I was reading Philip Hoare’s Leviathan and came across a reference to Henry Beston’s sojourn on a Cape Cod beach for a year, chronicled in The Outermost House, published in 1928. It’s a wonderful book, one of the best nature books I’ve read. His evocation of this wild, windswept outpost of land thirty miles out in the Atlantic Ocean is magical. he writes vividly of the the seasons, the birds, the ocean and the night. One remarkable chapter is devoted to his detailed description of ‘the ways, the forms, and the sounds of ocean near a beach’.
Dominated by ocean and weather, the Cape landscape has been long inhabited but never domesticated. Here, in a tiny house set alone on a dune above the sea, Beston came to experience solitude, to watch, listen, and bear witness. He watches on winter nights as fishing schooners move slowly beyond the bar, or come to grief upon it. He listens to the multitude of voices in the surf, and attempts to capture in words the music he has heard. He watches the comings and goings of stars and tides, the nightly patrols of the ‘surfmen’ of the coastguard who walk the beach; he observes the migrations of birds and fish. Henry Beston has a wonderful command of language, an ability to turn a poetic phrase and give a vivid sensory impression. He believed that ‘poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science’.
The Nauset beach spit, where Beston’s outermost house was located, is an extremely narrow barrier beach peninsula formed by sand washing down from the north. The photo above shows the house looking towards the mainland over the great marsh, but to the back of the cameraman were the dunes and the open Atlantic. The house was dedicated as a literary landmark by the U.S. government in 1964, but house and three miles of dunes were obliterated by abnormal high tides in February 1978.
Here are a few extracts from The Outermost House:
The world to-day is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. In my world of beach and dune these elemental presences lived and had their being and under their arch moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year.
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.
The sky this afternoon is a harmony of universal blue, bordered with a surf rim of snowiest blue-white. Far out at sea, in the northeast and near the horizon, is a pool of the loveliest blue I have ever seen here – a light blue, a petal blue, a blue of the emperor’s gown in a Chinese fairy tale. If you would see waves at their best, come on such a day, when the ocean reflects a lovely sky, and the wind is light and onshore; plan to arrive in the afternoon so that you will have the sun facing the breakers. Come early, for the glints on the waves are most beautiful and interesting when the light is oblique and high.
The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach. I have heard them all, and of the three elemental voices, that of ocean is the most awesome, beautiful, and varied. For it is a mistake to talk of the monotone of ocean or of the monotonous nature of its sound. The sea has many voices. Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears, and you will hear in it a world of sounds: hollow boomings and heavy roaring, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes , sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of people in the sea. And not only is the great sound varied in the manner of its making, it is also constantly changing its tempo, its pitch, its accent, and its rhythm, being now loud and thundering, now almost placid now furious, now grave and solemn-slow, now a simple measure, now a rhythm monstrous with a sense of purpose and elemental will.
Beston’s year on the beach comes full circle and closes his notebook with these words:
Whatever attitude to human existence you fashion for yourself, know that it is valid only if it be the shadow of an attitude to Nature. A human life, so often likened to a spectacle on a stage, is more justly a ritual. The ancient values of dignity, beauty and poetry which sustain it are of Nature’s inspiration: they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. Do no dishonour to the earth lest you dishonour the spirit of man. Hold your hands out over the earth as over a flamer. To all who love her, who open to her the doors of their veins, she gives of her strength, sustaining them with her own measureless tremor of dark life. Touch the earth, love the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and the dawn seen over the ocean from the beach.
These words from The Outermost House are inscribed on Henry Beston’s gravestone:
Creation is still going on, the creative forces are as great and active today as they have ever been, and tomorrow’s morning will be as heroic as any of the world.