Nature Column 01.15

Winter has always been one of my favorite seasons here on Cape Cod. When I was a child the Cape pretty much shut down in the winter, something that drove my young, recently divorced mother crazy. She hated the quiet, the loneliness, the bleakness of the winter sea. She would take us for long beach walks on days when the wind wouldn’t rip all the skin off our faces, and she’d tell us happier, sunnier tales from her teenage years spent working summers on the Cape.

She loved summers here, especially the beaches, and so she agreed to move here when my father wanted to buy a small business in 1961. The business failed quickly and so did the marriage, but my mother, my little sister and I remained behind after my father fled, looking for success elsewhere along his road. Winters were cold and tough. Money was hard to come by, and we wore lots of layers to keep warm even in the house. And yet there was a coziness to huddling together in the same room under afghans and quilts as we read our books and cuddled with the cat and dog. There were stories to be read aloud and stories to reimagine, all in my mother’s melodious voice that soothed us if not herself. Food was simple and nourishing, and preparing it together in the warm kitchen was reassuring and even fun.

Summers were crazy busy with overtime work, swimming lessons, garden chores and visitors galore. Back in the day people camped out in our backyard when they came to visit, and it was impossible to find a moment to myself. Some uncle, aunt, cousin or friend of my mother was always there to talk my ear off, ask how I was doing and assure me everything would turn out all right. These were kind and generous people who repaired broken door hinges and fixed leaks in the roof. They changed the oil in my mother’s car and made sure the refrigerator was well-stocked. But for someone who preferred peace and quiet, it was all a bit overwhelming.

No one came to visit in the winter. It was too cold, too uninviting. And so it became my season. As soon as I could drive, I spent hours driving all over the Cape all winter long, discovering old potholed roads in Truro and Bourne, dirt roads in Wellfleet and Sandwich and all sorts of dead ends that ended up in interesting places that really weren’t dead at all. There was little traffic back then, even in Hyannis, and lots fewer year-round people, so my explorations usually went unnoticed, even when I may have been trespassing just a wee bit on some summer person’s property. In my own defense, there weren’t a lot of fences back then, so it was hard to tell sometimes.

Winter has changed on the Cape. It gets a little quieter, but not the way it used to. You probably don’t walk down the lane to your friend’s house and pass deer or ducks hanging out to cure from a tree or the side of a shed. There are traffic lights all over now, and double-lane roads in some areas. There are so many people walking at some beaches on sunny winter days it’s hard to remember when they were vacant no matter how nice the day was.

Pick a wild and windy day, however, or even one that is just cold and gray, and you can still have some beaches all to yourself, especially if you go early in the day. Woodland paths can be treacherous during hunting seasons, but wearing bright colors and knowing the peak times of day to stay clear is helpful. Obviously, I’m still here, so it’s not like everyone just gets shot at if they step into the woods.

As others bemoan the end of fall and the beginning of winter, you’ll find me pulling out the sweaters and the gloves, the wool socks and the lumpy old coats that are still warm and functional. Winter walking can be rough on coats. There are briars and vines, weed stalks and random branches that grab at you, so it’s not a time for pretty, fanciful coats or jackets.

Mostly I think I like the promise of wide-open spaces without other people that winter affords. You won’t find me in the crowds walking the beach at midday on a winter holiday. I’ll have walked at dawn when the wind was still bitter and the sky still stingy with sun or color.

I like to look out on the sea as far as I can see and see nothing but the sea. I like the sand to stretch out as if endless as well. I like my woodland paths unpaved and a little sloppy, no straight lines or contrived scenic-view spots.

There’s not much wild left on the Cape. I think one of the reasons I like winter is that it feels a little wild to me, still. There’s some uncertainty in the elements, some refusal to follow a predetermined trajectory. There could be ice, a fallen branch, a break in a sand dune or barrier sand bar. One must keep one’s wits not to fall or freeze. One must be willing to risk some discomfort to find the beauty and stillness that winter affords those who look for it.

Ah yes, winter is here. And right now, more than ever, I need those wide-open spaces where I can be alone, away from the noise and the crowds.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis.

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