Dyer's Hollow
1891
Bradford Torrey
The Atlantic Monthly


I LIVED for three weeks at the "Castle," though, unhappily, I did not become aware of my romantic good fortune till near the close of my stay. There was no trace of battlement or turret, nothing in the least suggestive of Warwick or Windsor, or of Sir Walter Scott. In fact, the Castle was not a building of any kind, but a hamlet; a small collection of houses, — a somewhat scattered collection, it must be owned, — such as, on the bleaker and sandier parts of Cape Cod, is distinguished by the name of village. On one side flowed the river, doubling its course through green meadows with almost imperceptible motion. As I watched the tide come in, I found myself saying, —

"Here twice a day the Pamet fills,
The salt sea-water passes by."

But the rising flood could make no silence in the hills; " for the Pamet, as I saw it, is far too sedate a stream ever to be caught "babbling." It has only some three miles to run, and seems to know perfectly well that it need not run fast.

My room would have made an ideal study for a lazy man, I thought, the two windows facing straight into a sand-bank, above which rose a steep hill, or perhaps I should rather say the steep wall of a plateau, on whose treeless top, all by themselves, or with only a graveyard for company, stood the Town Hall and the two village churches. Perched thus upon the roof of the Cape, as it were, and surmounted by cupola and belfry, the hall and the "orthodox" church made invaluable beacons, visible from far and near in every direction. For three weeks I steered my hungry course by them twice a day, having all the while a pleasing consciousness that, however I might skip the Sunday sermon, I was by no means neglecting my religious privileges. The second and smaller meeting-house belonged to a Methodist society. On its front were the scars of several small holes which had been stopped and covered with tin. A resident of the Castle assured me that the mischief had been done by pigeon woodpeckers, — flickers, — a statement at which I inwardly rejoiced. Long ago I had announced my belief that these enthusiastic shouters must be of the Wesleyan persuasion, and here was the proof ! Otherwise, why had they never sought admission to the more imposing and, as I take it, more fashionable orthodox sanctuary? Yes, the case was clear. I could understand now how Darwin and men like him must have felt when some great hypothesis of theirs received sudden confirmation from an unexpected quarter. At the same time I was pained to see that the flickers' attempts at church-going had met with such indifferent encouragement. Probably the minister and the class leaders would have justified their exclusiveness by an appeal to that saying about those who enter "not by the door into the sheepfold;" while the woodpeckers, on their part, might have retorted that just when they had most need to go in the door was shut.

One of my favorite jaunts was to climb this hill, or plateau, the "Hill of Storms" (I am still ignorant whether the storms in question were political, ecclesiastical, or atmospheric, but I approve the name), and go down on the other side into a narrow valley whose meanderings led me to the ocean beach. This valley, or, to speak in the local dialect, this hollow, like the parallel one in which I lived, — the valley of the Pamet, — runs quite across the Cape, from ocean to bay, a distance of two miles and a half, more or less.

At my very first sight of Dyer's Hollow I fell in love with it, and now that I have left it behind me, perhaps forever, I foresee that my memories of it are likely to be even fairer and brighter than was the place itself. I call it Dyer's Hollow upon the authority of the town historian, who told me, if I understood him correctly, that this was its name among sailors, to whom it is a landmark. By the residents of the town I commonly heard it spoken of as Longnook or Pike's Hollow, but for reasons of my own I choose to remember it by its nautical designation, though myself as far as possible from being a nautical man.

To see Dyer's Hollow at its best, the visitor should enter it at the western end, and follow its windings till he stands upon the bluff looking out upon the Atlantic. If his sensations at all resemble mine, he will feel, long before the last curve is rounded, as if he were ascending a mountain; and an odd feeling it is, the road being level for the whole distance. At the outset he is in a green, well-watered valley on the banks of what was formerly Little Harbor. The building of the railway embankment has shut out the tide, and what used to be an arm of the bay is now a body of fresh water. Luxuriant cat-tail flags fringe its banks, and cattle are feeding near by. Up from the reeds a bittern will now and then start. I should like to be here once in May, to hear the blows of his stake-driver's mallet echoing and re-echoing among the close hills. At that season, too, all the uplands would be green. So we were told, at any rate, though the pleasing story was almost impossible of belief. In August, as soon as we left the immediate vicinity of Little Harbor, the very bottom of the valley itself was parched and brown; and the look of barrenness and drought increased as we advanced, till toward the end, as the last houses were passed, the total appearance of things became subalpine: stunted, weather-beaten trees, and broad patches of bearberry showing at a little distance like beds of mountain cranberry.

