The view from Fourth Cliff.

It’s 7:30 AM, and I am standing on a second floor balcony at the top of Humarock’s Fourth Cliff. The beach is a hundred foot drop below me: I can see for miles in either direction along the coastline. Scituate’s jagged line of cliffs fans out to the north, while to the south, beyond Humarock’s 3-mile stretch of cottages, beyond the Rexhame Dunes and most of Marshfield’s other beaches, stands the Brant Rock tower.

In the past, I’ve marveled over the sheer expansiveness of the view from Fourth Cliff, but today I am more intrigued by the patterns before me: the irregular assortments of stones below the high tide line, strewn in an ever-changing spray; the undulating, windswept sand, interrupted at times by moss-covered boulders; the shape of the shoreline, curving gently to the south.

It’s a cloudy morning, but the light is extraordinary. The overcast skies are the palest blue, the ocean just a shade or two darker. A pink line defines the horizon. The sun, still subdued in this morning hour, shines through occasional breaks in the clouds, a wide, steady stream of light — gold in some places, rosy in others — like a cinematic representation of the divine.

The longer I look, the more I see. Odd shapes on the ocean’s surface catch my eye. While mostly the water forms uniform, continuous ripples, this morning there are random flat sections, as if the sea were a palette of wet paint, and someone had reached down and wiped some sections smooth. The shapes, reflecting the sun, appear lighter in color, matching the sky almost exactly.

A wash of subtle hues, the ocean and the sky resemble an impressionist painting. In fact, they remind me very much of some of Monet’s work — the cathedral scenes at Rouen, and the Houses of Parliament. At times like these it is difficult to imagine the ocean’s power to destroy.

Weather-wise, Fourth Cliff can be noticeably different from the flatter sections of Humarock. At times it seems like another climate. It may be warm and sunny and breezy down on the beach, but on the cliff it is often ten degrees cooler, and windier, and more damp. It is not always a welcoming place.

When Nor’easters come, as they do several times each year, Fourth Cliff can seem threatening. The temperature drops, the wind makes the houses shake, and the ocean, constantly pounding the beach below, roars as it tears away, layer by layer, the sand and sediment holding the cliff in place. When you’re not worrying about whether the roof — or the foundation — will hold, you’re thinking about the likelihood of being cut off from the mainland, for when the winds are right and the tide is high, the South River will wash over Central Avenue at the foot of the hill, bringing rocks, boulders and sand with it, effectively making Fourth Cliff an island until the town can bulldoze the stuff away.

I grew up in Marshfield, but I didn’t discover Fourth Cliff until my third year of college, when I was researching the Portland Gale, the 1898 storm that relocated the mouth of the North River. One blustery afternoon on Thanksgiving weekend, I walked the six miles up and down the beach from Rexhame to Fourth Cliff and back. This was 1991, not long after the “No-Name” Storm, and along the way I encountered house after beachfront house torn to pieces by the winds and waves of that powerful Nor’easter. The closer I got to the cliff, the more detritus I encountered: waterlogged furniture, tempest-tossed boating gear, odd scraps of clothing, household appliances, automobiles, even food.

My intention for the walk was to observe, first hand, the mouth of the North River, to imagine, while standing there, how — back in 1898 — the river had broken through the beach between Third and Fourth Cliffs, separating the seaside village of Humarock from the rest of the town. I wanted to comprehend the sheer power of a storm that could bring on such a large-scale change in the landscape. Huddled against the chilling wind, I pressed my back into the cliff face, taking care not to slip on the spray-slicked rocks, and looked out over the ever-widening channel toward Scituate. You would never know that, under all that water, there had once been a beach.

Driving along Central Avenue these days, you can’t help but notice all of the houses on stilts. After the last storm, the residents had to rebuild them that way, and though it may seem peculiar at first, it makes perfect sense when you see the tide rise and flow right under them. The ocean is strong. Put a storm behind it, and you’ve got trouble. Decade after decade, whether it’s The “No-Name” Storm, The Blizzard of ‘78, the Portland Gale, or the next Nor’easter to make a mess of our coastline, we see houses torn to splinters in a matter of hours . . . even minutes. Many of them have been rebuilt several times.

This is the cost of living in such a magnificent place. You take the chance that all of your belongings will be flushed away by a storm. You take the chance that you may lose your home, your property, even your life if you don’t heed the weather man’s warnings. But on the other hand, most of the time it’s fine. Most of the time, in fact, the weather is lovely and you’ve got this wonderful beach in the backyard, and this amazing view. You take your chances, I suppose.

The erosion on the ocean side of Fourth Cliff is disarming. Back in 1991 it startled me to see how much of the cliff the wind and water had scraped away. It’s only gotten worse. It makes me wonder how much longer these houses, and the Air Force recreation area that caps the cliff, will be able to stay there.

Back in August, I attended the Boston Harbor Sea Kayak Symposium on Thompson Island. Local storyteller Jay O’Callahan was there to perform what I consider to be his greatest and most moving story yet, “The Spirit of the Great Auk,” an account of Richard Wheeler’s 1500-mile ocean kayak journey. The story is as much about Wheeler’s solo trek from Newfoundland to Buzzard’s Bay as it is about the ocean itself.

In the story, Wheeler — nearing age sixty — explains that he loves the ocean, but that he is wary of it as well. As a kayaker, he knows how to work with the waves, to use the strength of the ocean to his advantage. He explains that it is futile to fight the sea: that we may try to resist its power, but in the long run such resistance will only exhaust us — both our energy and our resources.

At the beginning of the story, Wheeler understands this concept as it relates to kayaking, but as he travels down the coasts of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine, meeting the fishermen and families who earn their living on the sea, he sees that the matter is much more far-reaching. On his journey, Wheeler discovers that our culture has in many ways lost touch with the ocean. We are now — in the case of the grand-scale commercial fishing companies, for example, — trying to overpower it, using massive trawlers equipped with giant nets and vacuum-powered suction devices to harvest every available fish from the ocean floor. Juvenile fish are taken in with the mature ones, rendered insufficient for processing, and subsequently disposed of, leaving nothing behind to guarantee the future of the species. As a result, fish populations are growing scarce.

We may gain small victories in our attempts to overpower the sea, but in the long run, we will lose. In the case of the fishing industry, its health depends almost exclusively on the health of the oceans, and as fish populations dwindle and species begin to die out, the industry puts itself at risk. The gains made by the latest super-powerful harvesting techniques are only temporary.

Here on the coast of Massachusetts, we build stilt houses in an attempt to work with the ocean. We build sea walls too, and bolster them with riprap, but in the end, the effect is questionable. The presence of sea walls preserves our property, but through the process of erosion and coastal drift, it strips the beach of the precious sand necessary to provide a buffer from the crashing waves. What we end up with is a greatly diminished beach, and a greater potential for storm damage.

It’s a double-edged sword. If we take down the walls, we risk losing our homes to the sea. If we leave the walls in place, we risk losing our beach, the very reason we built homes there in the first place.

Admiring the view from my balcony on Fourth Cliff, I understand completely why people pay thousands of dollars to rent a beach house for one single summer week. Listening to the constant advance and retreat of the waves on the shoreline, I understand why the threat of losing one’s home, one’s yard, one’s possessions, and even endangering one’s life is not enough of a deterrent to prevent people from living at the ocean’s edge. However, looking down from the wind and wave-eroded cliff, where the house in which I’ve stayed this week inches closer and closer to the water each year, I understand too that somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to find a compromise.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
September 1998

Kezia Bacon’s articles are provided by the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.