beach book

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

outer

By Ray Greenblatt

The Outermost House is one of my favorite books. I have read many Nature works , but this one is unique. I have read about the ocean, its types of fishes, and the underwater geology, but this book is light on science. It focuses on the beach; that is partly why I came to live by the waters of the Chesapeake. This book speaks to me and for me because it uses poetic language. Beston is able to probe the vastness of the sea and the heavens.

Henry Beston (1888-1868) decided to live close to nature as Thoreau did at Walden. In 1928 he built a house right on the beach of Cape Cod. The Walden cabin was 10 X 16; Beston’s structure named the Fo’castle was 20 X 16.  He lived there for a year, recording the change of seasons. In 1929 he married the poet Elizabeth Coatsworth, to whom he was married for forty years. They then went on with their lives living on a farm in Maine.

The Beach

Since Beston writes in such an orderly manner, we shall simply follow his Table of Contents commenting on the richness of his observations. His first chapter truly focuses on the beach. “The flux and reflux of ocean, the incomings of waves, the gatherings of birds, the pilgrimages of the peoples of the sea, winter and storm, the splendour of autumn and the holiness of spring—all these were part of the great beach.”

Beston was especially aware of the light of the beach and the colors it revealed. “It has many colours: old ivory here, peat here, and here old ivory darkened and enriched with rust. At twilight, its rim lifted to the splendour in the west, the face of the wall becomes a substance of shadow and dark descending to the eternal unquiet of the sea; at dawn the sun rising out of the ocean gilds it with a level silence of light which thins and rises and vanishes into day.”  He is also apt to point out miniscule things as well.  “There is always something poetic and mysterious to me about these tracks in the pits of the dunes; they begin at nowhere, sometimes with the faint impression of an alighting wing, and vanish as suddenly into the trackless nowhere of the sky.”

Autumn, Ocean, and Birds

This chapter is dedicated to his observation of birds. He is fascinated by the migrations. “Now comes the sea fowl and the wild fowl to the beach from the lonely and darkening north, from the Arctic Ocean and the advancing pack, from the continental fragments and great empty islands that lie between the continents and the pole, from the tundra and the barrens, from the forests, from the bright lakes, from the nest-strewn crevices and ledges of Atlantic rocks no man has ever named or scaled.”

“Standing on the beach, fresh claw marks at my feet, I watch the lovely sight of the group instantly turned into a constellation of birds, into a fugitive Pleiades whose living stars keep their chance positions; I watch the spiraling flight, the momentary tilt of the white bellies, the alternate shows of the clustered, grayish backs.” He is even in awe of individual birds. “I wonder where it was that she forsook her familiar earth for the grey ocean, an ocean she perhaps had never seen. What a gesture of ancient faith and present courage such a flight is, what a defiance of circumstance and death—land wing and hostile sea, the fading land behind, the unknown and the distant articulate and imperious in the bright, aerial blood.”

“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 Headlong Wave

In this chapter Beston tries to interpret the sound of waves, something only a poet would attempt. “Hollow boomings and heavy roarings, 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.”

Midwinter

During midwinter Beston observes a variety of things. “To share in it, one must have a knowledge of the pilgrimage of the sun, and something of that natural sense of him and feeling for him which made even the most primitive people mark the summer limits of his advance and the last December ebb of his decline . . . We lose a great deal, I think, when we lose this sense and feeling for the sun. When all has been said, the adventure of the sun is the great natural drama by which we live, and not to have joy in it and awe of it, not to share in it, is to close a dull door on nature’s sustaining and poetic spirit.”

The sun is obscured by a storm.  “With the turn of the tide came fury unbelievable. The great rhythm of its waters now at one with the rhythm of the wind, the ocean rose out of the night to attack the ancient rivalry of earth, hurling breaker after thundering breaker against the long bulwark of the sands. The Fo’castle, being low and strongly built, stood solid as a rock, but its walls thrummed in the gale. I could feel the vibration in the bricks of the chimney, and the dune beneath the house trembled incessantly with the onslaught of the surf.”

Strange sights were to greet him after the storm was over. “There crumbled out the blackened skeleton of an ancient wreck which the dunes had buried long ago. As the tide rose this ghost floated and lifted itself free, and then washed south close along the dunes. There was something inconceivably spectral in the sight of this dead hulk thus stirring from its grave and yielding its bones again to the fury of the gale.”

Winter Visitors

In an earlier chapter “Headlong Wave” Henry Beston attempted to capture the sounds of the surf. In this chapter he speaks of bird sounds. “Sometimes wings whistle by in the darkness. The sound of a pair of ‘whistler’ ducks on the wing is a lovely, mysterious sound at such a time. It is a sound made with wings, a clear, sibilant note which increases as the birds draw near, and dies away in the distance like a faint and whistling sigh.” “Turning toward the marsh, I saw a flock of geese flying over the meadows along the rift of dying, golden light, their great wings beating with a slow and solemn beauty, their musical, bell-like cry filling the lonely levels and the dark.”

