Picture Postcard

We’ve been off the air for a couple of days, having holed up in Wellfleet for a long weekend.

The weekend after Columbus Day is when the town hosts its annual Oysterfest, a two-day celebration of our renowned local mollusc. As you can see from the schedule of events, there are concerts, lectures, exhibitions and competitions (including a lively oyster-shucking contest and the annual Spelling Bee); there are also dozens of booths set up along Main Street where local artists and craftsmen hawk their wares, and where local charities do lucrative sheep-shearing. First and foremost, though, there is food, and above all there are Wellfleet oysters everywhere, plucked fresh from their briny slumber in our scenic harbor and served up in every way imaginable.

The weekend forecast was not auspicious: not one, but two nor’easters loomed, with temperatures expected to rise no higher than the forties, and it looked as if the whole thing might be a washout this year. But Saturday was the eye, so to speak, of the storm, and although it was grey, windy, chilly and damp in town, there was no rain at all most of the day, and the turnout seemed almost unaffected. Here’s a shot of the crowds in the main area behind Town Hall, by the food tent:

As mentioned above, among the festivities is the town’s annual Spelling Bee, held in the late afternoon at the Wellfleet Public Library — which, by the way, has been cited by whatever organization is responsible for such things as one of America’s finest small libraries (unsurprisingly, as Wellfleet has always been rather a magnet for writers, and has been home to a great many of them of the years). I’ve entered the Bee each of the past four years, and after a rookie mishap in 2006, I took top honors in 2007, and came in second in 2008.

I’m happy to report that I am king of the hill once again. In second place was a lanky fellow, also named Malcolm, from nearby Truro. Though a doughty foe, he stumbled on staphylococcus in the last round, leaving out the ‘y’. My nemesis Maria, who won in 2006 and 2008, was eliminated rather early on, having, in a moment of inattention, inexplicably substituted a ‘b’ for an ‘n’ in some relatively easy word. I was sorry to see her knocked out that way, as she’s a damned fine speller, but such is war.

I did survive a bit of a scare in the late rounds, when there were only three of us left: the master of ceremonies, apparently growing frustrated with the unflappability of the remaining contestants, turned to a list of words that had been muffed by finalists in the National Spelling Bee. The first word given was papilionaceous, a word meaning “shaped like a butterfly”. I was rather disappointed that I hadn’t got that one, as I knew how to spell it, but was glad to see it knock out the contestant to my right, leaving only two of us. Next, however, I got the word gnathonic, a word I had never seen before, meaning, apparently, “fawning or flattering”.

One often, when given an unfamiliar word and its definition, can puzzle out what the correct spelling must be by thinking about possible roots and etymologies, or by searching one’s mind for related words, or cognates in other languages — but try as I might I couldn’t come up with anything. I figured that the word must be “tricky” in some way, or I wouldn’t have been given it, so “n-a-t-h-o-n-i-c-” must be out. I made some guess — I can’t remember what it was — but it was wrong.

My fate now hung by a thread; if Malcolm from Truro to my left now got his word right, all would be lost. But he too tripped over his word — I think it was onomatopoetic — and all three of us were alive again. A few rounds later the crown, and all that goes with it — incandescent fame, gnathonic adulation, access to local females, and an inscribed copy, this year, of The Famous Beds Of Wellfleet: A Shellfishing History — were mine once more.

Today the second of the weekend’s storms charged in, with howling winds and torrential rain, and Day 2 of the Oysterfest was pretty much washed away (though when I stopped off in town this afternoon the food tent was still up and running, sheltering a few merry and undaunted celebrants keeping warm with beer and chowder). Over at the backshore, atop the cliff at White Crest Beach, the conditions were fearsome indeed: a ferocious gale laden with wind-driven sand, and down below a chaotic, foaming sea. It was all I could do to get out of the car for a few seconds to take the picture below; indeed, so fierce was the wind that despite my considerable physical strength I could hardly push the door open. Here’s the view:

And here’s a shot of nearby Newcomb Hollow beach, taken by my lovely Nina:

This is a side of the Outer Cape that the summer crowds never see; the fury of these fall and winter storms is a sobering reminder that this quaint and friendly place, for all its delicate beauty, is, after all, just a fragile wisp of sand flung far out into the tempestuous and unforgiving North Atlantic. It’s getting dark now, and the storm shows no sign of abating; the house creaks and shudders as I write, and the pine trees outside are swaying and moaning in the wind and rain.

There’s no place I’d rather be.

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  1. As it turns out, the word comes from a character named Gnatho, in Terence’s play Eunuchus, which by some inexcusable oversight I’ve never read; reflecting on it now I imagine that the character himself got his name from the Greek ‘gnathon’, meaning “jaw”, which also was the source of the name Agnatha, given to a class of (mostly) extinct jawless fishes. Having had a lifelong interest in paleontology I’d heard of those fishes, of course (their modern descendants are the hideous hagfish, and perhaps the lampreys), but this connection quite escaped me in the heat of battle. That’s interesting, actually, because the clue I missed to the word that killed me last yearperiostracum — also had to do with a Greek word, ‘ostrakon’, which was the root for the name given to a group of extinct fishes called Ostracoderms. Small world.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    But there was no gnashing of teeth this year. ‘Tis good. Congrats on the win.


    Posted October 18, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  2. Congratulations on your orthographic glory (though, strictly speaking, I reckon “orthographic” is a misnomer). Your now-enhanced charisma will undoubtedly cast its own spell.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted October 19, 2009 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  3. Charles says

    Congratulations on your victory!

    Here’s to hoping you survive the access to local females…

    Posted October 19, 2009 at 6:52 am | Permalink
  4. Love reading about Wellfleet’s tempestuous fall weather and your spelling bee accomplishment. You surely love words as evidenced by this blog entry which is so eloquent! I connected to your entry from Chez Sven’s blog and just wanted you to know I visited as I always enjoy when others leave a message when they visit my blog.

    Posted October 19, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink