Decorate Your Story with Outdoor Art

Whale tail

Outdoor art can be easy to overlook. It becomes part of the landscape as we rush on by. Most novels will give weather details while describing a setting, but there aren’t many I can think of that bring art into it. Yet when we stop and pay attention to a statue or sculpture, it adds to our understanding of a place.

In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Augustus and Hazel picnic near an oversized skeleton sculpture with all kinds of symbolic implications. Even missing art reveals something about a place. In The Orphan Master’s Son, “There seemed to be no statue, and they could not tell what the square glorified.”

A while back, Jilanne Hoffmann wrote a post about San Francisco artists who were using words to create visual art. The idea of a sculpture of a man made of words intrigued me. I wasn’t sure if I had seen local art made from words or if the art around here would be any different. I decided to go on a treasure hunt just to see what could be found. As it turns out, Cape Cod outdoor art is….definitely different:

It might be inexplicable. It might be an eyesore. It might even be something people wouldn’t expect to see in that particular place. Whatever it is, it adds the kind of detail that brings a setting to life.

Cape Cod has its own way of being unique. It’s filled with characters and subtle humor. So it makes sense that the art found here is as craggy and enduring as the land. Ocean life including crabs or an octopus take on funny personalities. The lobster could be called strangely detailed. Sometimes tourists stand in line to get their pictures taken with it.

Except for a warning not to climb on the whale, no words could be found. The art speaks in another way by showing our ties to the ocean and ocean life. Still, my favorite kind of outdoor art is found at the beach.

Snow art

What kind of outdoor art can be found near you?

Alpaca Fun on Martha’s Vineyard

alpaca smileAlpacas pop up in the most unlikely places. While riding down the bike path on Martha’s Vineyard, alpacas can be seen through the trees, tempting anyone to stop for a visit.

At Island Alpaca in Oak Bluffs, the original purchase of eight alpacas in 2004
has grown to more than 80, plus one llama named Lucy. Most visitors want to know what the difference is between a llama and an alpaca. They’re cousins, but llamas are larger and they’re known for their spitting abilities.

alpaca smileAlpacas are gentle and timid with faces that resemble puppies or teddy bears. They have no top teeth in the front and they don’t bite. They will run for food and they’ll run away from any trouble. While goats are known to eat anything, when alpacas graze they eat only the top part of the grass so that it can continue to grow.

The alpacas at Island Alpaca have names like Roberto, Zora, Silver Angel, Dom Perignon, or Captain Jack, embracing their South American heritage, their colors, and pirate names for their new island home. Alpacas boast 22 natural colors from snow white to auburn to coal. Their luxurious fleece creates material that’s lighter and stronger than wool while feeling like cashmere.

Island Alpaca visitors are given the chance to help out with the morning chores, feed the alpacas, and learn how to harness and walk them. If they’re lucky, springtime visitors might get to watch a birthing.

Peru, Bolivia, and Chile are still home to the largest percentage of alpacas in the world but with their ability to adapt to most climates, alpacas are being raised in places like Florida, California, Maine, and even islands like Martha’s Vineyard.

There’s a recent trend of adding goats to books. Why not alpacas? They look like characters to me. As long as I’m still revising my novel, I think I’ll add an alpaca.

To meet the Martha’s Vineyard alpacas, visit Island Alpaca.

Island Alpaca, Martha's Vineyard

Island Alpaca, Martha's Vineyard

Have you ever seen an alpaca? Could alpacas be the new goats? Would you want to be an alpaca farmer? (I’m considering it after reading the article below.)

Pumpkin People Are Strange

pumpkin witchThe pumpkin people can be found downtown. They hang out by lamp posts and lounge in rocking chairs. Some resemble politicians or witches or cartoon characters. Even though a few haven’t grown mouths yet, they generate smiles or laughter.

While out strolling among the pumpkin people, it’s best to be prepared for anything. They might even come to life when the autumn moon is full. Yes, people are strange. Pumpkin people are even stranger.

Irish pumpkin

Mexican pumpkin

Salon pumpkin

Pumpkin person

Pumpkin people

Grinch pumpkins

Have you encountered pumpkin people like these? Have you ever tried to create a pumpkin person?

How to Make a Ghost Happy

Highfield Hall

Is there a ghost in that second-story window?

Cape Cod is a land of pirates and witches, shipwrecks and heartaches. It’s a land of lost souls. Certain houses, built while the Revolutionary War thundered on or even during the Salem witch trials, hold their secrets almost as well as the New Englanders who inhabit them. They may not look like the haunted houses of nightmares and movies. They may even look quaint or charming. But take another look. The truth still manages to seep through, with every creaky floorboard and slamming door. It could be the wind or it could be howling of a much different nature.

