There’s not a lot of wilderness left on Cape Cod. One could make a pretty fair argument for no wilderness at all, but the sea and dunes might disagree, vehemently in fact. The land may be filled with houses, shops, cars, and parking lots but the sea is still wild and untamed, no matter how many boats float upon her.
Our peninsula is small and narrow, curved and mostly flat. Our trees tend to be stunted by slashing winds full of salt, and those that continue to grow tall and strong tend to be found on the upper Cape. Stately white pines that tower over the forest still abound in certain state wildlife areas there, mostly thanks to the indigenous Wampanoag Tribe that looks after them.
Most of our wildness is found at the shore. As we stand on a beach looking out over the sea, the horizon often blends with the sky in the distance and our dreams and wishes sail like clouds over the waves no matter how young or old we may be. The ocean remains a mystery to most of us, a path we have not traveled. It both thrills and frightens us when waves pound the sand, stirred up by storms and powers we cannot see. It calms us when the waves quiet and the sea appears still and mirror-like, but we know that deep below there is still life and the possibility of a sudden ruckus.
Walking the beach is an age-old pastime. It is an easy path to follow. We just walk along where the water meets the land. The dunes beyond the waterline, however, offer a different landscape, a more challenging path. Many dunes are now off limits to walkers, but when I was a child we could run and romp in the dunes everywhere on the Cape, and we did. It was easy to feel like a child lost in a desert back then, and on a recent walk on an established trail through the dunes in the Province Lands I was reminded of that feeling. Even though one can hear the roar of the ocean in the distance and see and hear planes overhead, it feels lonely and isolated, wild and unpredictable. One never knows what will be over the next big sandy hill, though after a while we can be pretty certain it will be another big sandy hill. Wildlife in the dunes is sparse but fierce. We may come upon a coyote or red fox hunting, a hognosed snake slithering through the sand looking for a toad dinner, or a weasel hunting for mice. It is one of the only places left on the Cape that feels truly wild, for me at least.
Most of our woodlands and meadows are now part of either the National Seashore or local conservation areas and are filled with paths. Some paths are old cart roads, some are former animal paths widened with human use. It is rare to find an undiscovered, undisturbed area here anymore. Our paths are well maintained and well trod for the most part. We are far from the only walkers that use these paths, but if you plan it right you may be alone for the duration of your walk. That is, alone in human terms.
I’ve come across many wonderful and even surprising things on my lone travels on paths through the woods. There have been deer, red foxes, weasels, raccoons, owls, an occasional coyote that disappeared like a wispy shadow, box turtles and snakes. Some stopped and stared at me as if to remind me that I was an interloper, but mostly we simply stopped and acknowledged each other as we shared a space momentarily.
In the meadows one is quickly reminded of all the small animals and birds that live in or depend on this rich environment. Voles, mice, even shrews may cross my path as I walk though these fragrant areas. At this time of year sparrows and bluebirds are feeding on the ground while cedar waxwings, goldfinches, and red-winged blackbirds are feeding on the taller plants such as thistle and goldenrod.
Butterflies know no boundaries and can be found flitting from flower to flower on sunny days as if the meadow was a personal playground. Grasshoppers and crickets jump about as do pickerel frogs and occasional toads. As I follow a weedy path and hear a kestrel call overhead I am reminded that this is their space, not mine. This path may be human made but it is temporary in their world, something that disappears when unused.
Many of our pathways, and I include roads in this, are also used by wildlife. Paths mean an animal uses less energy to make its way from one place to another and it is not unusual to find prints of many animals along our well-used paths, especially if you go early in the morning after a rain, before human and dog tracks obliterate subtle signs of wildlife.
September is a time full of gathering in the world of nature and is an excellent time to get outside and see what we can see. With so many paths available to us, it is easy to find our way back to a bit of wild.
As most humans seek automobiles and paved roads to get to there from here, I head to the paths least worn by human feet. It is there that I feel at home, at peace, at one with this still wild but weary world.
We are killing off our wilderness day by day in the name of human development and sustenance. Enjoy what little wild is left while you can and walk the unpaved paths into the woods and meadows.