Castles of Sand:
Thoreau on the Seashore

by Leila Hatch, Ph.D.

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Cape Cod

      "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality." - Walden
In this famous paragraph, from his most famous work, Henry David Thoreau sums up the lessons he learned while living beside Walden Pond from July, 1845 to September, 1847. Although the messages in Walden seem inescapably bound to the forest ramblings and quiet life in the woods which inspired them, Thoreau expands his setting steadily throughout this paragraph from a single apple-tree or oak, to a ship in a treacherous sea. Such maritime allusions permeate Thoreau's writing. Impassioned by the intense nautical activity which surrounded him in Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century, Thoreau often sought the edge of the sea, walking the length of Cape Cod on four separate occasions from 1849 to 1857. In Cape Cod, the book inspired by these visits, Thoreau heralds the seashore as a middle ground between nature and civilization where our vision of the human voyage can stretch beyond the horizon. Thoreau's deep attachment to the sea stemmed from his love for Concord and New England, both of which were at the center of maritime activity during the great American age of sail.

[2]      From 1812 on into the 1860s and the 1870s, the principle concern of coastal men was the building and sailing of wooden ships. It was the age of spar tangled harbors, long voyages, tall clipper ships, elaborate scientific expeditions, far-seeking explorer-traders, prosperous whalers and sealers, and frequently scheduled coastwise and transatlantic expeditions. The great decades of whalers out of Nantucket and New Bedford were the 1840s and the 1850s, and the harbors of Plymouth, Gloucester, Wellfleet and Provincetown supported huge fishing fleets which scoured the Grand Banks. Clipper ships ran regularly to California and China with weathered navigators rounding the treacherous Cape Horn seasonally, and the great Cunard Line began its transatlantic steam passenger service in 1840 (Bauer, 46). New England was still American's cultural base, and the northeast states were steeped in the maritime world centered chiefly in Boston. Long Wharf, Boston harbor's center of commerce, sent ships to cover the globe, dominating the Northwest fur trade and trade with California (Bauer, 23). Frontier fever urged further exploration, and trade followed each new discovery, opening up new areas for trade in whales, seals, tea, spices, sandalwood, furs, tortoise, and pearl shells.

[3]      The sea dominated America's popular imagination. Captain Robert Gray's voyages on the Columbia out of Boston Harbor were still fresh in the young country's memory. Gray sailed to the Northwest coast for furs, then continued around the world, becoming the first American to circumnavigate the globe in 1792. Thoreau's day witnessed and read about numerous expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic poles. Sir John Franklin's voyage to the shores of the Arctic Sea spawned thirty-nine search and rescue missions in the following ten years. These expeditions, both British and American, turned the map of the North American Arctic from a bland void into a grim representation of islands, straits and seas (Bauer, 52). Dr. Elisha Kane's accounting of the Franklin voyages published in 1856 "lay for a decade with the Bible on almost every parlor table in America" (Bauer, 56).

[4]      Thoreau was born into a sea-faring family. Many of his maternal relations were sailors, sea captains and sail makers, and his paternal grandfather, Jean Thoreau, was a privateer (Salt, 3). After his nautical career during the Revolution, Jean Thoreau set up a business on Boston's famous Long Wharf where he sold ship stores and gear before moving to Concord in 1800 for the last years of his life (Salt, 5). The Concord of Thoreau's youth, though seventeen miles inland, remained close to the sea. Boston's every-growing maritime commerce drew Concord into the hub. In "Life Without Principle", Thoreau describes himself as a Concord sailor boy "sauntering in my native port" pondering the advertisements for able-bodied seamen and dreaming of embarking on his first voyage as soon as he was of age (Life; see also, Bonner, 13). The sea was never far from Concord's consciousness. Daily reminders were both cultural and natural. The nautical world dominated local gossip and newspaper articles, and Thoreau often encountered seafaring people in and around Concord. In Cape Cod , Thoreau tells the story of a boyhood friend who asked his master if he could be excused to go fishing, was granted permission, and then disappeared for three months fishing on the Grand Banks (Cape Cod). Old families in the small town were strewn with fishermen, sailors, sea captains, and US Navy personnel, and folklore and legends of the sea permeated the town's oral tradition. Thoreau's favorite song was "Tom Bowline", a sea chantey taught to him by his mother (Bonner, 18).