All in all, Dyer's Hollow did not impress me as a promising farming country. Acres and acres of horseweed, pinweed, stone clover, poverty grass*, reindeer moss, mouse-ear everlasting, and bearberry! No wonder such fields do not pay for fencing-stuff. No wonder, either, that the dwellers here should be mariculturalists rather than agriculturalists. And still, although their best garden is the bay, they have their gardens on land also, — the bottoms of the deepest hollows being selected for the purpose, — and by hook or by crook manage to coax a kind of return out of the poverty-stricken soil. Even on Cape Cod there must be some potatoes to go with the fish. Vegetables raised under such difficulties are naturally sweet to the taste, and I was not so much surprised, therefore, on a certain state occasion at the Castle, to see a mighty dish of string beans ladled into soup-plates and exalted to the dignity of a separate course. Here, too, — but this was in Dyer's Hollow, — I found in successful operation one of the latest, and, if I may venture an unprofessional opinion, one of the most valuable, improvements in the art of husbandry. An old man, an ancient mariner, no doubt, was seated on a camp-stool and plying a hoe among his cabbages. He was bent nearly double with age (" triple" is the word in my notebook, but that may have been an exaggeration), and had learned wisdom with years. I regretted afterward that I had not got over the fence and accosted him. I could hardly have missed hearing something rememberable. Yet I may have done wisely to keep the road. Industry like his ought never to be intruded upon lightly. Some, I dare say, would have called the sight pathetic. To me it was rather inspiring. Only a day or two before, in another part of the township, I had seen a man sitting in a chair among his bean-poles picking beans. Those heavy, sandy roads and steep hills must be hard upon the legs, and probably the dwellers there-about (unlike the Lombardy poplars, which there, as elsewhere, were decaying at the top) begin to die at the lower extremities. It was not many miles from Dyer's Hollow that Thoreau fell in with the old wrecker, "a regular Cape Cod man," of whom he says that "he looked as if he sometimes saw a doughnut, but never descended to comfort." Quite otherwise was it with my wise-hearted agricultural economists; and quite otherwise shall it be with me, also, who mean to profit by their example. If I am compelled to dig when I get old (to beg may I ever be ashamed!), I am determined not to forget the camp-stool. The Cape Cod motto shall be mine, — He that hoeth cabbages, let him do it with assiduity.

This aged cultivator, not so much "on his last legs" as beyond them, was evidently a native of the soil, but several of the few houses standing along the valley road were occupied by Western Islanders. I was crossing a field belonging to one of them when the owner greeted me; a milkman, as it turned out, proud of his cows and of his boy, his only child. "How old do you think he is?" he asked, pointing to the young fellow. It would have been inexcusable to disappoint his fatherly expectations, and I guessed accordingly: "Seventeen or eighteen." "Sixteen," he rejoined, —" sixteen!" and his face shone till I wished I had set the figure a little higher. The additional years would have cost me nothing, and there is no telling how much happiness they would have conferred. "Who lives there?" I inquired, turning to a large and well-kept house in the direction of the bay. "My nephew." "Did he come over when you did?" "No, I sent for him." He himself left the Azores as a cabin boy, landed here on Cape Cod, and settled down. Since then he had been to California, where he worked in the mines. "Ah I that was where you got rich, was it?" said I. "Rich! "—this in a tone of sarcasm. But he added, "Well, I made something." His praise of his nearest neighbor — whose name proclaimed his Cape Cod nativity — made me think well not only of his neighbor, but of him. There were forty-two Portuguese families in Truro, he said. "There are more than that in Provincetown?" I suggested. He shrugged his shoulders. "Yes, about half the people." And pretty good people they are, if such as I saw were fair representatives. One boy of fourteen (unlike the milkman's heir, he was very small for his years, as he told me with engaging simplicity) walked by my side for a mile or two, and quite won my heart. A true Nathanael he seemed, in whom was no guile. He should never go to sea, he said; nor was he ever going to get married so long as his father lived. He loved his father so much, and he was the only boy, and his father could n't spare him. "But did n't your father go to sea?" "Oh, yes; both my fathers went to sea." That was a puzzle; but presently it came out that his two fathers were his father and his grandfather. He looked troubled for a moment when I inquired the whereabouts of the poor-house, in the direction of which we happened to be going. He entertained a very decided opinion that he should n't like to live there; a wholesome aversion, I am bound to maintain, dear Uncle Venner to the contrary notwithstanding.