However, this chapter excels in word landscapes as vivid as any painting. “There are patches of snow on the hay fields and the marshes, and, on the dunes, nests of snow held up off the ground by wiry spears of beach grass bent over and tangled into a cup.  Such little pictures as this last are often to be seen on the winter dunes; I pause to enjoy them, for they have the quality and delicacy of Japanese painting. There is a blueness in the air, a blue coldness on the moors, and across the sky to the south, a pale streamer of cloud smoking from its upper edge.”

Then he expands his vision. “There was the ocean in all weathers and at all tides, now grey and lonely and veiled in winter rain, now sun-bright, coldly green, and marbled with dissolving foam; there was the marsh with its great congresses, its little companies, its wandering groups, and little family gatherings of winter birds; there was the glory of the winter sky rolling out of the ocean over and across the dunes, constellation by constellation, lonely star by star.”

Lanterns on the Beach

The author describes the wrecks that occur every year off Cape Cod. One has to remember that in the 1920’s many sailing ships were still used for transport. “Rigging freezes, sails freeze and tear—of a sudden the long booming undertone of the surf sounds under the lee bow—a moment’s drift, the feel of surf twisting the keel of the vessel, then a jarring, thundering crash and the upward drive of the bar . . . Stranded vessels soon begin to break up. Wrecks drag and pound on the shoals, the waves thunder inboard, decks splinter and crack like wooden glass , timbers part, and the iron rods bend over like candles in a heat.”

Despite their urgency, flares even have their aesthetic qualities. “The signal burns and sputters, the smoke is blown away almost ere it is born; the glassy bellies of the advancing breakers turn to volutes of rosy black, the seething foam to a strange vermilion-pink. In the night and rain beyond the hole of light an answering bellow sounds, ship lights dim as the vessel changes her course, the red flare dies to a sizzling, empty cartridge, the great dark of the beach returns to the solitary dunes.”

The men who prevent many wrecks and try to save those in peril are the local surfmen. “Winter and summer they pass and repass, now through the midnight sleet and fury of a great northeaster, now through August quiet and the reddish-golden radiance of an old moon rising after midnight from the sea, now through a world of  rain shaken with heavy thunder and stabbed through and through with lightning.”

An Inland Stroll in Spring

Beston began to live on Cape Cod in the autumn. Now that winter is over, he remarks on the ever-returning fecundity of spring. “I began to reflect on Nature’s eagerness to sow life everywhere, to fill the planet with it, to crowd with it the earth, the air, and the sea. Into every empty corner, into all forgotten things and nooks, Nature struggles to pour life, pouring life into the dead, life into life itself. That immense, overwhelming, relentless, burning ardency of Nature for the stir of life! And all these her creatures, even as these thwarted lives, what travail, what hunger and cold, what bruising and slow-killing struggle will they not endure to accomplish the earth’s purpose?”

Night on the Great Beach

Different aspects of darkness are considered. “For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars—pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience.”

A mystery occurs on the night beach. “Every spatter was a crumb of phosphorescence; I walked in a dust of stars. Behind me, in my footprints, luminous patches burned. With the double-ebb moonlight and tide, the deepening brims of the pools took shape in smouldering, wet fire. So strangely did the luminous speckles smoulder and die and glow that it seemed as if some wind were passing, by whose breath they were kindled and extinguished. Occasional whole breakers of phosphorescence rolled in out of the vague sea—the whole wave one ghostly motion, one creamy light—and, breaking against the bar, flung up pale sprays of fire.”

The savior in the night is the lighthouse. “A star of light which waxes and wanes three mathematical times, now as a lovely pale of light behind the rounded   summits of the dunes. The changes in the atmosphere change the colour of the beam; it is now whitish, now flame golden, now golden red; it changes its form as well, from a star to a blare of light, from a blare of light to a cone of radiance sweeping a circumference of fog.”

The Year at High Tide

What stands out most in this chapter is the author’s sense of smell. “I like a good smell—the smell of a freshly ploughed field on a warm morning after a night of April rain, the clovelike aroma of our wild Cape Cod pinks, the morning perfume of lilacs showery with dew, the good reek of hot salt grass and low tide blowing from these meadows late on summer afternoons.”

Orion Rises on the Dunes

A very apt final statement made by Henry Beston is found in this concluding chapter. “The creation is still going on, that the creative forces are as great and as active today as they have ever been, and that tomorrow’s morning will be as heroic as any of the world. Creation is here and now. So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will  be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through debatable existences of time. Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy.”

There were and always will be Nature writers—a most obvious statement that could be made about poets as well. They tell us about the state of the natural world that we are often unaware of or too busy to notice. Henry Beston’s book has a cosmic feeling—the sea and sky, the major characters, cannot be larger. That factor provides an energy that makes its reading so stimulating. Beston’s prose style is full of imagery that gives pungency and further aids in making the book mystically fly!.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Outermost-House-Year-Great-Beach/dp/080507368X

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Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.