[5]      Natural phenomena also constantly linked Concord and Thoreau to the sea. The yearly migration of shorebirds and spawning fish were constantly under his scrutiny, and the local rivers, the Concord and the Merrimac, were seen as extensions of the sea. "Our town, after all, lies but farther up a creek of the universal sea", he comments in his Journal (Journal, 77). In the beginning of Cape Cod, Thoreau warns the reader that "having come so fresh to the sea, I have got but little salted. My readers must expect only so much saltiness as the land breeze acquires from blowing over an arm of the sea, or is tasted on the windows and bark of trees twenty miles inland, after September gales" (Cape Cod). The salty air in Concord traces the continued presence of the sea, invisibly permeating Thoreau's landscape. As evidenced by the frequent use of maritime allusion throughout his works and especially in the accounting of his shoreside confrontations on Cape Cod, the ocean was a primary force in Thoreau's vision the natural world.

[6]      In 1849, Thoreau walked the length of Cape Cod with his friend the poet Ellery Channing. The material from this trip, originally developed as a course of lectures, provided the basis for the book Cape Cod, which was published in 1865, almost three years after his death. Thoreau returned to the Cape three more times in his life in the summers of 1850, 1855 and 1857. Unlike Walden, Cape Cod was fairly well received when it was originally presented in a lecture series in 1849 and magazine vignettes in 1855 (Salt, 68). The loosely arranged style and lightness of tone with which Thoreau relates his easy-going rambles on the beach evoked laughter from his audiences in lecture halls (Moldenhauer, 249). Over time, however Cape Cod has become known as a nautical form of Walden, a record of a spiritual quest. Thoreau opens his account of the Cape trips with the simple statement that he went to the shore four times in order "to get a better view than I had yet had of the ocean, which, we are told, covers more than two-thirds of the globe" (Cape Cod). The reader is prone to consider these new sea-side experiences as separate from his previous inland accounts, but Thoreau is quick to connect them:

I have been accustomed to make excursions to the ponds within ten miles of Concord, by latterly I have extended my excursions to the sea-shore.

I did not see why I might not make a book on Cape Cod, as well as my neighbor on "Human Culture." It is but another name for the same thing, and hardly a sandier phase of it.(Cape Cod)

[7]      Thoreau sees his continuing quest to understand the natural world as a kin to the age-old desire by humans to understand their history and development. The scope of the book encompasses both nature and culture because Thoreau's curiosity about the sea is directly linked to his struggle to understand the relationship between humans and the natural world. Through his visits to Cape Cod, Thoreau discovers the seashore as a place where humans live in constant awareness of nature as the ultimate creator and destroyer of life. According to Thoreau, it is those who recognize themselves as a part of the ocean's infinite cycling who live in the greatest balance between culture and nature, matter and spirit.

[8]      Although the scenes presented in Thoreau's Cape Cod are compiled from his views of the Cape on four separate visits, the sea is continuously stormy throughout Thoreau's tale. Thoreau recognizes that the sea can be placid, however a civil view of the sea is associated with the inexperienced landsman and he walks the beach to lose "the pond-like look which it wears to a countryman" (Cape Cod). Only in the harsher weather of the fall and winter "may we get the impression which the sea is calculated to make" (Cape Cod). In its anger, the sea's vast size and untamable power are inescapably evident. Fences and roads along the shore are temporary, almost ironic human constructions which exist only as long as the sea permits. Thoreau is quick to deflate the reader's image of his route along the shore as a permanent fixture, calling it "a mere cart-track in the sand. . . continually changing from this side to that" (Cape Cod). Historically, roads have traced the progress of civilization through nature. By the sea such human paths are hardly distinguishable from the landscape and are quickly swept away by the ever-shifting tides.

