Reading recommendation: The Salt House

by Cynthia Huntington

I picked up this poignant memoir not long ago, upon visiting Provincetown for the first time. In short order I fell under the spell of both the memoir and the Cape’s outermost beach town. In The Salt House Huntington revisits a distant summer, the third in a young marriage spent living on the Cape Cod National Seashore within the rickety walls of a beloved dune shack. She and her sculptor husband relish a nomadic life that brings them to the dunes in the temperate months to explore their craft, each other, and the awesome cycle of the natural world that envelopes them.

As of the 1999 writing of Huntington’s memoir, she estimates there are a dozen or so remaining dune shacks like the one she and her husband occupied. The shacks sit on public land owned by the National Park Service. The story goes that they were originally built of scrap wood by the guardsman posted nearby at the Life Saving Station in the 20’s, and later passed onto friends and eventually into the hands of various literati. In 1961 the Park Service “granted lifetime tenancy” to those who had claimed them prior to that date.

The dune shack Huntington shares with her husband is theirs for the summer thanks to the generosity of its lifetime lease holder Hazel Hawthorne Werner, who wrote a novel based on her dune experience “in a shack she called Salt House.” Preferring that name for the shack to its inherited name of Euphoria, Huntington notes that Salt House “distills the airy ecstasy of Euphoria to something more elemental, a flavor sharper than wind or spirit, preserving the body of the world in something hard and white.” Huntington draws a connection between a built structure in the greater natural realm and a human form that embodies a spirit. She writes, “We see more clearly, taste and feel, here inside the salt house of our bodies.”

In their one-room dune shack, measuring less than 200 square feet, without electricity or plumbing, Huntington and her husband evolve, ebb and flow, like the late spring, summer, and early fall seasons that she explores month by month beyond the shack’s board walls. She writes, “The shack is a retreat in the center of endless space, offering just the finest separation between inside and outside, its open windows and the cracks between its boards entangling me in a continuum of light and sound.”

All manner of critter, insect, and sand make their way through those boards in the course of Huntington’s musings. When she steps outside, she discovers herself among a wealth of birds, plants, and sea creatures -- some vigorously alive and others returning to whence they came. She speaks of marsh hawks, herring gulls, tree swallows, catbirds, terns, asters, shadbushes, beach roses, goldenrod, bayberry, steepletop, meadowsweet, sheep laurel, rabbits, mice, crabs, skates, stripers, bluefish, and finback whales. I luxuriated in these descriptions of fauna, flora, and fish; many of which I wouldn’t be able to specifically identify if I came upon them. The sound of their names alone was often enough to transport me. If ever there’s a reprinting, I hope they’ll include a glossary with simple line-drawing illustrations for the aspiring naturalist.

When Huntington’s not out physically engaging in the landscape, she’s recreating her impression of it from within the slight remove of the shack. Her husband’s art, however, requires that his creations directly interact with the landscape. They are ephemeral pieces constructed of natural material within nature, in the manner of Andy Goldsworthy I imagine. Huntington confides, “Sometimes I envy the activity of his work, how he uses all his senses and his body. This lack of separation between self and world intrigues me, though I’d never be capable of it.” This reminded me of the much circulated TED talk by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor about the role of the right brain and the access it can provide to perceiving the interconnection between ourselves and our environment. But I don’t agree with Huntington; I think she is capable of blurring boundaries between herself and the world, and that the universal insights of her very specific book are a testament to her unique way of doing so.

In the preface Huntington observes, “It seems that the greatest adventure is to find a home in the world, particularly in the natural world, to earn a sense of belonging deeply to a place and to feel the deep response well up within you and become a part of you. When it is done, it can’t be lost; the knowledge is as acute and sure as falling in love…We took up residence, not by imposing ourselves on this place, but by giving ourselves over to it and learning what was truly ours.” By the last page you too will feel that the dune shack and the Cape Cod National Seashore belong to you and you to them. Because they and you do.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast