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Essay

Everybody’s summer place

National Seashore turns 50 for all species to celebrate

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / June 5, 2011

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Vacationers who are flying kites, basking on the beach, hiking piney trails, paddling the coastal marshes, or riding bicycles through the dunescape of the Province Lands on Aug. 7 ought to pause a second to recognize the vision that made it all possible. That date is the 50th anniversary of the day President Kennedy’s signature brought the Cape Cod National Seashore into being. The National Park Service will celebrate in both visitors centers with live music, birthday cake, and the singing of “Happy Birthday’’ at noon.

Back in 1961, JFK foresaw that the legislation would “preserve the natural and historic values of a portion of Cape Cod for the inspiration and enjoyment of people all over the United States.’’ A half century later, the National Seashore covers 44,600 acres along a 40-mile stretch of coast between Chatham and Provincetown. It embraces ecosystems that range from dryland forest to swamps and marshes, from marine environments to estuarine habitats, from fragile freshwater kettle ponds to sweeping sandy beaches. More than 450 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish are found in the National Seashore. Hints and traces of at least 9,000 years of human habitation persist.

Statistics aside, the creation of the National Seashore was an act of wonderful boldness — almost hubris — in setting out to preserve a place that is, paradoxically, always in flux. Henry David Thoreau walked the length of the outer beach over four trips between 1849 and 1857, combining them into a single narrative. To literally follow in his footsteps today, according to the park service, would require scuba gear, as the beach has eroded an average of 4 feet per year. Thoreau’s path lies more than 600 feet offshore. And the sands continue to shift. The second Highland Light, built in 1857 some 500 feet from the sea cliff in Truro, had to be moved another 450 feet inland in 1996 because it was again nearly on the precipice. (The museum at Highland Light is also serving birthday cake on Aug. 7 at 2 p.m.)

Geologists sometimes call Cape Cod a “gravel dump in the middle of the ocean’’ because it is the footprint of the ice sheet that began receding northward in a series of stutter steps 15,000, 14,000, and 12,000 years ago, leaving behind the rocks, gravel, sand, and dirt it had scraped up in its inexorable march southward millennia earlier. Wind and wave and currents have been reshaping Cape Cod ever since, sculpting the shoreline minute by minute, tide by tide. The National Seashore is an object lesson in the impermanence of even the land beneath our feet.

The designation within the National Park System does more than put boundaries around those dynamic systems. It functions almost as a paean of praise to the fleeting, evanescent essence of youth and summer. The Romans believed that each place had its genius loci, a sort of mythological guardian. Surely such a spirit inhabits the beaches of the National Seashore, whether the closed snug of Nauset with its booming surf or the seemingly limitless sand of the Great Beach that curls around the muscled forearm of the Cape. If we were to call the spirit by name, it would be Summer.

The great dome of light, the smell of the oceanside ozone, the peculiar cant of the laughing gulls as they tilt into the wind, the swimming-pool frolic of the harbor seals that play on offshore sandbars, the snap of a kite catching wind to race skyward like a sailing ship — they are memories of summer on the people’s seashore. The season is poised to begin again, and we can only thank everyone who helped create the Cape Cod National Seashore. They took the long view, and 50 years in, the beach still stretches all the way to the horizon.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, authors of “Cape Cod’’ in the Compass American Guide series, can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.