Where water meets sand

The Outermost House: A Year on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, Henry Beston, Pushkin Press.

Cape Cod was the first place the English Pilgrims landed, with a vibrant Indian history before that (but darker consequences when the two cultures met), a playground for the rich, famous and artistic, a residence for sea captains and an incubator of the science of oceanography. It is the epitome of idyllic seaside villages. In summer, that is. In winter much is left to the gulls and roaring wind.

In 1926 Henry Beston spent a year in a cottage he had built on the outer dunes of Cape Cod on America’s east coast, observing the weather, animals and occasional shipwreck, and the result was The Outermost House, a classic of nature writing (now re-issued). The book is something of an update not only of Thoreau’s classic book about the cabin near Walden Pond, but also of Thoreau’s book about Cape Cod.

In the introduction to this new edition Philip Hoare, himself a keen observer of the wind and waves, describes the Cape as a frontline of sorts, the first part of land to greet the morning sun and the Atlantic breakers, like the prow of a ship. It is a primal, rugged place, elemental (in a world greatly in need of connection with elemental things, says Benton – this was in 1926, mind you; we need this connection more than ever these days). But it is also ‘paradoxically soft and fragile’, a place forever shifting. Some of us love the seaside for just these qualities that put us in touch with the turning of the world and the seasons and put our human concerns in perspective.

Benton finds beauty and interest in what might at first seem a stark land-and-sea-scape. His observations of the world wash back and forth like the waves scrolling up and down the beach. Birds, deer, fish, butterflies and the gradually shifting location of the setting sun catch his attention. He notes the crest of a dune ‘smoking’ like a volcano as the wind blows the topmost grains into an airborne column. He listens attentively too to the rain, wind, waves and symphony of insect noise that enlivens a summer night. He likes the biblical phrase ‘mighty works’, a concept which can encompass both the Milky Way and an ant’s nest.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that his writing is reverential. To contemplate the night sky is, he writes, to consider religious questions, and his observations of our planet’s journey through the cosmos are akin to metaphysical poetry, lyrical and philosophical.

His philosophy is born of experience not theory. He says that thinking of nature as cruel indicates too much time spent with one’s head stuck in books rather than outdoors. He, rather, thinks of the energy, cooperation, interconnections and astonishing complexity, even just in the space where water meets sand. (This reminds me of how medieval theorists, as Alexandra Harris tells it in her book Weatherland, had all manner of weird and wonderful explanations for the weather and how to predict it, harmonising seasons and the ‘humours’ of the human body and the motions of the heavenly bodies, with ideas partly borrowed from Aristotle, most of it rubbish. Harris notes that no-one bothered simply to take a look out the window.) Beston’s bright outlook extends to the human, even though he lived through the frontline horrors of World War I, or perhaps because his experiences with war drove him to seek out the better side of nature, as he observes a rare, lone swimmer. He takes the same approach to the naked swimmer as to the birds that wheel about his home, admiring the energy and purpose, and thinking that our coyness about the body is misplaced. The human body too is a marvel of nature, a mighty work.