[9]      The ocean flows beyond all human boundaries of time and space. The uninterrupted horizon leads Thoreau's eye all the way to Spain and the European coastline (Cape Cod). Borders between countries and continents become meaningless in the expanse of such an interconnected, fluid medium. Thoreau compares his own view of the Atlantic with Darwin's view of the ocean from the base of the Andes mountains and Homer's descriptions of the Mediterranean Sea as if time is no barrier to potential common experience. Disregarding the passage of time completely, "Thor-eau" wonders whether his vision of the dunes would match those of his Icelandic ancestor "Thor-finn" who explored the Cape Cod coastline two hundred years before (Cape Cod). Generations of Thoreau's family have come and gone but remain connected by their continuing relationship with the sea. The sea's presence on earth is infinite whereas human existence is only transitory.

[10]      Not only does the sea extend limitless through time and space on earth, it also merges with the universe beyond the planet's surface. The falling rain and the wind-agitated waves produced by the storm blur the physical boundary between the sea and the atmosphere, as "the wind seemed to blow not so much as the exciting cause, as from sympathy with the already agitated ocean" (Cape Cod). The waves and the wind are convergent forces aware of each others' moods and motions. Water and air are no longer confined to their separate spheres and the ocean is drawn closer to the heavenly sky. Thoreau's emphasizes this mixing of spheres by portraying the streaming breakers as the manes of the Greek sea god Neptune's wild horses (Cape Cod).

[11]      Thoreau's descriptions of marine flora and fauna further support the link between the sea and the mystical heavens. Plant and animals from the sea are portrayed as having "a certain fabulous quality, as if they belonged to another planet" (Cape Cod). Immense strips of kelp weed, amorphous and yet beautiful sea-jellies and remnant shells cast off by phantom inhabitants all seem to be traces of organisms that lived and died by different rules than those which are known to land-dwelling humans.

[12]      The sound of the ocean which fills the air and can be "heard several miles inland" (Cape Cod) is a continuous reminder of the sea's dominance over man's creations, a hierarchy most vividly portrayed in Thoreau's description of a shipwreck off the coast of Cohasett. Thoreau walks along a rocky shore strewn with pieces of the dead ship and its passengers. The power of the sea to destroy any creation, human or natural, is an inescapable reality. Masses of bodies lie strewn on the beach, but Thoreau does not feel fear or sadness, for "If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?" (Cape Cod). There is no place for the individual and the human self in the face of the sea's inconceivable forces and untamable power. As the breakers toss up the dead of two worlds, marine life ravaged by the waves and terrestrial life drowned and mangled, the shore becomes a giant morgue. The beasts of the land and the sea lie together in droves, stripped clean of all the significance they may have held in life by the majesty of the deadly ocean. Only the dead can understand the natural order of the sea.

Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them, in fact, only a slight inequality in the sweep of the shore. . . They were alone with the beach and the sea whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my sniveling sympathies. (Cape Cod)
Whereas in life Thoreau hears only the sea's hollow roar, death removes all barriers between humans and nature, and the sea's language becomes discernible.

[13]      Although the ocean erases the worth of all human creations, it is not purely a destructive force. The works of man are often simply broken down to be reused. Throughout his Cape Cod rambles, Thoreau meets numerous wreckers scouring the beaches for wood from broken ships and distant forests in order to build their homes and light their fires. The sandy soil of the Cape cannot sustain trees. The Cape inhabitants depend solely on the driftwood the sea brings them for shelter and warmth. Shipwreck, the ultimate image of the sea's destructive force, becomes a source of bounty as well. (Cape Cod)

