Friday morning, Paine Hollow, Wellfleet, Mass.
No American ever had a better year than Thomas Paine did in 1776. That’s a pretty presumptuous thing to say, but I believe it, all the same. And since I’m the jury on this one, nobody’s going to change my mind about it, either.
Paine was plucked out of obscurity in England by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is someone I’ve always admired, simply because he was the most prominent American at the time of the Revolution. The king would have loved to make an example out of Franklin for his treason against the British crown. But Franklin added his name to the Revolutionary cause, and that took a lot of courage which I’ll never take for granted. But his suggestion that Paine should cross the Atlantic was an even greater gift to the cause of independence from Great Britain.
I’m on Cape Cod for another week, and even if it’s not where the battles of 1775 were fought, it’s hard not to feel the history in this place. And so, as I’ve driven by signs on Route 6 pointing motorists toward Paine Hollow, I knew I had to come and see it at some point. And this morning I finally did it.
I don’t know for certain that Paine Hollow is named after the author of Common Sense and the man who is thought to have coined the phrase ‘The United States of America.” I’m going to act on this assumption, though, because the name isn’t a very common one. So, as far as I know, someone once appreciated Paine’s contribution to the American cause–that of writing words that were traitorous and treasonous and could have resulted in his execution had the Revolution gone a different way–enough to name a shell bed on Cape Cod in his honor.
Old Paine Hollow Road resembles a driveway more than anything else. You drive along it, hoping that you haven’t wandered on to someone’s driveway by mistake. And eventually it just comes to a dead end, high up above a scene that I wish I could properly describe. I’ll do my best, but it won’t do it justice. Not even close.
The tides come in here on Cape Cod, and they go back out again. And when they do, they leave behind sandy beaches filled with hermit crabs. The crabs scurry away at the site of anyone coming, which gives them their name, I suppose. There’s a line of dead grasses to mark where the water was the night before, and as you walk on the beach you try to imagine what it must look like when the tide is in and there’s water everywhere.
Nature calls the tune at a place like this, and people just have to live with it. They build houses–very large houses, that I could see–up on bluffs, overlooking the hollow itself. But there’s no disturbing what nature does in this space. Not only are shellfish harvested and sold to markets and restaurants, but the cycle of life perpetuates itself, day after day, century after century, for as long as we’re all fortunate enough to be here.
I live in a city that raised itself up, literally, out of a swampy marsh. I also live near a place where the flow of a river was reversed, so that sewage could float away from the Great Lakes rather than into it. I work in an office building that defines urban sprawl, meaning that a parking lot sits where birds and other wildlife once roamed free. So this type of cooperation with nature, and even deference to it, is refreshing to me. And it just happens to be named for my favorite founding father, to boot. I like it.
Paine may or may not have ever seen this particular place, but he would probably identify with it if he had. Suburban sprawl around Houston or Phoenix or Las Vegas, he wouldn’t recognize. But this place he would. And I have to believe that’s the best tribute to him of all.