Boston Globe, 27 March 2006


CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE Ethereal music emanated from the "Schuster Shack" halfway up one of the steep hills of sand that make up the dramatic dunescape of Cape Cod's backshore.

The music stopped abruptly as a bearded middle-age man stood dwarfing the doorway. Shelves crammed with vinyl records were visible just behind him. He'd been composing, he explained, "feeding from the keyboard into the computer." Quite a feat considering that the dune shack Lawrence Schuster has called home for 23 years has no electricity or running water. Everything must be self-generated, and water brought in and pulled up via the intricate pulley system he has rigged. Some dune shacks have fireplaces, other dwellers have built makeshift showers as well as artistically designed commodes.

If it's all still too primitive sounding for most people to consider, so much the better. For "dune shack society" is as difficult to break into as Boston's High Society.

"This is not a zoo. This is a private residence. I would ask you to respect that," Schuster tells a visitor with the temerity to disturb his contemplation. It's one thing when another dune-dweller knocks on his door, another when strangers do it as they have been increasingly doing now that a sandstorm of controversy is surrounding these "outermost houses" of Massachusetts where for more than a century creative spirits have sought solitude and inspiration.

Eugene O'Neill wrote in one of these shacks, now lost to the ocean. Harry Kemp, known as "the Poet of the Dunes," penned verses with seagull quills. Generations of artistic and literary families have lived and loved in them, at least for the summers. Few besides Schuster and Henry Beston, who immortalized them in "The Outermost House," have attempted to live in one year-round. But now the right of their traditional inhabitants to continue to utilize them is being challenged as their landlord, the National Park Service, looks into new ways to manage the 19 dune shacks along its Cape Cod National Seashore between North Truro and Provincetown.

The Cape Cod National Seashore is inviting comments from the public until Thursday on its report on the traditional cultural significance of the dune shacks and their dwellers. Social anthropologist Robert Wolfe was commissioned to investigate "dune shack society" and interview the colorful characters who compose it.

The ramshackle structures, precariously perched on the shifting sands of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District, were deemed eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, although they are not yet listed. The question the Seashore seeks to determine is whether the area could also be considered "traditional cultural property" and its inhabitants afforded the protection due "traditionally associated people" such as a Native American tribe on its sacred ground. If they are granted protected species status, their future as well as that of the shacks they love is assured. And they will be able to bequeath them, or at least the right to live in them, to their heirs. If they are not well, that's not a prospect many of them want to think about. They are living on the edge of an increasingly emotional landscape.

As Paul Tasha, whose family was informally "bequeathed" its tiny Tasha Shack the smallest of all by Harry Kemp, put it, "We were all basically promised nothing would be taken away. So you feel betrayed, you know. It may not be fair for me to compare myself to a Native American, but as far as I'm concerned, what they're doing [to us] is no different. You make a promise, then you change your mind and say, `we're going to do this.' How can they do that? It's mind boggling that they feel so free to destroy people's ways of life without thinking that it's a big deal. It is a big deal. It's a huge deal."

A network of at least 800 people cares very much about the decision, for that many were found to be using the shacks in some way or other. Some are friends, relatives, or hangers-on of the main families, and others look forward to winning a week in a shack through one of two annual lotteries held for the five managed by the Peaked Hills Trust and the Provincetown Community Compact, which also offer artists' residencies.

The only resident who doesn't have to worry too much about it is sculptor Conrad Malicoat, the sole "shackie" to actually own his shack, plus an incredible 3 acres of dune under and around it. The Mailcoat family, under Conrad's artist father, Philip, held out against the government and conclusively proved its ownership in court. But Malicoat, now 70 and enjoying his shack seasonally with his artist wife, Anne, and their three daughters and six grandchildren, emphasizes, "I don't like to think of it as owning. We're all guests out there."

He knows he'll be affected by whatever decision the Park Service makes, and made himself and his family available to Wolfe, to share more than a lifetime of lore. He tells tales of toads and shipwrecks, foraging and salvaging, and about watching his father paint on the beach demonstrating the artistic and environmental inheritance that has been passed down between generations on the dunes together with the shacks.

Malicoat whose shack boasts a toilet ("It's not a flush toilet, you have to pour water down it") and "a cistern that gathers water for washing, and that you can boil for drinking" as well as a fireplace has had to invest a good deal of money, time, and care in preventing it from disappearing into the ocean as O'Neill's so famously did in 1932. "In 1991, after the storm that came to be called `The Perfect Storm,' I had to put in a block foundation and concrete columns going 8 feet down with pilings on top." The shack still owned if not regularly inhabited by 95-year-old Ray Wells has pilings that are clearly visible as the sand has blown out from underneath it, whereas Schuster's looks in danger of being overwhelmed by the dune into which it is nestled.

Repairs and maintenance are part of the residents' bargain with the Seashore, and why they can rent the shacks for between $1,100 and $1,600 a year, according to National Seashore planner Lauren McKean. But with a shack as tiny as Tasha's it can be easier to roll it along on rollers than to attempt to anchor it into what Malicoat calls "liquid earth."

Most of the dune-dwellers live in the shacks for several months a year. Some of the most influential such as Bill Fitts, founder of the Peaked Hill Trust and designer of an artistic "composting commode" for the dunes, and his wife, Hatty, its chief executive spend only a week or so in one. "We have made the shacks accessible to a wide variety of people who, through our lottery system, can go out and enjoy them for a week," says Hatty Fitts. "They pay between $140 and $275 a week, and we take them out at the beginning of it and bring them back at the end. In between they have to walk."

And quite a walk it is, several miles in any direction to civilization, over a landscape easy to get lost in. In summer it is crisscrossed by dune buggies giving tours, and other vehicles given special licenses by the Seashore, which, it has been noted, transport a whole "tribe" of their own intruding on that of the "shackies," and perhaps contributing to the erosion of this delicate ecological environment.

"It's because of the Peaked Hill Trust that there are any shacks left to report on, and because of us that the comment period has been extended," Hatty Fitts said. "We want it acknowledged that there's a whole, large group who use the shacks who the park has blocked with their current lease system." They are composing their comments on the report, which they felt largely ignored this transient population.

Like Schuster, Conrad Malicoat was skeptical about being considered part of a special species, like the piping plover and spadefoot toads that share this special habitat. "It's a joke. It's ridiculous. We don't want to be categorized or classified. The idea of designating us as a tribe or not is rather facetious. I don't know what the park's real objective is, but I think they feel they have to manage everything, and the people who are out there don't want to play by somebody else's rules."

"It's a very emotional issue," said Bill Burke, the historian for the National Seashore. "If it was me I'd be feeling the same way as the residents. But we have to be stewards for the American people who actually own these shacks, and we have to make sure we're making the right decisions about who uses them."

"We're all stewards of the dunes," Malicoat counters. "The Park Service should be very happy we're out there, being watchful, having a vested interest."

"I'd predicted that most people would say, `Federal government, keep your hands off the shacks let these people alone,' " said Burke. "But there seem to be as many asking, `Why should these people have special rights?' You can't forget that these shacks are owned by the American people. The bottom line is it's a very special place and we want to preserve and protect it."