A stranger was not an every-day sight in Dyer's Hollow, I imagine, and as I went up and down the road a good many times in the course of my visit I came to be pretty well known. So it happened that a Western Islands woman came to her front door once, broom in hand and the sweetest of smiles on her face, and said, "Thank you for that five cents you gave my little boy the other day." "Put that in your pocket," I had said, and the obedient little man did as he was bidden, without so much as a side glance at the denomination of the coin. But he forgot one thing, and when his mother asked him, as of course she did, for mothers are all alike, "Did you thank the gentleman?" he could do nothing but hang his head. Hence the woman's smile and "thank you," which made me so ashamed of the paltriness of the gift (Thackeray never saw a boy without wanting to give him a sovereign!) that my mention of the matter here, so far from indicating an ostentatious spirit, ought rather to be taken as a mark of humility.

All things considered, I should hardly choose to settle for life in Dyer's Hollow; but with every recollection of the place I somehow feel as if its score or two of inhabitants were favored above other men. Why is it that people living thus by themselves, and known thus transiently and from the outside as it were, always seem in memory like dwellers in some land of romance? I cannot tell, but so it is; and whoever has such a picture on the wall of his mind will do well, perhaps, never to put the original beside it. Yet I do not mean to speak quite thus of Dyer's Hollow. Once more, at least, I hope to walk the length of that straggling road. As I think of it now, I behold again those beds of shining bearberry ("resplendent" would be none too fine a word; there is no plant for which the sunlight does more), loaded with a wealth of handsome red fruit. The beach-plum crop was a failure; plum wine, of the goodness of which I heard enthusiastic reports, would be scarce; but one needed only to look at the bearberry patches to perceive that Cape Cod sand was not wanting in fertility after a manner of its own. If its energies in the present instance happened to be devoted to ornament rather than utility, it was not for an untaxed and disinterested outsider to make complaint; least of all a man who was never a wine-bibber, and who believes, or thinks he believes, in "art for art's sake." Within the woods the ground was carpeted with trailing arbutus and a profusion of checkerberry vines, the latter yielding a few fat berries, almost or quite a year old, but still sound and spicy, still tasting "like tooth-powder," as the benighted city boy expressed it. It was an especial pleasure to eat them here in Dyer's Hollow, I had so many times done the same in another place, on the banks of Dyer's Run. Lady's-slippers, likewise (nothing but leaves), looked homelike and friendly, and the wild lily of the valley, too, and the pipsissewa. Across the road from the old house nearest the ocean stood a still more ancient-seeming barn, long disused, to all appearance, but with old maid's pinks, catnip, and tall, stout poke-berry weeds yet flourishing beside it. Old maid's pinks and catnip! Could that combination have been fortuitous?

No botanist, nor even a semi-scientific lover of growing things, like myself, can ever walk in new fields without an eye for new plants. While coming down the Cape in the train I had seen, at short intervals, clusters of some strange flower — like the yellow aster, I thought. At every station I jumped off the car and looked hurriedly for specimens, till, after three or four attempts, I found what I was seeking, — the golden aster, Chrysopsis falcata. Here in Truro it was growing everywhere, and of course in Dyer's Hollow. Another novelty was the pale greenbrier, Smilax glauca, which I saw first on the hill at Provincetown, and afterward discovered in Longnook. It was not abundant in either place, and in my eyes had less of beauty than its familiar relatives, the common green-brier (cat-brier, horse-brier, Indian brier) of my boyhood and the carrion flower. This glaucous smilax was one of the plants that attracted Thoreau's attention, if I remember correctly, though I cannot now put my finger upon his reference to it. Equally new to me, and much more beautiful, as well as more characteristic of the place, were the broom-crowberry and the greener kind of poverty grass (Hudsonia ericoides), inviting pillows or cushions of which, looking very much alike at a little distance, were scattered freely over the grayish hills. These huddling, low-lying plants were among the things which bestowed upon Longnook its pleasing and remarkable mountain-top aspect. The rest of the vegetation was more or less familiar, I believe: the obtuse-leaved milkweed, of which I had never seen so much before; three sorts of goldenrod, including abundance of the fragrant odora; two kinds of yellow gerardia, and, in the lower lands at the western end of the valley, the dainty rose gerardia, just now coming into bloom; the pretty Polygala polygama, — pretty, but not in the same class with the rose gerardia; ladies' tresses; bayberry; sweet fern; crisp-leaved tansy; beach grass; huckle-berry bushes, for whose liberality I had frequent occasion to be thankful; bear oak; chinquapin; chokeberry; a single vine of the Virginia creeper; wild carrot; wild cherry; the common brake, — these and doubtless many more were there, for I made no attempt at a full catalogue. There must have been wild roses along the roadside and on the edge of the thickets, I should think, yet I cannot recollect them, nor does the name appear in my penciled memoranda. Had the month been June instead of August, notebook and memory would record a very different story, I can hardly doubt; but out of flower is out of mind.