There is no telling what [the sea] may vomit up. It lets nothing lie; not even the giant clams which cling to its bottom. It is still heaving up the tow-cloth of the Franklin, and perhaps a piece of some old pirate's ship, wrecked more than a hundred years ago, comes ashore to-day. (Cape Cod)
[14]      The sea mixes fragments of such unfamiliar bedfellows as ancient ships and giant clams and dumps them in renewed array on its shores in a constant process of recreation. Strict humans schedules for the arrival and departure of ships are worthless in the face of the ocean's dynamic force, but all ships do finally come ashore when the sea decides that it is time. Humans contain their dead in graves in an effort to retain control over their bodies after death. However, in seaside villages visited by Thoreau most graves simply account for corpses lost at sea. The ocean controls the destiny of these bodies.
The Gulf Stream may return some to their native shores, or drop them in some out-of-the-way cave of Ocean, where time and the elements will write new riddles with their bones. — But to return to land again. (Cape Cod)
[15]      The ocean does not follow the linear path of the conventionally accepted human lifetime. The dead are the building blocks for new life born of the sea. The earth's flora and fauna is destroyed and reconstructed in new patterns of life, as the ocean, with its rhythmic churning action, is constantly mixing the elements in a ceaseless cycle of recreation.

[16]      As the site for both death and rebirth on this planet, the ocean is again linked to the heavenly forces. Thoreau cites the new geologic evidence of his time stating that the earth was once completely covered with water, and that the land eventually emerged from this global ocean. For this reason, he calls the sea "the laboratory of continents" (Cape Cod), an image which seems to flaunt the power of nature to create awesome land masses compared to human science's much less grandiose laboratory developments. Thoreau gives nature religious prowess. The ocean is an extension of God, the original creator.

[17]      Not only is life on earth a part of the ocean's infinite cycling of elements, but the land itself is also in constant flux. As Thoreau watches the waves eat away at the shoreline, he is aware that the Cape is in constant motion.

The islands in Welfleet Harbor once formed a continuous beach, though now small vessels pass between them. And so of other parts of this coast. Perhaps what the Ocean takes from one part of the Cape it gives to another, — robs Peter to pay Paul. (Cape Cod)
[18]      As the creator and destroyer of the continents, the sea takes on roles of biblical importance. Although the ocean created all land, it is the coastline where the constant activity and change directed by the natural forces of the ocean are most inescapably apparent. The sea's motions are other-worldly in their origins and cannot be understood or controlled by humans. Those who live dependent on the sea must therefore unconditionally except their dynamic environment, and live in a similar state of constant activity and change.

[19]      Thoreau watches the fleets of mackerel and herring schooners move up and down the cape, stopping at port only to empty their hulls of fish before returning to the sea. The small coastal communities made up of the families of fishermen and sailors recognize that the sea holds not only their livelihood but their lives in its balance. Thoreau finds this constant awareness of Nature as the ultimate provider and destroyer to be central to the native people of the Cape. The fishermen, the wreckers, and the lighthouse keepers whom he meets along his rambles, by living so closely with the sea, are as in tune with the ocean's natural order as humans can hope to be. Thoreau's description of a wrecker he meets on the beach as having "bleached and weather-beaten flesh — like one of the clay boulders which occurred in that sand-bank" (Cape Cod) clearly links this native shoresman to his environment. The ocean has had the same effect on the wrecker and his clothes as it has had on the shore, making him hardly distinguishable from the sand surrounding him. Life by the sea has blurred the line between man and his environment. Such transcendence is also apparent in a young Cape boy's inability to distinguish the rhythm roaring of the sea. "He would have more plainly heard the same sound in a shell" (Cape Cod). The boy is so used to the sea's sound that it has become a part of his inner self. Thoreau, a newcomer to the sea, hears the ocean plainly as a separate entity. In Wellfleet, Thoreau meets an old oysterman who has spent his life near the sea. Thoreau stood with him and watched a fish-hawk feeding over the ocean.

"There," said I, "he has got a fish."
"Well," said the old man, who was looking all the while, but could see nothing, "he didn't dive, he just wet his claws."
And sure enough, he did not this time, though it is said that they often do, but he merely stooped low enough to pick him out with his talons.
(Cape Cod)
The old man can no longer see the osprey, but his life has brought him so close to the creatures of the sea that he understands their behavior instinctually. The sea has become a part of him.

