Ballston Beach on 18 January 2022.

To live on Cape Cod near the Atlantic — to fall in love with this place — requires one to frequently wrestle impermanence. You learn to accept that erosion is inevitable, relentless, with a rhythm that defies human time. In short order, it becomes clear grief is the companion of our love.

I posted this photograph to Instagram yesterday, and the responses feel like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief: There’s an impulse to blame the owners — How could they build so close to the edge?!? Others recollect — I love that beach, I remember when… Many want to make a deal with nature — Surely they can move the house!! Some deflect with gallows humor. Others voice powerlessness. And a few accept this is the course of things. 

Pilings from the house that was taken down after a storm in 2018. Ballston Beach, 18 January 2022.

Years before Ballston became my neighborhood beach, I fell in love with it. In 2018, after hearing the house on the bluff next to this one had been imperiled by another storm, I’d driven from Provincetown to see. By coincidence I’d run into my friend Mark Adams, who at the time was a cartographer for the National Seashore. He quickly disabused me of my grief for the house by helping me to see other shifts in the landscape — specifically how the sand was deepening at the dune’s breach just above the headwaters of the Pamet River. Six feet, he said. In some places the sand was now six feet deeper. Provincetown, the shimmering sandbar at the tip of Cape Cod, is literally the result of the shifting, eroding coastline of the outer beaches. We can’t have one without the other.

Cape Cod has been eroding since the glacier receded. There’s an argument to be made that  this process is being exacerbated by Atlantic storms that are stronger and more frequent, and that this is the result of climate change. While science is still collecting that data, to me this argument feels true. But I’m also willing to accept that my perception of Cape Cod’s erosion is affected by my increasingly insistent sense of mortality. This house, this dune is surrogate for the many losses I’ve carried, and reminds me of the losses yet to come.

I’m told the ell on my house — that holds my kitchen and bedroom — was once part of the Pamet River Life Saving Station at Ballston Beach. It would have sat on land now perhaps 150 yards into the Atlantic. I take comfort in knowing that the people who hauled that cottage up South Pamet Road one-hundred years ago very likely felt the same things about the eroding coastline that I feel. Their Ballston Beach is long gone, and mine is going. I hope they loved their beach, their fleeting time in this place as much as I love mine.

Field Guide: Walking & Painting on Cape Cod 
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