We live in a very special place within the Cape Cod National Seashore, a place people like to keep to themselves. We had already lived in Truro (two-thirds of which lies protected within the Seashore) for five years and had never even heard of these special woods which straddle Truro and Wellfleet. One gorgeous September Sunday, we were returning from an emergency visit to the vet and saw signs for an “open house.” We decided to have a look, especially as the signs reminded us that our dear friend (and now 3Harbors colleague) Nick Norman, was hosting the “open house.” Driving into the woods, we were instantly captivated by the quiet beauty all around. Though it was the weekend just after Labor Day, it felt as if we had the whole of the Outer Cape to ourselves. We saw the house, made an offer and, long story short, are now relishing over eight years of “living in the Seashore.”
Despite the quiet (a half dozen cars a day down our road during the summer is practically grid lock!), we discovered what a lively and interesting history had our woods. During an impromptu visit our first summer, a former resident regaled us with stories about boozy clothing-optional parties back in the 60s and 70s. We also heard from new neighbors about the illustrious writers and thinkers who’d been denizens of the woods over the decades. The modern chapter of life in what we now know as the National Seashore began in the late 1920s, when Jack Phillips inherited 800 acres on the Wellfleet-Truro line from his uncle.
Phillips, a direct descendent of Boston’s first mayor and the family which founded Phillips Exeter and Andover, moved year-round to a cabin on Horseleech pond in the early 30s. He had spent time in Paris studying painting under Leger and became friendly with artists and proponents of European Modern Architecture. With the onset of World War II, many of these intellectuals fled the Nazis and landed in Cambridge. Some also found their way to Cape Cod and purchased land from Jack Phillips. Emigré architects Serge Chermayeff and Marcel Breuer built Modernist dwellings. Activist publisher and economist Dwight MacDonald, historian Arthur Schlesinger, the critic Charles Jencks and artist Paul Resika also had simple cottages in the woods. They were all part of a summer colony which was a veritable who’s who of post-war “creatives”.
In the summer, the ghosts of these amazing people mix and mingle with a sprinkling of latter-day journalists, painters, and academics. Brainy conversation still thrives at lively but very low-key parties, where chatter is just as likely to center on history, art and geopolitics, as it is on food, fashion or fishing. We treasure the sounds of splashing water and laughter from the kettle ponds which punctuate the sunny languid days. In the winter, the shorn trees exhibit every shade of gray, and the days alternate between quiet snow and endless howling wind. Even so, the underlying effect of the long winters is not of loneliness but of a profound, almost enchanting solitude. You always know the loveliness of summer and summer visitors will return. But in the winter, the whole of this special world is yours alone. In any season, though, we are grateful beneficiaries of those responsible for creating the National Seashore in 1961. We do our best to protect these woods as they nurture us—just as they nurtured those who came before.
(For more information on the modernist tradition in the Wellfleet woods, please visit the website of Cape Cod Modern Home Trust at www.ccmht.org.)