[20]      Thoreau sees the same unconditional acceptance of the sea's mystical force in the famous explorers and navigators of his time. Exploration of the land throughout time has been a means for conquering wild nature. Oceans, however, were never the focus of civilization's expansion, they were the obstacle; the barrier to the discovery of new lands. Because humans are unable to live within the unruly expanse of water which covers the planet, Thoreau sees the sailors who navigated the seas in a different light. Like the natives of the coastline, they too live in constant submission to nature.

I could then appreciate the heroism of the old navigator, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, of whom it is related, that being overtaken by a storm when on his return from America, in the year 1583, far northeastward from were we were, sitting abaft with a book in his hand, just before he was swallowed up in the deep, he cried out to his comrades in the Hind, as they came within hearing, "We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land." I saw that it would not be easy to realize. (Cape Cod)
[21]      The sailors realize that the ocean, in its ability to take and create life, holds as much power as the landsman's heavenly God. In the minds of navigators, these powers are inextricably linked. Life on a ship, therefore, means living on the edge between two converging worlds: the natural world and all its mysteries, and the human world of commerce and imposed order. Thoreau extends the image of the ship to include the coast, calling the Cape "a sort of store-ship laden with supplies, — a safer and larger craft which carries the women and the children, the old men and the sick" (Cape Cod). Living on the seashore is but an extension of life at sea. Like a boat bobbing on the waves, the constantly shifting coastline is defined by the balancing forces of culture (represented by the fisherman's family and community and by the use of commerce terms such as "store-ship" and "supplies"), and nature. As Thoreau stood on the narrow Cape he remarked that it was like "being on the deck of a vessel, or rather at the masthead of a man-of-war, thirty miles at sea" (Cape Cod). It is from this position that Thoreau strives to contemplate the world; not only held in the balance between land and sea, but on the edge of that balance, on the deck of the world.

[22]      In comparing the seashore to the inlands, Thoreau ranks nature according to its wildness.

Between the high and low water mark, where [dry land] is partially disrobed and rising, a sort of chaos reigns still, which only anomalous creatures can inhabit . . . Theirs must be an essentially wilder, that is, less human, nature than that of the larks and robins. (Cape Cod)
[23]      The dry land has lost contact with its chaotic, primitive roots, but the seashore remains linked to the beginning of life on earth. The primordial sea precedes human evolution, and therefore the nature of the seashore remains wild; without human influence. Thoreau presents a hierarchy of wildness ranging from the sea as the origin of the wild, to the transitional wild seashore, to the domesticated wild of the continental inlands. The songs of the larks and robins are sung freely in Concord, Massachusetts or by the banks of Walden Pond, but they are not in harmony with the essential wildness of the sea's roar, and therefore they are tame compared to the cries of the gulls Thoreau hears on the beaches of Cape Cod. No terrestrial nature can touch the age-old wilderness of the sea.
We do not associate the idea of antiquity with the ocean, nor wonder how it looked a thousand years ago, as we do of the land, for it was equally wild and unfathomable always. . . The ocean is a wilderness reaching around the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle, and fuller of monsters, washing the very wharves of our cities and the gardens of our sea-side residences. (Cape Cod)
[24]      Faced with the ocean's eternal time scale, Thoreau is forced to reassess the very concept of wilderness. The ocean is the ultimate wilderness, for although a Bengal jungle is untouched by humans, the sea is forever untouchable. This new definition of wilderness challenges Thoreau's previous writings about terrestrial nature.

[25]      In Walden, Thoreau goes to the woods "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life" (Walden). The answers to Thoreau's questions about life were to be answered in the woods surrounding Walden Pond; an isolated patch of forest where he could escape the increasing citification of the east coast. America's nineteenth century Industrial Revolution was driven by society's desire to civilize its wild places and distance itself from its chaotic, wild roots. Thoreau believed that by doing so, American culture would loose sight of the essential connection between humans and the natural world. The farmer knows that nature can create or destroy, but the city dweller lives within a culturally-constructed bubble of insulation, where humans do not have to be reminded of their relationship with their environment. Thoreau blamed civilization's definition of progress as the lessening of people's daily dependence on nature for food and shelter for the growing acceptance of the destruction of the American wilderness. Like the Native Americans and the farmers of the New England hills, the native sea folk Thoreau meets on his trips to Cape Cod are forced to preserve their connection to nature. However, the distinction between the nature of the land and the nature of the sea remains evident, as "serpants, bears, hyenas, tigers, rapidly vanish as civilization advances, but the most populous and civilized city cannot scare a shark far from its wharves" (Cape Cod). According to Thoreau, the immense and timeless ocean wilderness will never be conquered by human civilization.

