At the Threshold of Chaos: Henry Thoreau on Cape Cod, by Elizabeth Kalman with Nicholas Holdgate

Driftwood on Nauset Beach. Photograph by Elizabeth Kalman.

Henry David Thoreau’s encounter with Cape Cod begins with a scene of chaos. He writes, “…we found that the Provincetown steamer, which should have got in the day before, had not yet arrived, on account of a violent storm; and, as we noticed in the streets a handbill headed, ‘Death! 145 lives lost at Cohasset!’ we decided to go by way of Cohasset.”1 Coming upon the wreck of the brig St. John, Thoreau is confronted with a vast morgue, and is stunned by the chaotic destruction rendered to the ship by the sea. “The largest timbers and iron braces were broken superfluously, and I saw that no material could withstand the power of the waves; that iron must go to pieces in such a case, and an iron vessel would be cracked up like an egg-shell on the rocks” (7). The shipwreck becomes a symbol of a fragile, eggshell-like barrier between life and death. Thoreau is thus forced to consider this violent dichotomy on the shoreline, grappling to understand the dynamics of the sea and the shore as a kind of existential threshold.

Breeches Bous

At the time Thoreau was making his observations at the shore, the science of thresholds was just beginning to be understood.2 Thresholds are essentially places of change—from one habitat to another, from safety to danger, or out of one element and into another. The poet Gregory Orr says, “Poets are drawn to and write from their thresholds, either the inner or the outer. In order to write well, a poet needs to go to that place where energy and intensity concentrate, that place beyond which chaos and randomness reign. The sea or ocean is perhaps the essential image from the outer world for disorder, and one of the best examples of a threshold in the natural world is a beach.”3 The creative energy that Thoreau draws from the threshold of the beach drives his chronicle of life on Cape Cod. As Robert Richardson points out, “The book’s real focus is not so much on the ocean as on the shore, the coast, the beach, the region between the ocean and the land, a region Thoreau finds wild and strange.”4 According to Richard Bridgman, “The seashore was a reassuringly objective place,” for Thoreau, “one that fulfilled its role without sentimentality and with a ferocious directness,”5 that appealed to his sensibilities as a poet and naturalist.

This is the Thoreau we find in Cape Cod, one who appreciates the coast as a place of both natural beauty and seemingly senseless tragedy. This tension haunts him as he seeks to describe the Cape. According to Robert Thorson, “Thoreau had to keep his rudder properly trimmed between poetry to starboard, and science to leeward. Such ‘steering’ was a lifelong struggle for him, perhaps because the ocean of his experience with Nature was broader than for most of us, or because his waves of feeling were stormier.”6 In his final, unfinished excursion narrative, Thoreau is faced with a quandary as he tries to reconcile his neutral ground as a writer, sensing an existential tension where the untamable sea washes up human death along with rocks and seashells on the threshold of the beach.

From the time I was a small girl until my family moved to Nantucket in 1972, I spent my summers on the Cape. Not until graduate school did I read Cape Cod and find a passion for Thoreau’s writings. I passed my battered copy of Cape Cod on to my son, Nick, knowing he too would enjoy Thoreau’s journey to the Cape. Like Thoreau, both of us are observers of nature who find endless fascination with the beach. Visitors flock to Cape Cod’s beaches every year to escape summer heat and daily stress and to enjoy time with family and friends. As islanders, however, we know that beaches are also the slim space between life and death during times of storms and shipwrecks. Summer residents convince themselves that the beach will always remain as tranquil as it is on a sunny day in July, while those of us who live on the Cape and the Islands have watched as houses built on eroding cliffs tumble into the surf during winter storms. The shoreline, with its unyielding nature, has always been the place where life is either preserved in the arms of rescuers or extinguished in the cold water of a nor’easter in the midst of a shipwreck.

Thoreau first walked the Outer Cape in 1849, and began composing his first passages for lectures and essays on Cape Cod in 1852. During this time, he pondered a poetry and philosophy of nature. In his journal dated January 26, 1852, Thoreau writes, “Poetry implies the whole truth. Philosophy expresses a particle of it.”7 The poet of Cape Cod looks at the breakers and sees a thundering herd, “like droves of a thousand wild horses of Neptune, rushing to the shore, with their white manes streaming far behind” (45). Meanwhile the natural philosopher notes, “The wind seemed to blow not so much as the exciting cause, as from sympathy with the already agitated ocean. The waves broke on the bars at some distance from the shore, and curving green or yellow as if over so many unseen dams, ten or twelve feet high, like a thousand waterfalls, then rolled in foam to the sand” (44). The beach becomes the threshold between the land and the sea, and as he walks along, Thoreau alternates between his scientific account and poetic imagery, striving to find some unity between the two.

