Home ➨ Slightly Foxed - Walden-by-the-Sea
It is a typical winter night on California’s central coast: the rain has been drumming on the roof, the dogs, happy and dry, are curled into their beds, and my wife and I are in our bed, propped up on a pile of pillows, books in hand. I’m attempting with mixed success not to shake the bed with repressed laughter brought on by P. G. Wodehouse. My wife, having put aside the ever-present New Yorker magazine, is giving her undivided attention to The Outermost House by Henry Beston.
‘Darling, have you read this?’ she says, her eyes remaining fixed on the page.
‘Mm. Must be more than twenty years ago. It’s very good.’
‘It’s better than “very good”,’ she replies. ‘You should read it again. It’s wonderful.’
The following night Mr Beston and I become reacquainted, and I am reminded why my wife was so insistent that he and I meet again.
In 1922, the 34-year-old Henry Beston Sheahan, having served as an ambulance driver in France in the First World War and as a war correspondent on both British and American naval ships, was looking for a quiet place; a place not ‘harassed of man’. A native of Massachusetts, he chose the great beach at Cape Cod, a skeletal extension of land thrusting thirty miles east from Massachusetts then curling northward, defying the wrath of the north Atlantic, like the flexed bicep of a bodybuilder shaking a heavily knuckled fist at Nova Scotia.
Beston’s visits grew in length and duration, and in 1925 he purchased fifty acres on the beach at Eastham and built a two-room house, sixteen feet by twenty, with ten windows. Its main living space was so open to the ocean vista that it felt like a ship at sea, and so close ‒ twenty feet above the high-water mark and thirty from the beach ‒ that his reading was interrupted late one night by the thunderous impact of a massive wave that jarred the pictures hanging on the walls and sent a quiver through the flame of his oil lamp (and, one suspects, through Mr Beston’s spine). He christened his house the Fo’castle.
Beston began keeping a journal of his observations, intending perhaps to shape them into a book, though it was slow in coming. When he met the woman to whom he would propose, the fellow-writer Elizabeth Coatsworth, his book was still only a sheaf of notes. It is said that to provide him with the necessary spur, Miss Coatsworth declined to marry him until his book was finished. This story is almost certainly apocryphal, but if it isn’t true, it should be. For a man who stands within striking distance of his fortieth wedding anniversary, as I do, it has the ring of authenticity. The Bestons’ marriage was to be a long one. One does not maintain a long and successful marriage without having learned The Art of Easy Acquiescence. The Outermost House was published in 1928. The Bestons married in 1929.
Unlike many writers who flee to the quiet seclusion of the country in search of themselves – the parallels with Henry David Thoreau, who himself wrote about Cape Cod and whom Beston admired, are inescapable – Beston knows who he is and what he wants. He wants not to look inward but outward. He wants to be a spectator, and it is a fine spectacle he has chosen: the restless north Atlantic, predatory and unforgiving in its darker, wintry moods, benign and life-giving in the brief, steamy months of summer. Just steps away, the ocean offers him something beyond quiet; it offers him the rhythmic percussion of its relentless crash and the treble hiss of sand as the waters retreat. He has a wonderful ear, and the great beach of Cape Cod is his amphitheatre, where ‘as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go’, and as we walk the beach beside him we feel as if we, too, cannot go.
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 there moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year. The flux and reflux of the 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.
This is pure Thoreau, but while Beston is occasionally impelled to reflection, he is less a philosopher than a poet, for he believes that ‘Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy.’ Whether it is the tens of thousands of birds who visit the Cape, flowing across the sky like ‘a river of life’, the ever-changing moods and colours of the sea (the birth and death of a single wave is the subject of an entire chapter), or the infinite shadings of the shifting sand beneath his feet, his artist’s eye is ever alive to the colour and texture of everything around him.
Though first and foremost an observer and a poet, speculating on the habits of the many unseen creatures who leave their tracks in the sand or ‘vanish into the trackless nowhere of the sky’, he finds ‘there is always reserve and mystery, always something beyond, on earth and sea something which nature, honouring, conceals’, and his observations lead inevitably to moments of reflection.
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals . . . We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err . . . For the animals 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] other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
The Outermost House is now regarded as belonging on the short shelf that houses the indispensable books about Cape Cod, and visitors to the cape today may be seen traipsing about with it in hand, the shade of Henry Beston beside them, and running before them ‘the thin-footed, light-winged peoples, the industrious waders, the busy pickup, runabout, and scurry-along folk’. Like Henry David Thoreau’s beloved cabin at Walden Pond, the original outermost house, proclaimed a National Literary Landmark in 1964, is long gone. The Fo’castle and the beach on which it once stood were claimed by the sea in the catastrophic winter storms of 1977‒8, but Beston’s work and its legacy have achieved something like immortality.
An environmentalist before the label became fashionable, or even entered the vernacular, Henry Beston has opened the eyes of generations of writers and readers to the wonders of everything that can elevate man; that man cannot create but can imperil by neglect or indifference. A small, beautiful corner of the world is safer from exploitation because Henry Beston was there. The Outermost House helped to inspire the creation in 1961 of the 43,000-acre Cape Cod National Seashore, and Beston, who lived to see it, surely knew that this is as fine a monument to a man’s life and work as anyone could wish for.