October 29, 2020

Words: Rachel Hahn

Photographs: Kenyon Anderson

Sometime around 25,000 years ago, the last continental ice sheet started to drift away from what’s now known as Cape Cod. This shift marked the beginning of a protracted movement that profoundly shaped much of the area’s contemporary landscape. Within the next 5,000 years, that last glacier had floated away completely from the peninsula as it slowly moved further north to its new home of the Gulf of Maine. In its wake, rock debris covered the Cape’s bedrock, sloping hills formed from holes in the ice that had collapsed in on themselves, and kettle ponds flecked the coastal landscape.

Cape Cod’s kettle ponds number in the hundreds, and from a focussed lens, their formation is quite simple: blocks of ice left behind by these massive glaciers sometimes bury themselves deep down into the dirt, leaving behind a large depression that’s filled in over time by water poured in either by rain or natural springs. In our modern age, these ponds are a tranquil site for locals and the architects, artists, and intellectuals who have each been drawn to the beauty, stillness, and respite their peaceful shores and deep waters offer, but underneath the pond’s sun-dappled surface lies an epochal story. Scientists can chart the evolution of the surrounding area by looking at what’s collected in the pond’s bottom layers: trapped pollen, sediment, and the remains of sea creatures and other organisms. It’s a living record for previous climate patterns on Cape, one that points to the early days of the Holocene.

On busy, balmy summer afternoons and even well into fall’s chillier days, swimming in the warm, fresh water of the ponds feels almost as if you’re floating in a kind of womb. In many ways you are—the kettle ponds are used as hatching spots by herring, shore birds, otters, turtles, and other amphibians. If you quietly stake out a spot along the pond’s curved periphery, you might see a young osprey nested on the shore learning to fish at dusk or a snapping-turtle settling into the sand to lay her eggs in late spring.

For decades, the ponds have also been home to a number of artists, architects, and intellectuals. The landscape, light and environment seem to form their own gravitational force that pulls people in—photographers and painters like  Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Edward Hopper, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Nan Goldin have all made work in the area. By the '60s, European refugees who came to the States in the decades prior started to take root in Wellfleet for the summers, constructing early experimental modern structures nestled in the Cape’s relatively untouched, stout pine-oak forests. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius was one of the first to take up residence along the ponds—he’d swim across Long Pond for cocktail hour at painter György Kepes’s house just across the lagoon. Most famously, Marcel Breuer and Serge Chermayeff built homes right on Williams Pond, the smallest of three ponds connected by a sluiceway that doubles as a herring run—the former is a simple structure elevated on stilts executed in the same style as the three other cottages he built in Wellfleet, and the latter is a cuboid divided by colorful squares, triangles, and rectangles. The house where Thoreau wrote Cape Cod sits directly across the way from Breuers’s cottage on the pond. This early modernist legacy has influenced the creative community that still convenes along the ponds’ banks—a new wave of photographers, like Caroline Tompkins, Kenyon Anderson, Ryan Lowry and Amanda Hakan (and crew) have made annual pilgrimages to the Cape and these ponds for work and pleasure. Their images come at the end of the Holocene, a moment in time when the future of these kettle ponds are in flux.

“A kettle lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.”

- Henry David Thoreau

Climate crisis and and consumption play a large role in the biodiversity and health of our kettle ponds. Human consumption threatens our ponds the most—a good portion of our drinking water comes from ponds and lakes just like those we enjoy swimming in. Over the years, the ponds’ banks have dramatically eroded due to changes in weather patterns and an unsustainable influx of visitors. The ponds are a bridge for the birds, fish and amphibians who gather at the ocean’s shore, a place where they can safely stow away from winter storms. As the shorelines along the Atlantic recede and rainfall in the area becomes dramatically out of sync with periods of drought, we must more thoughtfully consider our interaction with this delicate and important ecosystem.

In Walden, Thoreau speaks of the kettle pond as * ”’s eye.” As you float in the middle of the pond, with the dark abyss below you and the trees shading the shoreline above you, it’s easy to understand why. Once you fully submerge yourself into its waters, both your sense of place and the horizon line become disrupted. Your usual spatial reference point, the shore of the vast Atlantic Ocean, is less than a mile away, but this seemingly untouched Eden becomes your new center. As your buoyancy adjusts to the freshwater’s slight ebbs and flows, you’re momentarily dropped towards the pond’s eye, face-to-face with its dark center. Light bounces off the pond’s mirrored surface and dances with the shadows of the tree branches, all of which leaves your understanding of time just as muddled as your sense of bodily awareness. Though the ponds give off this otherworldly quality, as if they exist in a parallel universe outside of our deteriorating environment, the story hidden in the pond’s depths is very much a real and pressing one. As we continue to enjoy these ponds, the historical record contained in their bottom layers is a humbling reminder of where exactly we fit into the greater narrative.


Rachel Hahn [@victorian_jelly] is a writer based in Queens New York and native to Massachusetts. She writes frequently about music, art, and fashion.

Kenyon Anderson [@kenyon__anderson] is a photographer and artist living between Wellfleet, MA and Brooklyn, NY.