In the course of my many visits to Dyer's Hollow I saw thirty-three kinds of birds, of the eighty-four species in my full Truro list. The number of individuals was small, however, and, except at its lower end, the valley was, or appeared to be, nearly destitute of feathered life. A few song sparrows, a cat-bird or two, a chewink or two, a field sparrow, and perhaps a Maryland yellow-throat might be seen above the last houses, but as a general thing the bushes and trees were deserted. Walking here, I could for the time almost forget that I had ever owned a hobby-horse. But farther down the hollow there was one really "birdy" spot, to borrow a word — useful enough to claim lexicographical standing — from one of my companions: a tiny grove of stunted oaks, by the roadside, just at the point where I naturally struck the valley when I approached it by way of the Hill of Storms. Here I happened upon my only Cape Cod cowbird, a full-grown youngster, who was being ministered unto in the most devoted manner by a red-eyed vireo, — such a sight as always fills me with mingled amusement, astonishment, admiration, and disgust. That any bird should be so befooled and imposed upon! Here, too, I saw at different times an adult male blue yellow-backed warbler, and a bird of the same species in immature plumage. It seemed highly probable, to say the least, that the young fellow had been reared not far off, the more so as the neighboring Wellfleet woods were spectral with hanging lichens, of the sort which this exquisite especially affects. At first I wondered why this particular little grove, by no means peculiarly inviting in appearance, should be the favorite resort of so many birds, — robins, orioles, wood pewees, kingbirds, chippers, golden warblers, black-and-white creepers, prairie warblers, red-eyed vireos, and blue yellow-backs; but I presently concluded that a fine spring of. water just across the road must be the attraction. Near the spring was a vegetable garden, and here, on the 22d of August, I suddenly espied a water thrush teetering upon the tip of a bean-pole, his rich olive-brown back glistening in the sunlight. He soon dropped to the ground among the vines, and before long walked out into sight. His action when he saw me was amusing. Instead of darting back, as a sparrow, for instance, would have done, he flew up to the nearest perch; that is, to the top of the nearest bean-pole, which happened to be a lath. Wood is one of the precious metals on Cape Cod, and if oars are used for fence-rails, and fish-nets for hencoops, why not laths for bean-poles? The perch was narrow, but wide enough for the bird's small feet. Four times he came up in this way to look about him, and every time alighted thus on the top of a pole. At the same moment three prairie warblers were chasing each other about the garden, now clinging to the sides of the poles, now alighting on their tips. It was a strange spot for prairie warblers, as it seemed to me, though they looked still more out of place a minute later, when they left the bean-patch and sat upon a rail fence in an open grassy field. Cape Cod birds, like Cape Cod men, know how to shift their course with the wind. Where else would one be likely to see prairie warblers, black-throated greens, and black-and-white creepers scrambling in company over the red shingles of a house-roof, and song sparrows singing day after day from a chimney-top?