The Beebe familyReports of levitation, strong odors, and sightings mingle with stories of exorcisms and the unnerving sound of footsteps echoing through the night. These mysteries cling to the Cape Cod air, becoming part of its mist and moaning foghorns. A local anthropology professor believes the type of atmosphere found here contributes to spiritual activity. The low pressure and damp air bring these energies out, making them easier to see. Vibrations and energies from lives lived long ago or spirits so strong that they cling to their old lives, unwilling or unable to move on.

Built in 1878, Highfield Hall in Falmouth was once owned by the Beebe family. Emily Beebe is said to have become so attached to the house that she never left. Several people claim to have seen her wandering near the second-floor windows. Many more have heard her footsteps and skirts rustling.

Her home was abandoned decades ago and fell into disrepair soon after. Eventually, it was threatened with demolition. A group of residents stopped the demolition and raised enough to renovate the historic building.

Highfield Hall before the renovations

Highfield Hall before the renovations

Before it was renovated, I walked through Highfield Hall in search of Emily’s spirit. The front door stood as open as a gaping wound and a constant flow of bone-chilling air poured out. The imprisoned air tasted of rotting wood and mold, and felt as if it hadn’t been inhaled for centuries. Ceilings dripped with fungus, graying wallpaper peeled and flaked like damaged skin, revealing the skeleton of the house hidden beneath. Windows and mirrors were broken. Some rooms were completely dark, even in the daytime, and stood as caves beckoning to anyone insane enough to enter. After stepping back out the door into the sunshine, the emptiness could still be felt.

Emily lived with her brothers most of her life, acting as hostess for parties held at Highfield. Those who claim her spirit lived on suggest the dilapidated condition of the house distressed her and she’s now pleased with the renovations. Cultural events and weddings are held there. The wood floors shine and reflect dancing shadows, calling back the past. It’s easy to imagine an orchestra playing in the ballroom amid swishing skirts and laughter. If Emily is still looking on, she must be smiling.

Highfield Hall ballroom

Highfield Hall after renovations

Do you believe in ghosts?


Sheila Hurst is the author of Ocean Echoes, an award-winning novel about a marine biologist who gives up on love to study jellyfish. A percentage from the sale of this book will go toward nonprofit organizations working to protect the world’s oceans for future generations.

The Beach, a Bonfire, and…a Movie?

bonfire

Wood smoke mingled with ocean spray. Our bonfire crackled and popped, contributing exclamation points to the conversation. Sparks drifted up to the stars as the waves swished in song. Everyone huddled closer to the fire as the sky darkened.

setting up firepitWe laughed when the people in the encampment near us whipped out a large movie screen and set it up so that it blocked their view of the ocean and sunset. They had a bonfire going but turned away from it in favor of the technicolor fireentertainment. A family with young children. Why wouldn’t they want to use a chance like that to talk with each other? We laughed at a lot of things that night. I didn’t hear laughter coming from the movie encampment.

It’s getting harder to get away from it all when everything can be carried in a cell phone. Maybe some things have been gained with more and more technology to entertain us, but what have we lost?

What are we losing when we continue to block out the sky, the stars, and the sound of the waves?

beach sunset

On Sandy Necks and Primordial Ooze

Sandy Neck, Cape CodShifting sands create an ever-changing artistry. The constant wind sculpts peaks and valleys while smoothing out any edges. This is a place called Sandy Neck. On a map, it looks more like a tiny finger jutting out into the ocean. Over time, this barrier beach has developed into 4,700 acres of dunes, maritime forests, and marshes.

Sandy Neck, Cape CodStrangely enough, the beach at Sandy Neck is a rocky one. It’s usually packed with sunbathers in the summer, so I like to hide from the crowds and investigate the 13-mile trail behind the dunes. A small parking lot at the entrance can be used for the trail.

Mash at Sandy Neck, Cape CodAt first, the trail winds between towering sand and marshes. It branches off every once in a while to bring tired feet and pounding hearts back to the beach for some easier walking. Those trails also bring hikers up higher for views of the dunescape and ocean.

Sandy Neck dune trail

Dune trail at Sandy NeckSandy Neck, Cape CodFarther ahead on the main trail, a few scattered and lost cottages call up images of possible shotguns pointing through broken windows. Someday if I’m brave enough, I might walk the whole trail.

muddy, sandy dogSparks isn’t afraid of the cottages. She’ll trot right up, wag her tail, and practically knock on the door. By that time, she looks scarier than the cottages because she loves to splash around in the primordial ooze found in the marsh. This is the smelliest mud my dog has ever found. The overall smell is a combination of rotten eggs, fish, and dog breath. I’m planning on giving her lots of baths this summer.

What are your plans for the summer?

