The word itself is a little skyline: it’s long and flat with a few
prominences, the way the town looks as you descend the last glacial hill in Truro and it all lies out
in front of you, with Long Point edging away like it’s trying to get to someplace else.
Growing up here, I learned early on that Provincetown’s spiral of sand was formed last,
from the dregs of the great movements of ice, long after the rest of Cape Cod. The Cape Cod Bay
Ice Lobe pinched together the brows and furrows of the rest of Cape Cod, forming those scowling
and solid citizens of dirt: Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro. And there it stopped, with the
moraine at High Head. 10,000 years ago, Provincetown began to appear, a separate, young formation
made of detritus, of Truro’s ribs broken down and piled up in ridges one after the other.
The rhythm of the place was set in motion then: build up, break down, and rebuild, over and over
again, whether it’s sand or whales or fish, or its many peoples coming and going.
I like to imagine the harbor at the very beginning—
the watery void where my hometown will later be.
There’s the wait to come into being. The snowy, icy, nonland,
the white nothingness, the milky meltwater, absent
human feeling or memory. Then it’s half-built, weakkneed,
waterlogged. An appendage, an afterthought,
an accessory. Nameless, once. No one’s, once. Even
later, the human world of this sandbar will be temporary
at first; it’s hard to settle, slow to incorporate, a latebloomer.
I imagine Long Point when it first appeared,
cupping slowly back toward itself—the harbor a whorl,
an ear, the inside of a shell, water, and finally, a pulse.
Before the town was finally incorporated in 1727, the boundary with Truro in the East End was
said to be marked by the jawbone of a whale set beside a red oak stump. Some part of my family has
made its living within this old boundary, along this crescent shoreline, since at least 1808. When I moved
away in my twenties, I wrestled with knowing that I might be abandoning the old life, one that could teach
me something. I look out at the harbor between the boundaries of Long Point and the new town line when
I visit today, and I can almost see the schooners the old ones captained in a crowded harbor of white sails,
hear the creak of the windmills of the salt works, touch the dories washed and stacked on deck after a
long voyage, and watch the trap boats coming in full of fish and low in the water. The rhythm I hear is
build up, break down, rebuild.
The resident artists and writers of this town are constantly inventing new metaphors for Long Point.
Depending on mood, temperament, and skill, the point is a tendril or fist, an embrace or noose, a spiral or
sickle, or sometimes a middle finger. But I imagine, instead, the harbor itself from above—harbor like a liquid-
filled compass, harbor evaporating under its smoky glass lid of sky. The town, with the harbor at its heart,
both beckons and repels me, but it’s a place I still look to for direction in the unraveling world beyond.
When I leave home now and cross the town line, I watch the skyline fall away along the road.
The wharves, the churches, the water towers, the monument, the whole rough-edged town set like ragged
teeth in a jawbone. At sunset it fades from view in a burst of lights against the sky. In my imagination,
each time I leave I try to cast it adrift like a glowing paper lantern on a river, let it go like something frail
and beautiful that I may never see again.
Oona Patrick is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.
photos - below: marisa chrystene; above: heather bruce