm and aged animals seek isolation in the bush, a hiker rarely comes upon a carcass in the open. But on the beach, nature lets it all hang out: “Everywhere life and death are blatantly commingled.”

Nor can man’s creations avoid the ravages of wave and storm. The sea reminds him of this in one esessay by washing ashore the ribs of a schooner that ran aground a century before, and then taking it back again a short while later. In another essay, the erstwhile stroller catalogs the flotsam left by the tide: glass jars, a moccasin, lightbulbs, the bottom half of a refrigerator—mundane echoes of Ozymandian frailty. Some of Finch’s earliest pieces, written in the 1960’s and 1970’s, describe beach shacks built on Monomoy, Pleasant Bay, Nauset Beach, and Provincetown; most of them are gone today. “The beach has a way of making even the most solid and permanent objects seem like illusions.”

You’d think that only a deep masochistic streak could bring someone (especially a journalist increasingly aware of the passage of time) back to such a soul-stifling scene day after day. But of course, life is lived in the moment, and the protean beach provides as many fine moments as somber ones. There are afternoons paddling around salt marshes, stormy nights bedded warmly in shingled cottages, glorious displays of sunlight, clouds, and fog. Every amble along the shore traverses paths that weren’t there before the last high tide.

So, it’s true, as Finch reminds us throughout these essays, that “The beach teaches us the need to adapt continually…always to be watching for undertows and rogue waves, to dance nimbly along its edges.” But rather than disappointing, it offers an ocean of possibilities. “There is always something momentarily purifying, a sudden but brief surge of the soul on first gaining the beach,” he writes. “That first moment of entrance, like that of love’s, is always one of newness and promise.”