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Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown by Michael Cunningham
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“Martha’s Vineyard had fossil deposits one million centuries old. The northern reach of Cape Cod, however, on which my house sat, the land I inhabited—that long curving spit of shrub and dune that curves in upon itself in a spiral at the tip of the Cape—had only been formed by wind and sea over the last ten thousand years. That cannot amount to more than a night of geological time. Perhaps this is why Provincetown is so beautiful. Conceived at night (for one would swear it was created in the course of one dark storm) its sand flats still glistened in the dawn with the moist primeval innocence of land exposing itself to the sun for the first time. Decade after decade, artists came to paint the light of Provincetown, and comparisons were made to the lagoons of Venice and the marshes of Holland, but then the summer ended and most of the painters left, and the long dingy undergarment of the gray New England winter, gray as the spirit of my mood, came down to visit. One remembered then that the land was only ten thousand years old, and one’s ghosts had no roots. We did not have old Martha’s Vineyard’s fossil remains to subdue each spirit, no, there was nothing to domicile our specters who careened with the wind down the two long streets of our town which curved together around the bay like two spinsters on their promenade to church.   NORMAN MAILER, from Tough Guys Don’t Dance”
Michael Cunningham, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown
“from Labor Day through Halloween, the place is almost unbearably beautiful. The air during these weeks seems less like ether and more like a semisolid, clear and yet dense somehow, as if it were filled with the finest imaginable golden pollen. The sky tends toward brilliant ice-blue, and every thing and being is invested with a soft, gold-ish glow. Tin cans look good in this light; discarded shopping bags do. I’m not poet enough to tell you what the salt marsh looks like at high tide. I confess that when I lived year-round in Provincetown, I tended to become irritable toward the end of October, when one supernal day after another seemed to imply that the only reasonable human act was to abandon your foolish errands and plans, go outside, and fall to your knees.”
Michael Cunningham, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown
“THE PILGRIM MOTHERS AND FATHERS Provincetown’s first settlers were, in fact, the Pilgrims, who sailed the Mayflower into Provincetown Harbor in 1620. They spent the winter there but, finding too little fresh water, sailed that spring to Plymouth, which has gone into the history books as the Pilgrims’ initial point of disembarkation. Provincetown is, understandably, not happy about this misrepresentation of the facts.”
Michael Cunningham, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown
“It is the Morocco of America, the New Orleans of the north.”
Michael Cunningham, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown
“If I die tomorrow, Provincetown is where I’d want my ashes scattered. Who knows why we fall in love, with places or people, with objects or ideas? Thirty centuries of literature haven’t begun to solve the mystery; nor have they in any way slaked our interest in it. Provincetown is a mysterious place, and those of us who love it tend to do so with a peculiar, inscrutable intensity.”
Michael Cunningham, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown
“LONG POINT LIGHT Long Point’s apparitional this warm spring morning, the strand a blur of sandy light,   and the square white of the lighthouse—separated from us by the bay’s ultramarine   as if it were nowhere we could ever go—gleams like a tower’s ghost, hazing   into the rinsed blue of March, our last outpost in the huge indetermination of sea.   It seems cheerful enough, in the strengthening sunlight, fixed point accompanying our walk   along the shore. Sometimes I think it’s the where-we-will-be, only not yet, like some visible outcropping   of the afterlife. In the dark its deeper invitations emerge: green witness at night’s end,   flickering margin of horizon, marker of safety and limit. But limitless, the way it calls us,   and where it seems to want us to come. And so I invite it into the poem, to speak,   and the lighthouse says: Here is the world you asked for, gorgeous and opportune,   here is nine o’clock harbor-wide, and a glinting code: promise and warning. The morning’s the size of heaven.   What will you do with it?   MARK DOTY”
Michael Cunningham, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown
