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Walking Cape Cod in Thoreau’s shoes

Read-a-thon celebrates iconic work that focused on the seashore’s natural beauty

Richard Smith portrayed Henry David Thoreau at the Thoreau’s Cape Cod Read-a-thon in Marstons Mills.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

MARSTONS MILLS – In front of a small crowd Saturday morning, Richard Smith, dressed in 19th-century garb as Henry David Thoreau, pulled out his aged, leather-bound copy of “Cape Cod,” a collection of essays chronicling the writer and naturalist’s visits to the Cape.

From the top of the first essay, “The Shipwreck,” Smith began the read-a-thon of the book that was scheduled to finish in a second session Sunday afternoon after 90 readers participated.

“Living history is a great way to get history to the people,” said Smith, who has been a public historian for the town of Concord for more than 25 years, in an earlier interview. “It makes history more alive.”


The reading took place in a newly built barn that sits on 22 acres of land, formerly a dairy farm, acquired in 2012 from the Barbara Fuller family. The Fuller Farm, in the middle of Marstons Mills, is home to rolling fields of bluestem grass and a pollinator field leading to a pond.

The read-a-thon was held 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and is scheduled to take place during the same hours Sunday. A live stream is available online.

The idea to hold the read-a-thon came from Sue Sullivan, director of communications and programs at Barnstable Land Trust, who was inspired by the annual 24-hour readings of “Moby-Dick” at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Sullivan thought they could do something shorter, though, and Thoreau’s “Cape Cod” came to mind.

“I had not read it in years and years and years, but I had a vague recollection [that} ... it’s iconic; it’ll be great,” said Sullivan, who lives in Mashpee.

Thoreau, born in Concord, is perhaps best known as the essayist and poet who was a leading figure in the Transcendentalism movement and who lived at Walden Pond where he wrote “Walden.”


“Cape Cod” describes what he saw during visits to the Cape in 1849, 1850, and 1853. The trips formed the basis for the series of essays, which were gathered and published posthumously as “Cape Cod” in 1865.

Modern readers can see how much the Cape’s environment has changed — and not changed — in the 160 years since.

Much of the coastline Thoreau walked on, Sullivan said, is now under water. The land he saw was a sandy “wasteland” without trees, which had been cut down for use in building houses and boats, and making fires.

“We saw scarcely anything high enough to be called a tree, except a little low wood at the east end of town, and the few ornamental trees in its yards,” Thoreau wrote. “The greater part of the land was a perfect desert of yellow sand, rippled like waves by the wind, in which only a little Beach-grass grew here and there.”

The environment continuously evolved and shaped people’s lives and the local economy, said Sullivan.

Shipwrecks were part of the local economy, Thoreau said, as people scavenged them for goods. The robust fishing industry governed Provincetown, and salt works dotted the bay, as the Cape was a top producer and exporter at the time.

Sullivan hopes to continue to hold other read-a-thons of “Cape Cod” in the coming years — “peeling away the layers of the onion” and further exploring the Cape’s environment.

“We see Thoreau as our ancestor,” said Barnstable Land Trust executive director Janet Milkman, of Falmouth, in an interview before the event. “The American natural history forebearer.”


Thoreau laid the foundation for modern environmentalism, said Sullivan, inspiring leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Rachel Carson.

“I feel like we’re at the cusp in society today that [environmentalism] is coming back,” said Sullivan. “With climate change, water quality and air quality — all those issues are at the front and center.”

One of the readers, Mark Robinson, said his love for Thoreau began in junior high school but blossomed in college when he found the daily journals of the author that detailed the ramblings he took each day.

Growing up in New England, Robinson, who now lives in Cotuit, understood the seasonal changes that Thoreau meticulously described in his journals, he said, from the first frost on the pond in the late fall to the thawing in the spring

Now, he has taken that inspiration to walk Cape Cod, watching and journaling the constant changes in the environment.

Robinson, the executive director of the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts, said he learned that you can’t simply write about nature, “you have to experience it first.”

As Thoreau noted in the last lines of “Cape Cod,” the best way to experience Cape Cod is during a storm at a lighthouse or fisherman’s hut on the outer banks facing into the Atlantic Ocean: “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”