Sea Turtle Rescues and Spring Break Road Trips

sea turtleA record 242 sea turtles were rescued from the icy waters around Cape Cod this winter and most have now been released into the warmer ocean waters around Florida.

Sea turtles are susceptible to hypothermia and can strand on Cape Cod beaches during the fall and winter. Volunteers from the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay walk the beaches, find the cold-stunned turtles, and transport them to the New England Aquarium Animal Care Center near Boston. In an average year, about 70 juvenile, Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead and green sea turtles are taken in, according to the New England Aquarium website. This past season’s total of 242 was the largest yet recorded.

Aquarium facilities all along the Northeast coast made room for the sea turtles. Then this spring, once the turtles were warmed and revitalized, the road trips to Florida began. Volunteers picked the sea turtles up and drove them to the Florida beaches.

I wonder what the sea turtles were thinking during those road trips. After suffering through the Cape Cod winter season, I’m sure they must have been looking forward to swimming in warmer ocean waters and soaking up the sun.

Click here for sea turtle Spring Break photos showing one of the releases in Florida.

Sea turtles are one of the Earth’s most ancient animals. The seven species that can be found today have been around for about 110 million years, since the time of the dinosaurs. By comparison, modern humans have only been around for a fraction of that time – about 200 thousand years.

Unlike other turtles, sea turtles can’t retract their legs and head into their shells.

Sea turtles play a part in my novel, Ocean Echoes, which will hopefully be published someday (I know, I keep saying that).

How Does Where You Live Affect Your Writing?

Chatham, Cape Cod

Our surroundings are constantly affecting us. But how much does where we live affect our writing?

Southern writers like Robert Penn Warren are known for a certain cadence, a more languid or lingering tone. His writing feels like sitting out on a front porch on a humid night with cicadas buzzing in the background. Irish writers also bring a sing-song lyrical feeling into their writing.

A certain tone is hard to pinpoint and I don’t know if my writing has anything like that because of where I live. It’s probably more because of what I read and the rhythms found there. But Cape Cod definitely contributes to the overall feeling of my writing, either through descriptions or something more mysterious.

Descriptions of the ocean and sky are always sneaking into my stories. The changing seasons find their way in because I can’t help but be affected by them. If I lived in the tropics, I’d probably keep looking for new ways to describe the heat.

Hancock tower, BostonI used to live in a Boston apartment. Boston is full of edges and angles, like this photo. I loved the energy of the city and being able to walk everywhere, but my writing ended up sounding depressing because I’d describe things I happened to encounter like gum splattered all over a sidewalk or the smell of an alley. I remember trying to describe that particular subway smell: a strange mixture of sweat, popcorn, greased metal, and feet. I could never really fully describe it. Maybe the fact that it can’t be described makes it sound even scarier.

Of course, the fun of writing is in using our imaginations. But our imaginations build off of our surroundings. While living in Boston, I’d be more likely to describe the way the light hit a certain building to make it glow or the sound of different accents and languages mingled together on the city streets. Now that I think about it, I miss Boston. Even that strange subway smell.

Boston street

How does where you live affect your writing? Have you ever tried to describe an indescribable smell?

History as Inspiration

History is more easily overlooked than crazy dogs or nature, but stories from long ago can also be a source of inspiration. It’s the everyday history that inspires and it’s all around us. Whether you’re writing historical fiction or an adventure novel, it’s always fun to sprinkle bits of the past through the pages.

Martha's Vineyard houses

GosnoldSometimes finding these stories is as easy as walking up to a plaque or statue, even if it might make you look like a tourist. I found this plaque practically covered in vines. It mentions Bartholomew Gosnold, who led the first recorded European expedition to Cape Cod before the Pilgrims. It brings to mind what this area would have looked like at that time, what life would have been like, the challenges people faced.

Gosnold's landing area today

historic Cape Cod houseWidow’s walks or cupolas make me think of the days when women waited for years for a ship to appear on the horizon. Although we romanticize that kind of thing today, would it be all that romantic if you were really living it? Somehow, I don’t think so.

windmillShipbuilders, farmers, and fishermen once worked this land. Some may have spent their lives building ships bound for the Orient, hearing only tales and legends from the adventurers who came back.

stone building for whalingStone walls always make me think of borders that are now long gone and the people who placed each heavy stone, building and shaping their land and future.

Just imagine: ice was once cut and harvested from local ponds for refrigeration. Windmills were needed to grind grain into flour. A stone building that’s now a research center was used as a holding area for whales that were caught and hauled in from the ocean. And we think we work hard these days.

I like to imagine these people who came before us. Their stories are everywhere.

stone wall

Have you found inspiration in local or everyday history? Do you think history has a place in all kinds of fiction or just historical fiction?