View of Minot’s Ledge Light from Sandy Beach, Cohasset, Massachusetts. Photograph by Thomas Guiney.At the center of Cape Cod is an idea of the beach as a threshold of creative energy: “The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world” (147). The poet in Thoreau writes about the steady sound of the surf produced by the natural phenomena he observes. “The reader must not forget that the dash and roar of the waves were incessant” (100), he says. The music of natural sounds is vital to Thoreau’s depiction of the shore. The surf is the ever-present soundtrack of the beach, bringing rhythm, meter, and incantation as it pounds the shore. In the breakers and wind there are sibilance and assonance, and the cry of the piping plovers haunts him: “Their voices, too, are heard as a fugacious part in the dirge, which is ever played along the shore for those mariners who have been lost in the deep” (55). A true native of the dune line, the piping plover chirps above the wind and the waves in eternal rhythm with the coast.

Thoreau reflects on the relationship between the fixed land and the fluid ocean, which is one of massive energy transfer. “Being on another part of the coast one night since this,” he says, “I heard the roar of the surf a mile distant, and the inhabitants said it was a sign that the wind would work round east, and we should have rainy weather. The ocean was heaped up somewhere at the eastward, and this roar was occasioned by its effort to preserve its equilibrium” (76-77). A decade after Thoreau’s death, the mathematical understanding of waves was just being investigated by French mathematician and scientist Joseph Boussinesq.8 Wave energy is the product of cosmic and terrestrial forces. Swells of water are traveling energies, much like light. Bent at the shore’s edge as though passing though a lens or prism, the energy stored in a traveling swell is condensed by the rising sea floor that causes it to build and consolidate until there is a critical amount of energy, which overcomes gravity and discharges. For Thoreau, the eternal process of energy transfer is a fact worth pondering.

Much of what Thoreau discovers about the Cape he learns through his encounters with “wreckers.” The wreckers lived at and by the threshold, always at the mercy of the energy of the ocean. At the time of Thoreau’s visits to Cape Cod, these coastal residents lived within earshot of the roar of the surf, using the dunes and squat trees to protect the small cottages they lived in from the ferocious thrashing of the sea during storms, sometimes in huts the same size as Thoreau’s at Walden Pond. Wreckers were often witnesses to the tragedies of the era as bodies and cargo washed ashore. Thoreau “parlayed” with many a wrecker, gleaning bits of fact and lore from the men. He describes one such Cape Cod man: “[he had] a bleached and weatherbeaten face—within whose wrinkles I distinguished no particular feature. It was like an old sail endowed with life . . . like a sea-clam with hat and legs, that was out walking the strand” (45). Theirs was the primary form of commerce on the shore. These men scavenged the beach for the cargo washed ashore from shipwrecks. Virtually anything that washed up had value, everything from barrels of apples to luggage, or rags to tow-cloth.

Humane House on Cape Cod

As he makes his way along the Cape, Thoreau is haunted by the tragic history of shipwrecks off the shore. Philip Gura writes, “The sea’s indifference to man numbs Thoreau—until he learns the lesson he repeats frequently in the course of his narrative: that people who live close to the sea must accept its raw, inhuman power without sentimentality.”9 Throughout his journey, Thoreau carries with him “some pages,” a booklet titled A Description of the Eastern Coast of the County of Barnstable (1802), which holds a wealth of information for him as he walks. For example, there is a list of the locations of Humane Houses, or Charity Houses, places of refuge for the survivor of a shipwreck and a description of what one might expect to find there for preservation, like firewood and matches. He consults the booklet from time to time, ruminating about the fate of the shipwrecked sailor. He writes, “I have read this Shipwrecked Seaman’s Manual, with a melancholy kind of interest—for the sound of the surf, or you might say, the moaning of the sea, is heard all through it—as if the author were the sole survivor of a shipwreck himself” (49). Indeed, the purpose of the pamphlet was to help protect a shipwrecked mariner, by offering practical advice to both get the man to shore and then guide him to a hut for shelter. Two thousand copies were printed and “dispersed among the several Customhouses and Insurance Offices in this Commonwealth.”10 Highlight Light, Truro, Massachusetts. Photograph by Elizabeth Kalman.

The violence of shipwrecks moves Thoreau to consider the fate of the soul in a world of chaos. From a beach in Chatham, on the wild Atlantic side of the Cape, Thoreau reports:

I saw a sloop from Chatham dragging for anchors and chains just off this shore. Men are regularly paid for their industry, to hunt to-day in pleasant weather for anchors which have been lost,—the sunken faith and hope of mariners, to which they trusted in vain. If the roadsteads of the spiritual ocean could be thus dragged, what rusty flukes of hope deceived and parted chain cables of faith might again be windlassed aboard! But that is not treasure for us which another man has lost; rather it is for us to seek what no other man has found or can find,—not be Chatham men, dragging for anchors. (127-128)

This meditation becomes a trope common to Thoreau’s worldview. Stop searching for material wealth, for when discovered it may well become the seeker’s spiritual undoing. He compares the roadstead—the place near shore where a ship can anchor in safety—to the illusion of spiritual safety. Men have used faith and hope in God in vain, only to discover when put to the test they were of no use to them; nevertheless, he tells his reader to go forth and chart your own expedition. What good was the mariner’s faith in his anchor or his hope that God would save him? This is described by Robert Pinsky, in his introduction to the Princeton Edition, as a kind of “mock sermon” (xv): “The giving of pathos and sympathy and then taking them away is a repeated gesture of Cape Cod, keeping the reader off balance, suggesting a conventional sermon and then denying it” (xiv). The “mock sermon” is thus a genre by which Thoreau may illustrate the spiritual chaos he experiences. Although he vacillates between the spiritually deficient practice of searching for treasure (to enrich either the body or soul) and the exhortation to go forth, Thoreau still concludes there is something to be found of great worth, of value unique to the man who makes the search.

