Thoreau’s Cape Cod

Thoreau came to the Cape with the eye and mind of one who has lived an inland life and is more accustomed to fresh water than to salt. He had noted the unbroken miles of the outer sands on a map, and thought them a feature of geographical interest which it would be rewarding to explore. Once upon the Cape, however, he did not limit his attention to the outer beach but took note of everything on the entire peninsula which touched his curiosity and his imagination, especially the plants. By temperament, Thoreau was probably more of a botanist than an ornithologist; plants did not move and gave him time both to observe and to consider.

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I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude

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When he descended the earth-cliff at some point a little to the north of Eastham village and its “salt-pond,” Thoreau found what he had come to see. There lay the unbroken miles which had stirred his interest when he had seen them on the map, there stood the outer beach–the “back” beach to native Cape Codders–with the greenish breakers tumbling ashore through what must have been a not-too-heavy October rain.

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The gentle curving westward of the earthen rampart would even then have made impossible any complete vista northerly along the beach; it is a place where one must be content to see only a few miles ahead. Moreover, the day being wet but fit for walking, there surely stood at the distant end of the view that thickening and shapeless bound of rain and ocean mist, that seemingly fixed rounding of vapor towards which one walks but at which one never arrives, a feature which often gives so beautiful a quality of the mysterious to these oceanic sands.

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It is no wonder that the pilgrimage along the beach serves as the literary foundation of the earlier writings which were assembled to makeCape Cod, and I rejoice that my friend and colleague Mr. Dudley C. Lunt has so edited the text gathered together by Thoreau’s executors that the beach has regained its importance in the narrative. And in welcome addition to the traditional text there appears here the journal of the excursion in the month of June, 1857, when Thoreau walked the great beach alone and for the last time.

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This world is but a canvas to our imagination.

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