In all my wanderings in Dyer's Hollow, only once did I see anything of that pest of the seashore, the sportsman; then, in the distance, two young fellows, with a highly satisfactory want of success, as well as I could make out, were trying to take the life of a meadow lark. No doubt they found existence a dull affair, and felt the need of something to enliven it. A noble creature is man, —"a little lower than the angels! Two years in succession I have been at the seashore during the autumnal migration of sandpipers and plovers. Two years in succession have I seen men, old and young, murdering sandpipers and plovers at wholesale for the mere fun of doing it. Had they been "pot hunters," seeking to earn bread by shooting for the market, I should have pitied them, perhaps, — certainly I should have regretted their work; but I should have thought no ill of them. Their vocation would have been as honorable, for aught I know, as that of any other butcher. But a man of twenty, a man of seventy, shooting sanderlings, ring plovers, golden plovers, and whatever else comes in his way, not for money, nor primarily for food, but because he enjoys the work! "A little lower than the angels"! What numbers of innocent and beautiful creatures have I seen limping painfully along the beach, after the gunners had finished their day's amusement! Even now I think with pity of one particular turnstone. Some being made "a little lower than the angels" had fired at him and carried away one of his legs. I watched him for an hour. Much of the time he stood motionless. Then he hobbled from one patch of eel-grass to another, in search of something to eat. My heart ached for him, and it burns now to think that good men find it a pastime to break birds' legs and wings and leave them to perish. I have seen an old man, almost ready for the grave, who could amuse his last days in this way for weeks together. An exhilarating and edifying spectacle it was, — this venerable worthy sitting behind his bunch of wooden decoys, a wounded tern fluttering in agony at his feet. Withal, be it said, he was a man of gentlemanly bearing, courteous, and a Christian. He did not shoot on Sunday, — not he. Such sport is to me despicable. Yet it is affirmed by those who ought to know — by those, that is, who engage in it — that it tends to promote a spirit of manliness.

But thoughts of this kind belong not in Dyer's Hollow. Rather let me remember only its stillness and tranquillity, its innocent inhabitants, its gray hills, its sandy road, and the ocean at the end of the way. Even at the western extremity, near the railway and the busy harbor, the valley was the very abode of quietness. Here, on one of my earlier excursions, I came unexpectedly to a bridge, and on the farther side of the bridge to a tidy house and garden; and in the garden were several pear-trees, with fruit on them! Still more to my surprise, here was a little shop. The keeper of it had also the agency of some insurance company, — so a signboard informed the passer-by. As for his stock in trade, — sole leather, dry goods, etc., — that spoke for itself. I stepped inside the door, but he was occupied with an account book, and when at last he looked up there was no speculation in his eyes. Possibly he had sold something the day before, and knew that no second customer could be expected so soon. We exchanged the time of day, — not a very valuable commodity hereabout, — and I asked him a question or two touching the hollow, and especially "the village," of which I had heard a rumor that it lay somewhere in this neighborhood. He looked bewildered at the word, — he hardly knew what I could mean, he said; but with a little prompting he recollected that a few houses between this point and North Truro (there used to be more houses than now, but they had been removed to other towns, — some of them to Boston!) were formerly called "the village." I left him to his ledger, and on passing his house I saw that he was a dealer in grain as well as in sole leather and calico, and had telephonic communication with somebody; an enterprising merchant, after all, up with the times, in spite of appearances.

The shop was like the valley, a careless tourist might have said, — a sleepy shop in Sleepy Hollow. To me it seemed not so. Peaceful, remote, sequestered, — these and all similar epithets suited well with Longnook; but for myself, in all my loitering there I was never otherwise than wide awake. The close-lying, barren, mountainous-looking hills did not oppress the mind, but rather lifted and dilated it, and although I could not hear the surf, I felt all the while the neighborhood of the sea; not the harbor, but the ocean, with nothing between me and Spain except that stretch of water. Blessed forever be Dyer's Hollow, I say, and blessed be its inhabitants! Whether Western Islanders or "regular Cape Cod men," may they live and die in peace.

* In looking over the town history, I was pleased to come upon a note in defense of this lowly plant, on the score not only of its beauty, but of its usefulness in holding the sand in place; but, alas, "all men have not faith," and where the historian wrote Hudsonia tomentosa the antipathetic compositor set up Hudsonia tormentosa. That compositor was a Cape Cod man, — I would wager a dinner upon it. "Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges," I hear him mutter, as he slips the superfluous consonant into its place.

Bradford Torrey.

Dyer's Hollow. Bradford Torrey. 1891. The Atlantic Monthly 68(407): 313-319