At the existential threshold of the beach, there is no guarantee of safety—but there is rhapsodic grandeur. Thoreau can barely contain himself, shouting, "The annals of this voracious beach! Who could write them, unless it were a shipwrecked sailor?" (128) “Seamen, shipwrecked at full sea, ought to remain on board till near low water,” the “pages” tell us, “for the vessel does not then break to pieces; and by attempting to reach land before the tide ebbs away, they are in great danger of being drowned” (D 14-15). Any soul who tries to cross that threshold where water meets sand does so at peril. “Judicious mariners” know this truth, but the souls on board the ship need to be reminded because “amidst the agitation and terror of a storm, they too frequently forget” (15). Thoreau writes, “I found that it would not do to speak of shipwrecks there, for almost every family has lost some of its members at sea . . . . The stranger and the inhabitant view the shore with very different eyes. The former may have come to see and admire the ocean in a storm; but the latter looks on it as the scene where his nearest relatives were wrecked” (125-126). Thoreau “the stranger,” in his enthusiastic quest for details from the local “inhabitants,” commits what he feels is a tactless blunder for the sake of telling their tragic stories.

Title page for _A Description of the Eastern Coast of the County of Barnstable_ (1802)

Ultimately, Thoreau arrives at a place of hope, the Highland Light, which becomes the focal point of positive, creative energy, “a place of wonders” (137). The lighthouse serves to protect ships as it illuminates the darkness of the sea and guides mariners safely along the coast. Thoreau spends the night in a room provided to him by the lighthouse keeper and finds it brilliantly lit all night by the lamps of the beacon. He writes, “I thought as I lay there, half awake and half asleep, looking upward through the window at the lights above my head, how many sleepless eyes from far out on the Ocean stream—mariners of all nations spinning their yarns through the various watches of the night—were directed toward my couch” (138). Thoreau on his bed imagines himself to be a beacon, one which emits a brilliant light to warn off ships, a point of connection to the men at sea. Light is streaming in and out, and both the poet and natural philosopher are infused with an expansive, optimistic vision of humanity illuminating the dark world. This is the culmination of the challenge he faces as poet-naturalist, to interpret the fruit of his philosophic studies to enlighten his reader about the ambivalence of our earthbound existence.

Thoreau quite accurately predicts that one day Cape Cod would become, “a place of resort for those New-Englanders who really want to visit the sea-side” (214), complete with the “tenpin alley” and “circular railway.” In his opinion, the best time to visit will always be amidst “a storm in the fall or winter” and the best place to stay “a lighthouse or a fisherman’s hut.” Today, the “bare and bended arm” that protects the bay from the ocean in all its ferocity remains a place of inspiration where, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him” (215). Writers and sojourners on the beach ourselves, Nick and I also embrace the energy at the edge of the sea.

We are truly grateful to Mark Gallagher for his editorial assistance, and wish to thank him for all the time and energy he devoted to this essay. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Thoreau Annual Gathering and at the Nantucket Atheneum in 2013.

• Elizabeth Kalman is an essayist who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. Nicholas Holdgate is a physician training in rheumatology at Duke Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.



1 Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer, with a new introduction by Robert Pinsky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 4; hereafter cited parenthetically.

2 The work of Augustin-Jean Fresnel and Georg Ohm, for example, applied the idea to light and electricity. Coincidentally, both men would play a role in the creation of the modern lighthouse. (The Fresnel lens is named after its inventor.) In medicine, Emil du Bois- Reymond and Hermann von Helmholtz discovered the electrical action potentials in neurons.

3 Greg Orr, Poetry As Survival (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 56.

4 Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 202.

5 Richard Bridgman, Dark Thoreau (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 187.

6 Robert M. Thorson, Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014).

7 Thoreau, Journal, Volume 4: 1851-1852, eds., Leonard N. Neufeldt and Nancy Craig Simmons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 291.

8 See Joseph Valentin Boussinesq, “Théorie de l’intumescence liquide...,” in Comptes Rendus... de l’Academie des Sciences (Gauthier-Villars: Paris, 1871), 72: 755–759; and Boussinesq, “Théorie des ondes et des remous...,” in Journal de Mathématiques Pures et Appliquées (Paris, 1872) Deuxième Série 17: 55–108.

9 Philip Gura, “Cape Cod,” in The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, ed., Joel Myerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 143-4.

10 James Freeman, A Description of the Eastern Coast of the County of Barnstable (Boston: Hosea Sprague, 1802), 2; hereafter cited as D.