on July 3, 2009
Henry Beston wanted to find his voice as a writer. He had served as an ambulance driver in France during WWI and since then had earned a living on children's fairy tales and magazine articles. He fell under the spell of Outer Cape Cod while writing about the coast guardsmen stationed at Eastham, and in 1925 had a small cottage built in the dunes between ocean and marsh. There he spent much of the next two years, finding his voice as a writer and much more. The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, published in late 1928, is the eloquent result. Never out of print since its publication, it has always been one of the most influential classics of nature writing. His strength was not scientific observation, but the exploration of our relationship with nature.
Alone on the beach, he lived in his 20x16-foot cabin, which he called the Fo'castle for its ship-like economy of function and intimacy with the ocean and the weather. The land and sea birds, the smells and sounds of the beach, the wind, sea, sand, plants and animals--all move to the heartbeat of the year's passage. Beston's writing is both detailed and metaphorical; he had the rare gift of sharing his observations without monopolizing the frame.
He was aware that Nature has its own momentum and all the occurrences about which he wrote are subject to that dominant force. An old wrecked ship, thrown up in a storm, showed its bones against the sky and then receded again. Of seals, he wrote: "They have a trick of swimming unperceived under a flock of sea ducks, seizing one of the unwary birds from underneath, and then disappearing with their mouths full of flesh and frantic feathers. A confusion follows; the survivors leap from the water with wildly beating wings, they scatter, wheel, and gather again, and presently nature has erased every sign of the struggle, and the sea rolls on as before." These life-and-death events are just a ripple in the fabric of the elemental world.
Finally in September, Beston spent a night on the beach and before dawn, "In the luminous east, two great stars aslant were rising...Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, the shoulders of Orion." His beach year at an end, the observer distilled his impressions: his reverence and gratitude for "the great natural drama," his understanding that creation is still going on, that the observation is only relevant to that moment, that "poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science." Beston was convinced that a reverence for nature must underpin all our achievements, or else they can't have true meaning. His writings influenced others who took the case forward. He moved to Maine and lived quietly with his family, never an activist, too much the literary perfectionist to ever be a prolific writer. Though he wrote several other books, none of them were quite as perfectly integrated as The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. Much as I cherish his Maine writing, this is the book that I turn to again and again for peace and perspective.
Beston had the Fo'castle moved back from the encroaching sea a time or two, then donated it to the Audubon Society in 1959; it finally perished in "The Blizzard of '78." In 1961, forty miles and 43,500 acres of beach and dune were protected by the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore under the stewardship of the National Park Service.
I listened to the excellent 2007 audio production (strangely, the first), read by Brett Barry. Beston's language has such a rich cadence that it's a wonderful choice for audio, especially if you are already familiar with the book. On the other hand there are so many passages that you'll want to linger over...I think most committed readers should not start their audio careers here. But whether you read or listen, you must experience this wonderful book.
Linda Bulger, 2009
on February 8, 2000
The Outermost House is one of my favorite books. Henry Beston has a wonderful writing style that produces vivid images of his year spent living in a small house on the dunes of the beach on Cape Cod in 1926. We see through his eyes a year of seasons passing, birds in migration, storms, shipwrecks, and peaceful solitude.
I've read this book several times. Beston's imagery is excellent, making it easy to picture the Cape Cod setting, see what he saw, walk where he walked, and at the same time feel the sea breeze on your face and relax.
Another tribute to this book is that you can literally open it to any page, any paragraph and find fresh and descriptive writing. Here, I'll pick a truely random page now:
"...Streaming over the dunes, the storm howled on west over the moors. The islands of the marsh were brownish black, the channels leaden and whipped up by the wind; and along the shores of the desolate islands, channel waves broke angrily, chiding, tossing heavy ringlets of lifeless white. A scene of incredible desolation and cold. All day long I kept to my house, building up the fire and keeping watch from the windows..."