Still Dreaming

I grew up dreaming of the possibility of a better world. My mom worked on John F. Kennedy’s campaign as a teenager. I wasn’t born yet when Kennedy was shot, but the thought of it brings tears to my eyes.

At a time when others turned inward, my mom went on dreaming. Years ago, when plans came up to build a sewage tunnel from Boston to Cape Cod Bay, we went to the beaches and collected signatures against it. The sewage tunnel didn’t make sense to us. Why spend $3.58 billion constructing a tunnel to dump partially treated sewage farther away when that money could be spent fully treating the sewage in Boston Harbor? The tunnel would point toward Stellwagen Bank, a feeding ground for endangered whales. Even though the Cape Cod group that rose up against it gathered thousands of signatures, the tunnel was constructed.

There were so many people against it. We thought for sure we would stop it. My mom went on to fight more environmental battles, but I gave up on politics after that. I started writing articles for newspapers and magazines, hoping that every once in a while, one might make a difference. I have no idea if any of them did.

I’m still dreaming. My novel, Ocean Echoes, centers on the ocean and characters who try to make a difference. More than anything else, I hope it’s a fun adventure story. When it’s published, a percentage of any profit will go toward organizations working to protect the world’s oceans for future generations. I know groups like Oceana and The Ocean Conservancy make a difference. By supporting them, maybe I can make a difference too.

“Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” – John F. Kennedy

Are you a dreamer? What do you dream of?

Walking in the Footsteps of Thoreau

I try to time travel as often as possible. A book is the perfect time travel vehicle but a place can be too. Henry David Thoreau walked along this Chatham coastline about 150 years ago and wrote about it in his book Cape Cod. It’s fun to read his descriptions and follow in his footsteps to go back in time.

Asphalt from the parking lot crumbles into sand. Dunes rise up along with the path to give the feel of walking on a mountaintop or the end of the earth. From this vantage point, there haven’t been many changes since the 1800s.

Far ahead Stage Harbor Lighthouse can be seen hunched down in the scraggly bushes. Thoreau wouldn’t have seen the lighthouse since it wasn’t built until 1880. Without it as a point to walk toward, there would be nothing but this stretch of land and sky.

A snake slithers into the bushes by the path. It is so quiet that the flap of a seagull’s wings can be heard overhead. Even the fishermen standing on the shore talk in low voices so that their murmurings become one with the wind.

Thoreau said, “The sea never runs very much here, since the shore is protected from the swell by Monomoy.” This creates a sense of peace, with everything as still as a painting.

Thoreau saw Monomoy as one offshore landmass while today it forms two barrier islands. As a testament to Cape Cod’s shifting sands, Monomoy has been a peninsula, a single island and even multiple islands. A lighthouse was built on the southern tip of the island in 1823 but deposits of sand over time have lengthened it, causing it to seem as if the lighthouse has traveled inland.

A seagull plucks at a crab on the sand while sand pipers dance in the background. Thoreau loved to watch these birds, as he said, “Sometimes we sat on the wet beach and watched the beach birds, sand pipers, and others, trotting along close to each wave, and waiting for the sea to cast up their breakfast.”

The quiet waves continue to bring more treasures. According to Thoreau, “The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar. Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime. It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever the sea casts up…”

The shore is still strewn with whatever the sea casts up and it remains an advantageous place to contemplate this world. It is a different world now. Although much has changed in the last 150 years or so, it is comforting to know that some places remain the same.

Do you use a certain book or place to travel through time?

Secret Places

My mom is always finding these secret places, the kind of places that people walk or drive by without realizing there’s a door to another world right there.

When my brother and I were little, she would bring us to a circle of dunes behind a public beach. No one was ever there. It was her secret place. Then there was a garden with seven-foot hedges surrounding it. The door could barely be seen, but if anyone walked through it, the reward would be blooming flowers and whispering trees.

She found this place tucked away behind an art gallery off Route 6A in Sandwich. The walk starts off with a maze of paths through the woods. Every once in a while, a sign appears with a quotation or saying as if the scenery itself is telling us secrets. Metal sculptures twist out of the greenery, letting our imaginations wander along with our feet.

The path leads to a narrow rope bridge that bounces crazily with each step.

At first the bridge looks as if it ends in the marsh, but a hidden path off to the side brings us through towering marsh grass, making us feel as tiny as insects wandering through a lawn.

Once through the grass, the path continues along the side of the marsh, where a bench sits and waits for visitors to admire the view.

On our way back through the maze of woods, we see uprooted trees. A sign there states, “Thank you Hurricane Irene.”

Another great thing about this walk full of secret places is that donations are collected toward the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod. If you happen to live in the area or plan a visit, it’s worth a wander behind The Giving Tree Gallery on Route 6A in Sandwich.

Do you have a secret place? How did you find it?