Cape Cod–perhaps first visited by Vikings, but certainly by Nathaniel Gosnold–who named it for the abundance of cod fish in its waters–sits on the eastern edge of the state of Massachusetts. In the center of this peninsula that juts 60 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, lies the town of Barnstable. On Barnstable’s northern boundary is a barrier beach known as Sandy Neck. Sandy Neck is a crooked finger of land attached precariously to the rest of the Cape by a narrow joint, separating Barnstable’s working harbor from the sea. A bit over 100 acres of Sandy Neck is made up of a boggy, grassy ecosystem called The Great Marsh.
Summer at the Great Marsh is bleached white on the ground and faded blue overhead. Tiny cottages weathered gray by the salt air, are strung like beads along the road to Neck, their shutters flung open as if to offer conversation, their sun-bleached white curtains blowing in breeze like a blond’s sun-bleached tresses. Rosa rugosa grows along the roadside and clumps of Queen Anne’s lace and Black-eyed Susan fill the fields. Oak and sumac are here, their growth stunted by the winter storms off the Atlantic. You share the winding approach to the Neck with a corps of beach-goers, called by the sun and the smell of salt air to head for the sea.
Winter here is steel gray clouds and a strong easterly wind that takes your breath–as if you had fallen on your back off a swing. Deserted now, the cottages are void of speech. They sit, silent, anchored on their sandy cushions, as if in meditation. The roses are past their bloom. In their place, the sumac explodes red and the dune grasses wave in the wind. The foot traffic is lighter. Instead of beach goers and sun-seekers, there are bike riders and hikers. They are headed for the trails through the Great Marsh.
Entering the Great Marsh trails from the parking lot at Sandy Neck, it doesn’t take long before it seems as though the rest of Cape Cod has vanished. The cedar trees wrapped with hanging vines, the huge dunes that hug the trail on either side, evoke the feeling that you have gone through a portal into a small, hidden kingdom apart from the rest of the Cape.
No houses are visible from the trails. No people either. Beach sparrows flit over your head, calling their territorial songs. Higher up, gulls and osprey circle over the sea, looking for fish. The coyote lives here. Several large packs are sustained by the Marsh ecosystem, as well as by forays into surrounding neighborhoods where cats and small dogs are their favored prey. The coyotes are shy and nonaggressive with humans.
Late afternoon in the Marsh brings with it a special quality of light. It is the setting sun reflected upon the acres of deep green marsh grass that gives this light its luminous aura. Walking here in late afternoon, the light seems both to illuminate and to obscure. Shafts of blinding brightness penetrate each moving shadow, as if the movement is celestially choreographed.
Leaving the trails to enter into the Great Marsh is not encouraged. Nesting boxes for Northern Harrier and Osprey are placed there. Human proximity makes these raptors less likely to breed. Those compelled to venture off trail find thick grass, about three feet high, with the texture of scouring pads. Deep gray muck is under that. If your foot sinks into the muck, it can be difficult to extract. Once the Marsh gets you in its grip, it lets you go only reluctantly.