I highly recommend this book, I know I will read yet again someday.
on February 9, 2002
I had never heard of Henry Beston until a friend lent me--or, more accurately, pressed on me--his copy of The Outermost House. After reading this book, I understand his sense of urgency: this is a work of unique and lasting beauty, surely one of the greatest nature books ever written. In detailing his year in his cottage at Eastham Beach (now Coast Guard Beach) on the Atlantic side of Cape Cod, Beston combines a Thoreauvian zeal for nature and the examined life with a Proustian ability to record exactly the sight, sound, feel and scent of the world around him. Page after page is filled with unforgettable passages; his descriptions of the markings and songs of the shore birds alone are enough to move you to tears. His story of the plight of a doe caught in an icy flood is almost as suspenseful as a Hitchcock movie; his tribute to the courage of the Coast Guard "surfmen" who rescue shipwrecked sailors is particularly resonant to us who--after Sept. 11, 2001--have learned something about the value of those who safeguard the public. Beston is so quotable a writer that I'm shocked he's not better known. A few quotes should demonstrate:
"Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man."
"Man can be either less than man or more than man, and both are monsters, the last more dread."
"Poor body, time and the long years were the first tailors to teach you the merciful use of clothes! Though some scold today because you are too much seen, to my mind, you are not seen fully enough or often enough when you are beautiful."
"Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy."
Henry Beston found urban life insupportable in the mid-1920s; who could know the dismay he would feel in 2002, when computers, television and jet planes make the world pass in a blur! Beston is out to teach us how to slow down, to learn to live again according to the patterns and rhythms of nature. For those who are willing to read and understand, The Outermost House remains a haven of peace and beauty.
on October 6, 2000
The Outermost House is a classic, not just of natural history literature, but of American literature. If you love the outdoors, or the sea, or prose that flows like poetry, you should keep this small book always nearby. The harried introvert will especially appreciate it: reading even a page or two will transport you to a quiet place where the wind through the dune grass is the only sound that strikes your ear.
In addition to being a great writer, Beston is an acute observer biological phenomena, and not a bad theorist either. His discourse on the relationship other animals bear to us ("They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations...") does more to unlink the Great Chain of Being than any philosophical essay. And Beston's influence has been wide-ranging, not only among natural history writers, but among writers in general: unless I am mistaken, The Outermost House is one of the sources for the "Dry Salvages" section of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. (If no one else has noticed that before, I want coauthorship on the paper!)
Some books are so memorable that parts of them become internalized on first reading. The first time I read The Outermost House, its final sentence -- as graceful an example of polysyndeton as you will find in English -- became mine. Now, I pass it on to you: "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 dawn seen over ocean from the beach."
on May 26, 2004
If you really want to know a lot about Cape Cod start here. It is probably the best nature book ever written. Clear and well-thought, it is a journey through a single year in the Cape's history. As I side note: if you are interested in Coast Guard history you will find this book very interesting.
on April 10, 1998
An enduring classic, Henry Beston's The Outermost House, takes the reader on a time journey through a year in the life of the seashore of Cape Cod. The passage of time is not recorded with the clock, but with the rhythms the sea, the cycles of the moon, and the changing seasons. The chapter on the headlong wave can make one a little seasick with Beston's undulating passages and rhythmic words. Not a leisurely stroll on the beach, The Outermost House portrays Beston's year-long observations of the sand and the sea as true partners, sometimes betraying one another, other times working in perfect harmony.
on November 26, 1999
When I was about 10 years old, My father took me on a hike down Coast Guard Beach to see the Outermost House. It seemed tiny, and I wasn't sure why we walked all that way to see it. Years later, the house is gone (washed away in a nor'easter), but I understand why we took that walk. In the Outermost House, Henry Beston vividly describes the beauty of the outer beach that still exists over 70 years later. The harshness of winter storms, the magic of the wildlife and the sounds of the shorebirds are thoughtfully reflected in this classic chronicle of life on old Cape Cod.
on April 10, 1998
Rachel Carson once described The Outermost House as the sole influence on her writing, and Henry Beston's account of a solitary year by the sea has the same combination of natural science and poetry. The theme is one of an isolation that modern man rarely experiences, where the passing seasons are evidenced by different varieties of seabirds, by subtle changes in the wind, the sea, and even the color of the sand. Especially memorable are descriptions of violent nor'easters, shipwrecks, and the perseverence of the quietly heroic coast guard. This is a book to be savored.
on March 14, 1999
I read this book for my nature writing elective in highschool. Although I did not necessarily like nature writing before this class, the books we read, this in particular, heightened by appreciation for my natural surroundings. I highly recommend it and the only reason I didn't give it 5 stars is because its slow in some parts.
on December 28, 2014
He has a lovely way of writing and some rather profound thoughts and moments for those of us who love nature and animals. It is a book I will read again.