By Charlotte Degen
The thick rotting smell of mud and seaweed at low tide, swarms of green-headed flies, and sea creatures with their own or borrowed shells or no shells—dominated my first impression of Cape Cod 45 years ago. Despite this first olfactory insult, 44 years later, I agreed to move to the Cape for my retirement years, due to my love of boating, my husband’s interest in sport fishing, and to be closer to one of our son’s and his wife living in eastern MA. Yesterday, one of my new Cape friends loudly exclaimed, over her iced chai, that she was amazed at my leaving friends and landing in a new place with no personal connections. But I expect that we and our old friends will keep up with each other’s lives as always. I still feel close to my Berkshires people. And have to acknowledge that our move to Cape Cod did involve some nasty elements new to us.
Nothing prepared me for having to live daily with two of those, briers and ticks. Our Cape property supports the growth of a thick web of greenbrier (smilax rotundifolia; also known as bull brier, horse brier, and cat brier), a thorny monster with roots that form a web of tentacles growing above ground and seditiously underground beneath our feet. In fact, I wonder if it is really not many thousands of shoots, but rather one seething behemoth living under us, like the iceburgs in the north Atlantic. The thorny vines are long and twisted; some turn to the ground and crawl, others wrap around trees and all reach out and grab at you as you pass by a patch. Walking through an embedded area is just plain impossible due to the thorns and the vines that grow so thick you cannot find a path. These thorny vines rip at the skin under your dungarees and pierce all glove materials except those made from thick deer hide. Even skiing over them is impossible because they catch your ski tips.
Research tells us the vine is close to impossible to contain. Some enjoy eating it; I’m told it tastes like asparagus. One neighbor suggested I could use it as a natural safety fence to protect my horse Harvey should the electric fence fail. But, surprisingly, Harvey walks through the chest-high brier with no scratches or marks or fear. We humans are left with the choice of renting a curious maniacal brush mowing machine called a “Billy Goat” and mowing the mass down, or using poison.
Just as bad as the greenbrier, if not worse, are the ticks. They were a menace in the Berkshires, too, but on the Cape, they are constantly on your pets and friends. They latch on to your skin, suck your blood and give you a bacteria in exchange. The bacteria hides in your body and builds into a chronic debilitating syndrome. The available defenses are to put poison on yourself or strong smelling essential oils, vigilance in conducting tick checks and having a kit ready to remove the bugs. Recently, Harvey had 10, I had two crawling on my neck (looking perhaps for my carotid artery) and Peter had one affixed to his side and one crawling on his clothes. My son walked out in the yard with flip flops and came in with one on his toe. These bugs just hang out waiting for a host to stroll by, then conduct their exchange—blood for bacteria. Our neighbors seem unaffected by both the greenbrier scourge and the ticks. They must take these things in stride, the way Vermonters take the snow and cold as a part of life.
Some Cape folk have their own methods of maintaining their properties as private, piling up sticks and stone barriers to their wooded pathways. We couldn’t help comparing this to the openly available walks in fields and woods in Williamstown. But then there are others who reach out here and genuinely help you thrive. It is these good people that have helped me love my new home.
We were visiting some new friends during the holidays and saw, on their wall, a poster of the development plot layout where we all live. It was entitled “Rosewood Estate.” We had no idea the area was “a development” and no knowledge it had such a sweet name—Rosewood Estate. My heart leapt, thinking about roses. Yes, I would still have to work at reducing the nasty greenbrier, even clear it all away with persistent effort. But I do have lovely roses in the front yard, which I had failed many times to cultivate in the Berkshires. I also have exceptionally good and kindly people living on either side of me.
Sometimes the north wind brings that smell of low tide to us here in Brewster. But now we say, it brings the excitement of knowing the sea is nearby and brings the tides’ persistent message of renewal every day at the Cape.