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.

Bodies of Water

Last month, I crossed the Atlantic twice. The outbound darkness hardly endures the trip; inevitably a curious passenger will open the shades shortly after midnight Central time to look at the water and wake everyone up by chasing the dawn to Europe. It can’t be helped. Returning, the ocean 40,000 feet below seems to sustain the plane, pulling it home like tide, and there is only one view for the afternoon window gazer. The water orchestrates it all, bringing Londoners to Chicago and wandering Midwesterners home, mixing and matching us in a continental card shuffle that separates and unites lives. It all seems so easy from above, riding tons of fuel and engineering into effortless transit, napping and drinking wine while heading both towards and away from worlds we love. The ocean is the only constant, roiling and fathoming in its changeless way. There is no way to fight this force, well, not since the Concorde was parked.

Since last Thursday, I’ve been engaged in a different battle with waters, only these are brown, shitty floodwaters. There is nothing romantic about a flood, no poems for gazing there with longing, no blue. Flooding here is strangely utilitarian. The Mississippi takes in way too much from rivers and streams to the north. It expands greatly not far from where I live, and, like the proverbially unlucky rabbit in the snake, pushes outwards and eases itself until it’s comfortable and safe in its own skin once more. Leaving nothing behind. Except, of course, mud and crushed things, whether houses or corn stalks or lives.

My role in all of this is a simple one. I’m a public health nurse, and, in flooding like this, there is a great demand for public health nurses to give tetanus vaccinations. Very basic stuff. I’ve now asked hundreds of arms to please roll up their sleeves. The phrase, ”Have you ever had an allergic reaction to a shot?” will speed from my lips in any guise I wish – playfully, hastily, wrapped in a smile – but mostly automatically. We are giving lots of shots, and moving hither and yon near a major levee where I cast an occasional glance just to make sure there is nothing massively wet headed my way. So far the levee is holding. The sandbags and earth movers provide extra fortification to ensure relative safety. It’s a fragile balance, a community exercise in breath-holding until the crest hour passes, a reminder that water can call the shots.