[26]      Thoreau's experiences at Walden, where he struggled to maintain his connections with the land as his provider, are completely transcended by his experiences on Cape Cod, where he is brought into renewed contact with the ultimate creator and the beginning of life on earth. Seafarers retain their ties with the original biblical voyage: "To go to sea! Why, it is to have the experience of Noah, — to realize the deluge. Every vessel is an ark" (Cape Cod). Through their constant connection to the sea, mariners are ever conscious of the emergence of all life from the great flood that covered the earth. Since the seashore is simply an extension of a ship's deck, those who confront the ocean where it meets the land are able to transcend their own insignificant lives, and live as a part of a greater destiny, that of the mystical cycle of nature begun with Noah and extending beyond the horizon.

[27]      Thoreau went to Cape Cod to become acquainted with the sea — to understand the meaning of such a vast nature and to learn all it could teach him. Unlike his experience on Walden Pond, Thoreau does not immerse himself in the life of a shoresman, but instead makes short trips to the Cape and then returns to his inland home in Concord. In Cape Cod, therefore, we are presented with the impressions of a visitor to the shore. Thoreau does not articulate an active message to his readers until the final sentence of the book:

Here is the spring of springs, the waterfall of waterfalls. A storm in the fall or spring is the time to visit it; a light-house or a fisherman's hut the true hotel. A man may stand there and put all America behind him. (Cape Cod)
[28]      In language strikingly similar to the travel literature so abundant in his time, the ocean is presented as the ultimate spring and grandest waterfall, both popularized vacation and tourist sites. Thoreau seems to be heralding the ocean as a better vacation spot than Yellowstone Park's Old Faithful or the Niagara Falls. Whereas Walden teaches the reader to develop a relationship with nature slowly and deliberately, in Cape Cod, the message of the sea is available much more readily and with far less effort on the part of the seeker. Furthermore, in Walden Thoreau urges the reader to find their own path to understanding nature but in this final sentence of Cape Cod he gives the reader a recipe that, if followed, promises to bring the traveler a clearer vision of human destiny. At first this ease of access seems to trivialize the image of the ocean as the ultimate wilderness, but it is Thoreau's limited relationship with the sea and not a lesser reverence for marine nature that is the source of this final message. Whereas Thoreau sought to live off the land like a farmer and understand the forests like the Native Americans had, he never stayed long enough on the seashore to mimic the sailor or the oysterman. He continues to hear the sound of the waves roaring against the shore throughout his visits to the Cape, a sound which is no longer distinguishable to the natives of the coastline. Thoreau recognizes that he is only a tourist, and for this reason he can only address his readers on this level. Although to the purist such a casual relationship with nature may hold less meaning than the lessons Thoreau learned at Walden, it is a useful model for modern times, in which total immersion in wild nature is difficult to impossible. As human cultures become increasingly distanced from their environments, the quest to know nature may become as simple as a walk on the beach.

Works Cited:

  • Bauer, Jack K. A Maritime History of the United States: the Role of America's Seas and Waterways. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
  • Berthold, Dennis. Deeper Soundings: The Presence of Walden in Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World. Ed. Patricia A. Carlson. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1986.
  • Bonner, Willard H. Harp on the Shore: Thoreau and the Sea. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
  • Christie, John A. Thoreau as a World Traveler. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.
  • Salt, Henry S. Life of Henry David Thoreau. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
  • Thoreau, Henry D. Cape Cod. HTML Editor, Richard Lenat, Thoreau Reader
  • -----. Journal 2: 1842-1848. Ed. Robert Sattelmeyer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
  • -----. Walden. HTML Editor, Richard Lenat, Thoreau Reader

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