In my reading notebook from long ago, on a page with notes I took while reading a book by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, there’s a sentence I wrote down that says, “Who is Henry Beston?” I love discovering new-to-me authors by finding references to them from other authors. In those days there was no Google to instantly look him up. I took a trip to the library to find out who he was and what he wrote. Then I had to track down his book, read it, and finally understand more fully why A.M.L. admired him and his beautiful little book, The Outermost House. After forty-five years, I just reread it and found it even more beautifully written than I remembered.
Henry Beston served as an ambulance driver during World War I. After the war, he began a writing career. He spent a great deal of time on Cape Cod, and in 1925, he drew up the design for a small getaway cottage for writing. He called it “the fo’castle.” It was built near Eastham, on the outermost spit of land against the Atlantic Ocean. When it was finished, he went out to stay for a few weeks. Those few weeks turned into a year of solitude and writing. The Outermost House is a memoir of that year of solitude and his observations and descriptions of that “elemental” area that bring it to life for the reader. As I read it I could hear the waves, I could picture the shore birds, I could feel the wind and the storms. I slowed myself down from the busy-ness of the holidays so that I could read it word by word and enjoy the beauty of those words chosen so eloquently to bring to life a sense of place.
His book was instrumental in, or inspired, the establishment of Cape Cod as a National Seashore in 1961. Unfortunately, although his little house withstood many storms and an everchanging coastline (it was moved inland twice to preserve it), the severe winter storms of 1978 washed it out to sea.
I loved rereading this book. I loved learning more about the life of Henry Beston. And now I would very much love to spend some time on Cape Cod.
Some favorites from the book:
…The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach. I have heard them all, and of the three elemental voices, that of ocean is the most awesome, beautiful, and varied.
…The sea has many voices. Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears, and you will hear in it a world of sounds: 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.
…We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. 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.
“Biographical Snippets” by Jessica Ellen Monk : Click here to read her full summary of Henry Beston’s life.
- Born June 1, 1888, Quincy MA
- Served as an ambulance driver in WW1 – 1915
- Began a writing career after WWI
- Had “the Fo’castle” built in 1925
- Spent much of the next few years there in solitude
- The Outermost House published in 1928
- Married Elizabeth Coatsworth in 1929
- Donated Fo’castle to the Audubon Society in 1959
- Died April 15, 1968
- Fo’castle washed away by a storm in 1978