About halfway between Highway 6 and the Atlantic Ocean, in the heart of the Province Lands sand dunes, my nose was nearly touching the ground as I squinted through a hand lens. A carpet of vegetation spread before me, and through the tiny magnifying glass, I saw them. Antlers. I was looking at reindeer lichen.
“Have you heard the one about Alice Algae and Freddie Fungus? They got together and seemed to have taken a lichen to each other,” laughed Elizabeth Bradfield from her place nearby, knees planted in the sand. Bradfield, a poet and a naturalist, knew this place like the back of her hand. Fitting, seeing as the dunes are located just below the knuckles on the flexed arm of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Throughout the semester, my classmates and I read poems, novels and nature prose from writers such as Bradfield in English 181B: Adventure Literature Exploring Cape Cod. Then, over the Thanksgiving break, we piled into vans and journeyed northeast—nearly 500 miles from University Park, Pennsylvania—to Cape Cod to see the natural beauty, rich history and diverse ecosystems we read about all semester. Part of the course was Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management 197, in which we studied the principles of “Leave No Trace” and learned the value of walking as a form of recreation. For me, a Penn State student who has tried to nurture her two academic interests—writing and the environment—English 181B was a perfect fit.
One of my first assignments in the course was an essay. Part of the prompt was “Why does Cape Cod attract so many writers and artists?” I came up with a bookish response citing various sources from in-class readings, but it wasn’t until I found myself peering at a shred of lichen while on my hands and knees that I really understood.
Here, I could get face-to-face—literally—with nature, from reindeer lichen to endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles to a curious seal popping his head above water to stare at me as I stood on the beach, staring at him. Here, I could picture the hardships of early Americans on the seas, the livelihood of the Wampanoag people on the land and the lasting effects of early deforestation on the landscape. I could walk in the 1800s footsteps of visionaries like Henry David Thoreau while seeing the firsthand destruction of erosion on a coastline and the social changes tourism wreaks on the local communities.
When Gertrude Stein famously said about Oakland, California, that: “there is no ‘there’ there,” she meant that the place itself had no meaning—at least not for her. During my time on the cape, supplemented by the words of nature writers I studied in the classroom, I felt more “here” than I’ve felt in a long time. I felt fully present in the environment in which I thrive, and I felt the historical and ecological significance of Cape Cod. I gained an understanding of my past, and humanity’s past, while having the solitude to contemplate my future and my impact on the planet.
Caroline Rosini is a Penn State senior studying English with a minor in Environmental Inquiry. She works as a communications intern for the Institutes of Energy and the Environment and the Sustainability Institute. She is also editor in chief of Valley Magazine and a writing tutor at Penn State Learning.
Adventure Literature Exploring Cape Cod is a course offered together by the Departments of English (English 181B, 3 credits) and Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management (RPTM 197, 1.5 credits). Robert Burkholder, associate professor of English, and William Rice, graduate student of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management, co-instructed the course.