Preserving their words
Museum exhibit finds inspiration in three of Cape's best nature writers
FROM THE CAPE WEEK MAGAZINE SECTION OF THE CAPE COD TIMES, FRIDAY, AUG. 8, 2008
BY LAURIE HIGGINS
It started with YouTube.
One of the missions of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster is to work on collaborative efforts and share resources with like-minded organizations. So when executive director Robert Dwyer saw a video on the YouTube Web site about the 30th anniversary of the so-called Outermost House, the beachfront bungalow that inspired the classic Henry Beston book of the same name, being washed out to sea, he saw a wonderful opportunity.
He contacted Don Wilding, executive director and co-founder of the Henry Beston Society, to see if he would help the museum put together an exhibit about some of Cape Cod’s most influential nature writers. The exhibit, “A Sense of Place: The Works of Beston, Hay and Finch,” is running through Dec. 20.
“We have a series of generations of nature writers on Cape Cod, and it is the passing of the baton from one generation to another,” Dwyer says. “That’s what I was interested in.”
That passing of the baton is very apparent in the exhibit. The sections feature timelines of authors’ lives and achievements, copies of their books, handwritten manuscript pages and other memorabilia. Beston’s display re-creates the feeling of the Outermost House with a table with a jar of pencils on top. The pencils are replaced by an old Royal typewriter in John Hay’s portion, which in turn is upgraded to a computer keyboard in Robert Finch’s.
A major theme of the exhibit is the necessity to preserve nature so that future generations can experience what these writers did. “The Outermost House” is cited as one of the major influences for the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore, and Hay and Finch helped to preserve huge swatches of land in Brewster for conservation. Hay is a founder of the museum of natural history and served as its president for 25 years. He was one of the early presidents of the Brewster Conservation Commission and a driving force behind acquiring the acres of salt marshes near the museum and the 140-acre refuge of Wing Island. He and his wife, Kristi, also donated 60 acres of their own land to conservation.
Finch was co-chairman of the Brewster Conservation Commission from 1980 through 1987 and of the Brewster Land Acquisitions Commission from 1984 through 1987. He helped the town acquire many of the parcels of land that are now the 800-acre Punkhorn Parklands.
Part of the exhibit features large aerial maps of Brewster that highlight just how extensively these writers contributed to preserving open space.
Chatham graphic artist Garry Gates designed the exhibit by building on his interpretation of the common themes he saw in the vastly different writing of the authors’ works.
“My take on everything they said was that nature was like a vast romantic power struggle,” he explains. “It’s a very powerful thing and, at the same time, it’s incredibly fragile, so those were the key words when I went in and started to design it.”
Freelance writer Greg O’Brien, who is also the editor and president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political communications consulting company in Brewster, wrote and edited the text for the exhibit with the help of museum trustees Sue Carr and Beth Finch and the Henry Beston Society.
O’Brien believes the importance of the exhibit is to preserve that sense of place because, without it, Cape Cod becomes just another suburb.
“We get so tied up in our day-to-day lives that we forget where we’re living,” he says. “Good writers like Hay and Beston and Finch, they’re like a mirror. They reflect what Cape Cod is all about and why we’re here. That’s why people need to pay attention to their work. They paint beautiful word pictures of the sense of place on Cape Cod.”
The museum still subscribes to Hay’s vision that the most important things that happen there don’t happen in the building. Dwyer encourages all museum patrons to be “citizen scientists.”
“You don’t have to be a trained scientist,” he says. “All you have to do is understand what scientists do, which is the observation, making notations, keeping journals for personal interest and your own sense of wonder.”
He hopes that sense of wonder will create a new generation of Cape Cod nature writers, but even if not inspired to write, there is plenty that people can do to preserve the beauty.
“Not everyone can write like these authors ... but then the call to action is, what can you do within your own community, the same as these authors?” Dwyer says. “They didn’t just write about it. They moved forward and they made a difference by preserving this land.”