Russ Allen: What Makes Harwich A Good Community?

What makes for a good community? What are the marks of a town whose people lead healthy, productive, and wholesome lives? What measuring sticks can we use to assess the type of town Harwich is today?

Some of the more objective answers are easy to enumerate. A good community is safe; it has strong law enforcement, fire and ambulance services. It serves its residents by making quality medical care readily available, as well as public transportation, well-lit roads and good sidewalks, fresh drinking water and dependable utilities, adequate and affordable housing, snow removal and maintenance departments prepared to address every eventuality. A good community offers educational, cultural, employment, commercial and recreational opportunities as appropriate for infants to senior citizens.

That which defines a good community can also be subjective. When our real estate agent showed us a house in Harwich Center, he first drove from Exit 10 to our neighborhood not down Route 124, the more direct route, but via Oak Street so that we saw the Harwich Community Center, the old Harwich High School, the baseball fields and Brooks Park, and the Brooks Free Library before visiting what became our neighborhood. Our decision to live in Harwich was based as much on these resources as on the house we bought.

Another aspect of a good community is harder to describe yet maybe more important. Harwich’s benchmarks speak to the physical, recreational, intellectual, cultural, security, employment, and economic needs of its citizens; is there a human need that is arguably more fundamental than these? One upon which the health and well-being of a town and its residents may actually depend?

Describing that aspect is a challenge, for this inherent need is addressed in different ways for each person and in each community. I have chosen the word “Sacred” to define those times, places, actions, things, and other aspects of a community that create a connection between the essence of who we are as persons and the larger whole of which we are a part. Experiencing the Sacred is how our inner being is made whole.

This story may offer an example of an experience of the Sacred. A young man serving in the Navy was on the midnight watch on his destroyer during a tropical storm in the Pacific Ocean. As he stood at the ship’s rail watching the fury of huge waves, he became aware of the small place he occupied in the wider universe that existed outside his ship, and beyond the ocean, planet and the solar system. This experience became the foundation for the life he would lead after he left the Navy.

How, then, is the Sacred experienced in Harwich? That is a subjective question answerable only by each individual. Intentional efforts to create a context for the Sacred are limited at best, for the Sacred is mostly known through ordinary times, sounds, objects and locations. However, there are some examples that suggest how the Sacred can become real in Harwich and its people.

Human traditions can connect its observers with the Sacred. In East Harwich is the “Praying Rock,” a location sacred to the Native Americans who once lived in this area. Hard to find and equally hard to visit, this site, along with the remains of a nearby trail and the Indian cemetery on Old Queen Ann Road, are remnants of an historic culture that did not differentiate between the sacred and the profane. Visiting them can evoke their experience of the Sacred in us today.

Memorials and monuments can also be places where the Sacred becomes real, as anyone who has visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., or Ground Zero in New York City, can attest. Located around the town of Harwich are numerous often overlooked, hard to locate, and rarely read monuments to important persons and events in its history. Some are decorated on patriotic holidays, but all are evidence that one source of the Sacred for any generation are the artifacts and reminders of its past.

Nature has always been invested with sacred meaning, as evidenced by the young sailor’s experience noted above. A walk in the Bell’s Neck area, in Thompson's Field, on one of Harwich’s beaches or the Cape Cod Rail Trail off-season can become an occasion to experience the Sacred. Observing the rising sun from Red River Beach, or a sunset from the bench some two-thirds of the way from Headwaters to Route 124 on the Rail Trail, can transform both into places where the Sacred is known.

An encounter with the Sacred may not result from personal intention or plan and experiencing it today may not be as easy as when times and places were more closely linked to the spiritual. Modern materialism often does not foster an awareness of what exists beyond that which money can buy. Yet a healthy community requires that its members be sound of body, mind, and – depending on the word we use – soul, spirit, psyche, personality, essence, being. Experiencing the Sacred – in Harwich’s times, places, things and events – feeds and nourishes what is arguably the most important and defining aspect of every human being.