The Outermost House – Henry Beston

            for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)/ it’s always ourselves we find in the sea- e e cummings


I went to the woods because I wished…wait, that’s not right for this, is it? Thoreau may have traipsed deliberately into the underbrush to live, but he, like Henry Beston, was surely drawn to the sea. Perhaps we all are, summoned by the weight of ancient codes and polypeptides shifting within our cells, leaning us waterward, demanding our periodic attendance to that primordial spot, the place where it all began, so as to never entirely lose our inner ooze. Elemental, yes?

Henry Beston went to the ocean in 1925 after building himself a sturdy two room home on the easternmost point of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, known as Eastham Beach. Beston intended to remain for two weeks at the home he named Fo’castle (pronounced fohk-suhl), only to find

the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not 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 Outermost House is Beston’s lively commentary upon this extraordinary year, a time in which he lived alone but was never lonely, given to the solitary and singularly glorious task of observing the oceanfront environment and recording his ample ideas upon its changes within the course of that annum. Beston considered himself foremost a writer, then a naturalist. His little book affords such literary immersion in a world bordered only by water and sky and sand, inhabited by thousands of birds and very few people. Beston places the naturalist’s patina upon his images of the mundane yet haunting essences of water, wildlife, and vegetation, those ephemera which are always moving and brimming with life stories, none of them human.

Beston’s path to Fo’castle sprang from his days of World War I service. Any reader will be forced to imagine the healing course upon him of hours and days spent on the shore, the certain rhythms and the tediums of  observance filling in and smoothing grooves where before there almost certainly was horror and pain. Truly, the reader is given only to imagine this, for Beston very scarcely brings himself into the account. His personal references are almost non-existent; his philosophical musings are breezy, while containing great insight into Beston’s love of nature and his most cherished beliefs.

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.

Beston gives us the world of the shore in all its wide, sensuous span. He devotes a chapter each to the full exploration of his beachfront existence through  sensory measures, by day and by night, with such descriptions of aural, visual and olfactory register that any reader acquainted with the ocean will recognize and appreciate the simple, evocative power of the words.

Listen to it a while, and it will seem but one remote and formidable sound; listen still longer and you will discern in it a symphony of breaker thunderings, an endless, distant, elemental cannonade. There is beauty in it, and ancient terror.

Beston also details the lives of the native and transitory birds who inhabit the Cape. He is a bird lover of high measure, going so far as to capture a large bird caught in an oil spill for an overnight’s safekeeping and an attempt at feather cleaning in the little house. He counts nests and eggs, checks on flocks after storms, and takes great pains to portray the inherent grace of even the modest sparrow and tern without sentimentality or pretense.

Henry David Thoreau did walk through Eastham in 1849, “warding off a drenching autumnal rain with his Concord umbrella,” and Beston summons something of Thoreau’s spirit, if not his wordiness, for The Outermost House. It’s the same spirit which possessed me earlier this year, a knowledge that I must get to the beach for a body-to-sand embrace, for some reflection, for some inexorable reason, pulled more than driven to that spot where the veil is partially lifted and we can glimpse another world.

There is no harshness here in the landscape line, no hard Northern brightness or brusque revelation; there is always reserve and mystery, always something beyond, on earth and sea something which nature, honouring, conceals.

16 thoughts on “The Outermost House – Henry Beston

  1. The only book of his I’ve read is a little book about herbs. When I read it I thought I’d discovered an unknown gem of a writer. I announced this to my friend Craig who informed me that Henry wasn’t entirely unknown.

  2. Hi, Deloney. You really have discovered an unknown gem of a writer. Found my copy of The Outermost House at a used book sale; it’s certainly a treasure. Hope you find a copy to enjoy…

  3. You really do have a lovely site here. Are there any modern writers you know of who write books along the lines of Henry’s? Long ago I had a book by W.J. Keith called “The Rural Tradition”…a book of essays about English writers who wrote about the countryside. That’s how I discovered Richard Jefferies and some others I still love.

    Don’t mean to harass you!

  4. Thank you very much for the compliment! Far as modern writers similar to Beston, Annie Dillard springs to mind with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. There’s also A Country Year by Sue Hubbell, essays about beekeeping (sort of) and one of my favorite books. Many of the Sabbaths poems of Wendell Berry contain satisfying reflections on country life. I’ll have to look up the WJ Keith. Thanks for the recommendation 🙂

  5. I once sent Annie Dillard a fan-letter (on a postcard). A friend of mine had her address. She sent a postcard back and that was good of her. I think she’s getting a bit ornery in her late middle-age. Her early non-fiction is wonderful, but those two novels…hmm. Not the sort of books you’d give a loved one for Valentine’s Day.

    I’ve always liked the idea that for every modern book we read we should read three or four old books. How old I don’t know. A century at least, maybe several. Do you think this is good advice? I’ve been sticking to it for so long that I’m totally out of the loop when it comes to modern literature.

  6. By Dillard novels, do you mean The Maytrees? Think I know what you mean. What a wonderful anecdote about her reply to your postcard!

    As for reading old for new, that’s an interesting quid pro quo. Does it really matter, as long as the choices are happy ones?

  7. No, I guess it doesn’t matter. Kenneth Hopkins wrote:

    “Very rarely to later generations are the most esteemed writers of any period those who enjoyed the most contemporary acclaim: in the time of Milton the acknowledged genius was Abraham Cowley, in that of Blake it was William Hayley; when Wordsworth hardly found a reader the poems of Robert Montgomery were selling by the tens of thousands.”

    As my friend Ian remarked: “It’s salient and sobering information.” Indeed.

    Anyway, it’s been a fun conversation. I’ll get out of your hair now. As I said earlier, you have a lovely site. I’ll leave you with a very, very brief scene from a novel by literature’s sublime clown, P.G. Wodehouse:

    Rory rushes into the room.
    “Darling, can you speak Spanish?”
    “I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”

  8. Elizabeth: well, I ordered a secondhand copy of The Outermost House online. Once it arrives and I’ve read it I’ll submit a very brief book report here!

  9. PS: I’m not sure how to access your archives. I saw you posted something about The Stranger by Camus but I can’t just click on the name of the book. Is there a search engine here that I’m missing?

    • Sadly, The Stranger only shows up in my reading list for 2011. I didn’t write up anything about it, though I passed it on to a co-worker and it generated some vigorous office discussion. Is Camus a favorite of yours?

      Because I don’t post regularly, the only archives here are the few shown to the right hand side of the home page.

  10. No, Camus isn’t a favourite. It was the book we had to read in French class in grade nine. Yes, in French! I took an English language copy out of the library so I’d know what it was about! French lessons from grade 7 to grade 13, and with no chance to actually speak it since I’ve lost it. I regret it now because I’m in love with Quebec City.

    Yes, I’ll post something about the Outermost House here. Oh, don’t worry, not an endless essay. A few happy pithy remarks. I know it advance I’ll like it.

  11. Hi Elizabeth. Sorry it took so long! Yes, I read it and I was enchanted. My favourite chapter was the one about the storm on the beach, and the last chapter was wonderful too. I wish he’d gone on more about his time inside the house itself, but of course he wanted to concentrate on the outside, the beach and the birds and the animals. It’s a mini-masterpiece. There’s another online reviewer you might want to read. I just commented on one of his reviews. I just discovered him this morning. I wish you well and here’s the link:

  12. So glad to know you enjoyed the book. I liked his writing about the storm, too, and I liked the part where he brought the bird inside to try and clean the oil from it. It really is a mini-masterpiece, you’re right. Wish I hadn’t passed it along to my sister…

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