Walking along the Atlantic coast, for a moment in the footsteps of Thoreau himself, we wandered down towards Ballston Beach in Truro. Though the seas were relatively calm, the power of the ocean was still very much felt, and we were forced to scatter back up the berm crest several times like shorebirds to save our shoes from being swamped by the overwash of small waves.
Anyone who wanders the beaches of Cape Cod soon becomes a beachcomber drawn to examine the shells, stones, branches, seaweeds and trinkets that come ashore with the tides. I imagine the people who walked this beach in the past, looking for driftwood and shipwrecked planks to be repurposed in a time when the Cape had almost no trees. We talked for a moment about the famous pirate Captain Sam Bellamy who was swallowed by the sea some 300 years ago, just a few miles from where we were now standing. I always keep an eye out for a gold doubloon to emerge after lying hidden for so long!
It was soon after our talk of pirates and lost treasure that I discovered something even more valuable along that shoreline.
What appeared to be a small piece of marsh grass along the tideline quickly changed form as my mind recognized the pattern of a small serpent marooned along the shore, some distance away from the closest piece of habitable land. This turned out to be, amazingly, a Ringneck Snake, by no means a “water snake” and most certainly not suited to saline environments, let alone the harsh and awesome power of the open Atlantic.
I picked the snake up, assuming its inevitable demise but seeing it as a chance to teach my fellow adventurers about the local wildlife. Before I could even speak of such a beautiful animal’s place in this world, the little snake surprised us all by slithering along my fingers, not only alive, but active and healthy! We were so far from this snake’s home and the harsh conditions of the open ocean, where even the bravest and strongest of sailors had been lost in storms and wrecks, was no place for such a fragile life.
I put my hands together and enclosed the snake in a temporary cavern for shelter and comfort on our half- mile journey back to “dry land.” The snake quickly curled into place and seemed satisfied for now, with no attempt to break free or slither through the cracks of my fingers. I like to imagine that by some chance the snake knew we were trying our best to help and provide it with another shot at life.
We discussed and theorized about this little snake’s journey and how such an animal came to be on the shores of outer Cape Cod, a beautiful place though one where you needn’t experience the ferocious storm to see the effects on the landscape. But even this great ocean, which has taken so much, will eventually give back and share its bounty with time. Beaches to our north are given new life as the sandy hook of Provincetown continues to grow from these natural processes.
We too as human beings, like the ocean we walked along, responsible for so much loss and destruction in the past, could also work to give, save, create and provide. So we continued on, snake in hand. We wandered along the rest of the beach, as Gray Seals, almost as big as boats, observed us from the water. We placed the snake down gently in a grassy upland near a small freshwater wetland. It quickly slithered away into the grass, content with the choice it was given. In that moment, we all felt the power of giving back, of helping those less fortunate, and working to make the interconnected relationship of human and nature one better.
This post was contributed by Mass Audubon Cape Cod adult education coordinator Sean Kortis, who oversees the Cape Cod Field Schools program, which offers active, multi-day, “in-the-field” experiences for adults in throughout the year. Learn more.