A wild, rank place: one year on Cape Cod by David Gessner

By David Gessner

A tender author confronts lifestyles, loss of life, and literary ancestors amid the stark fantastic thing about Cape Cod.

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The only part of the house that still shows any fighting spirit is its ridge, the roof beam. This single board runs below the roof like a spine. As with the ridges of many houses on the Cape, it had been steamed and bowed; it arcs like the back of a frightened cat. Alone it strains against the house's collapse, against the downward pull. As a spectator of this slow-moving battle, my emotions are mixed. I root for the vegetation, but love the house. I grew up under this roof, and for the next year will once again be a squatter, living and writing, on my father's land.

Few, if any, natural areas of comparable size on the continent have been written about as extensively or well. The fact is Thoreau and others have permanently altered what I see. Their quotes are as much a part of the landscape as Page 11 the bayberry bushes, and I can't consciously uneducate myself. My adventure is imaginatively filled out by adventures past, my life here partly plagiarism. How much does my knowledge of Thoreau alone in his cabin inform my time in my own? How much of my love of this place was born of books?

Two weeks ago my last tests, my lipoproteins and final CAT scan, told me I was clean. At that point I knew I had to come here. The Cape for me means health, and today I feel strong, sprung from a cage, ready to conquer the world on my own terms. "First be a good animal," wrote Emerson. That dictate will guide me through the year. Of course, if the doctors had told me I was going to die, I would have come here anyway. I'd sleep and write and eat. I'd work out fanatically: swimming, walking, running, riding.

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