The Outermost House, subtitled A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod is Henry Beston's masterpiece chronicling the ebb and flow of nature over a year (summer 1926-1927) he lived in a 16' by 20' house on the dunes in Eastham, Massachussetts in what is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The book is somewhat in the tradition of Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
Though at first glance the book seems light summer reading, it holds great truths within, wrapped in a prose that while meticulous, is never overwrought and carries, at least to my ear, more than an echo of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"The world to-day is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling up from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. "
Henry Beston, already deep in the roaring twenties feels modernity pressing down upon him, separating him from nature and somehow diminishing him for that remove. Elsewhere he bemoans the loss of true night to the spread of electric streetlights, pavement and the noise of civilization, but he is by no means a luddite. Neither is he an enviromentalist in the strict sense of the word, but I have never heard a better description of the tapestry of life and mankind's place in it:
"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
He prefigures the concept of spaceship earth
decades before we got a view of our planet from space
and realized the finiteness of our confines. In his time though, life still whirls around him in masses of birds, local and vast migrations, schools of fish without number and other visitors to the beach. Large swaths of the book are devoted to describing the beasts, more with a poet
's eye than a naturalist
. Beston also spends a great deal of time in descriptions of the ocean and the surf. To our jaded jet-travelling ears, this seems a bit monotonous even if beautiful and lyrical, yet for many at the time, this book was an introduction to a marvel never seen first-hand by those landlocked in the vast Midwest
. There is an entire chapter devoted to the waves. The descriptions of the beauty of the New England
seashore, are quite evocative of its muted beauty. In the Caribbean
, where I grew up, beauty stands up and slaps you in the face
. In New England
, it is a slow seduction that includes the Caribbean
palette and then augments it in many subtle directions. This book is ultimately poetry in the service of ideals.
"The other day I saw a young swimmer in the surf.
He was, I judged, about twenty-two years old and a little less
then six feet tall, splendidly built, and as he stripped I saw that
he must have been swimming since the season began, for he
was sunburned and brown. Standing naked on the steep
beach, his feet in the climbing seethe, he gathered himself for a
swimmer's crouching spring, watched his opportunity, and
suddenly leaped headfirst through a long arc of air into the
wall of a towering and enormous wave. ... It was
all a beautiful thing to see; the surf thundering across the great
natural world, the beautiful and compact body in its naked
strength and symmetry, the astounding plunge across the air,
arms extended ahead, legs and feet together, the emerging
stroke of the flat hands, and the alternate rhythms of the
sunburned and powerful shoulders.
Watching this picture of a fine human being free
for the moment of everything save his own humanity and
framed in a scene of nature, I could not help musing on the mystery of the human body and of how nothing can equal its rich and rhythmic beauty.
Where Henry Thoreau
is somewhat miserly towards humanity, Beston has a Walt Whitman
esque love for mankind in all its beauty. Beston relishes the nearness of the Nauset Light
and its Coast Guard life saving station
and often hosts the taciturn men that walk the beach patrol each night for a cup of coffee
or just some conversation. In the third millenium, we tend to forget the power of the sea to humble us except when a perfect storm
comes along to slap us in the face. In Beston's year upon the beach, he is witness to many wrecks upon the sandbars and the often futile attempts by the men of the station to save the lives of the unfortunate crew and passengers. He is also part of communities small enough and close enough that a son may find the body of his shipwrecked father upon the beach. Beston, born in Quincy, Massachussetts
himself, expresses outright wonder and admiration for the yankee
spirit of pragmatism and stoicism.
Beston succeeds in protraying a time where we stood on the brink, where Nature and Mankind were still somewhat in balance clear though it was that technology was just tipping the scales. This book is a minor classic and will enrich you in unexpected ways. Put it at the top of your reading list, preferably in summertime.
The Henry Beston Society, http://www.henrybeston.org/, 7/24/2004
Beston, Henry. The Outermost House. New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1949