“In a sense Provincetown is a beach. If you stand on the shore watching the tide recede, you are merely that much closer to the water and that much more available to weather than you would be in the middle of town. All along the bay side, the entire length of town, the beach slopes gently, bearded with kelp and dry sea grass. Because Provincetown stands low on the continental shelf, it is profoundly affected by tides, which can exceed a twelve-foot drop at the syzygy of sun, moon, and earth. Interludes of beach that are more than a hundred yards wide at low tide vanish entirely when the tide is high. The water of the bay is utterly calm in most weathers and warmer than that of the ocean beaches, but this being the North Atlantic, no water anywhere is ever what you could rightfully call warm, not even in August. Except in extreme weather the bay beach is entirely domesticated, the backyard of the town, never empty but never crowded, either; there is no surf there, and the water that laps docilely up against the shore is always full of boats. The bay beach is especially good for dogs”
Michael Cunningham, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown
“Wherever you go, Provincetown will always take you back, at whatever age and in whatever condition. Because time moves somewhat differently there, it is possible to return after ten years or more and run into an acquaintance, on Commercial or at the A&P, who will ask mildly, as if he’d seen you the day before yesterday, what you’ve been doing with yourself. The streets of Provincetown are not in any way threatening, at least not to those with an appetite for the full range of human passions. If you grow deaf and blind and lame in Provincetown, some younger person with a civic conscience will wheel you wherever you need to go; if you die there, the marshes and dunes are ready to receive your ashes. While you’re alive and healthy, for as long as it lasts, the golden hands of the clock tower at Town Hall will note each hour with an electric bell as we below, on our purchase of land, buy or sell, paint or write or fish for bass, or trade gossip on the post office steps. The old bayfront houses will go on dreaming, at least until the emptiness between their boards proves more durable than the boards themselves. The sands will continue their slow devouring of the forests that were the Pilgrims’ first sight of North America, where man, as Fitzgerald put it, “must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” The ghost of Dorothy Bradford will walk the ocean floor off Herring Cove, draped in seaweed, surrounded by the fleeting silver lights of fish, and the ghost of Guglielmo Marconi will tap out his messages to those even longer dead than he. The whales will breach and loll in their offshore world, dive deep into black canyons, and swim south when the time comes. Herons will browse the tidal pools; crabs with blue claws tipped in scarlet will scramble sideways over their own shadows. At sunset the dunes will take on their pink-orange light, and just after sunset the boats will go luminous in the harbor. Ashes of the dead, bits of their bones, will mingle with the sand in the salt marsh, and wind and water will further disperse the scraps of wood, shell, and rope I’ve used for Billy’s various memorials. After dark the raccoons and opossums will start on their rounds; the skunks will rouse from their burrows and head into town. In summer music will rise up. The old man with the portable organ will play for passing change in front of the public library. People in finery will sing the anthems of vanished goddesses; people who are still trying to live by fishing will pump quarters into jukeboxes that play the songs of their high school days. As night progresses, people in diminishing numbers will wander the streets (where whaling captains and their wives once promenaded, where O’Neill strode in drunken furies, where Radio Girl—who knows where she is now?—announced the news), hoping for surprises or just hoping for what the night can be counted on to provide, always, in any weather: the smell of water and its sound; the little houses standing square against immensities of ocean and sky; and the shapes of gulls gliding overhead, white as bone china, searching from their high silence for whatever they might be able to eat down there among the dunes and marshes, the black rooftops, the little lights tossing on the water as the tides move out or in.”
Michael Cunningham, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown
“Provincetown is by nature a destination. It is the land’s end; it is not en route to anywhere else. One of its charms is the fact that those who go there have made some effort to do so. Provincetown is three miles long and just slightly more than two blocks wide. Two streets run its entire length from east to west: Commercial, a narrow one-way street where almost all the businesses are, and Bradford, a more utilitarian two-way street a block north of Commercial. Residential roads, some of them barely one car wide, run at right angles on a semiregular grid between Commercial and Bradford streets and then, north of Bradford, meander out into dunes or modest hollows of surviving forest, as the terrain dictates. Although the town has been there since before 1720 (the year it was incorporated) and has survived any number of disastrous storms, it is still possible that a major hurricane, if it hit head-on, would simply sweep everything away, since Provincetown has no bedrock, no firm purchase of any kind. It is a city of sand, more or less the way Arctic settlements are cities of ice.”
Michael Cunningham, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown