The Great Books of the World – Part 5

 

“We don’t care how we treat nature, yet we depend on nature for everything;  from the air we breathe to our mental wellbeing.”

Narayan  Tushar  Kaudinya
nature filmaker and writer

 

Years ago I was given a postcard with text printed on the front in bold lettering. The words had such an effect on me that I framed the card and have had it above my desk since. This is what the words say:

“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

ever hear. They are not bretheren; they

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.”

 

Henry Beston, the author of these exquisite verses, spent a year in a small house at Eastham Beach on Cape Cod. His account of this stay is a stirring evocation of nature and solitude and it resulted in a book, The Outermost House. The chapter ‘The Headlong Wave’ articulates the grandeur and mystery of a roaring surf with as much beauty and accuracy as can be possible in prose. The wonderful description of rarely witnessed or experienced being at night on the beach in winter or at night are startling and visionary and include an unmissable description of the “primeval ferocity and intensity of life ” embodied by crowds of fish  –  predators and prey – swarming under a full moon.

It is just as rewarding to encounter the other phenomena he observes from his perch in the little house overlooking the North Atlantic and the dunes: the migration of shore and sea birds; the daily dramas of light and weather; the choreography of wind, sand, and ocean; the pageant of the changing seasons. Though it first appeared in 1928, The Outermost House remains vivid and satisfying, with an imaginative reach and stylistic eloquence that set it apart from most nature writers. With its rhythmic, sublime language that it is impossible to better and the sensory power of each and every sentence, The Outermost House is an American classic that changed writing about the wild: an ode to ancient, eternal patterns of life and creation.

The Outermost House, Cape Cod

 

HENRY  BESTON  SHEAHAN

1 June 1888   –   15 April 1968

Quincy, Massachusetts

Henry Beston was born in Quincy, Massachusetts. His father was a doctor of Irish descent; his mother, a French Catholic. As his mother died when he was eight years old, Beston was drawn to France when he grew up; after he was educated at Harvard, he later also studied at the University of Lyon.

Harvard University

University of Lyon

In 1915, he joined the French army and served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front.  In the last year of the war, he joined the US Navy as a press representative. Perhaps, as a result of the horrors of the war, Beston’s first books were fairy tales for children.  During his service, he saw many men die.  In one incident, which he wrote about, he had a conversation with a young soldier on guard duty. Moments after Beston walked away, a shell falls and he watched as the soldier seemed to inflate like a balloon, then fell back, imploded.  “A chunk of the shell had ripped open the left breast to the heart. Down his sleeve, as down a pipe, flowed a hasty drop, drop, drop of blood that mixed with the mire.”

Beston found a kind of solace in his retreat into nature during his stay in his two-room cabin on the shore of Cape Cod. Perhaps he even suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. The only human contact he had during his stay in the dunes, was with two young surfmen who were working at the lifeguard station. He called them soldiers of the sand and sea, patrolling the dunes in all weathers. Beston kept hot coffee on his hearth to give the patrolmen during the night when he heard them approaching to check that he was safe and well. In the depths of bleakest winter, they would be patrolling the beach, holding high their lanterns looking for lost souls. “Those lights along the surf have a quality of romance and beauty that is Elizabethan”, he said, “that is beyond all stain of present time.”

It is obvious that the wars, the technology, and the complexity of big city urban life did not matter in the solace of the dunes.  Even now this desolate land seems to belong to another time. The Outer Cape is set thirty miles out into the Atlantic. The people who were living here first were the Nauset and the Wampanoag – their name means People of the Dawn, since this is where first light rose over New England.

The Pilgrims being greeted by the Wampanoag

The Pilgrim Fathers came here in 1620, having left Southampton, England but found it a difficult place to settle. Apart from a few scattered fishing villages, it is still bleak, although a beautiful place with the sea swarming with seals, while the squealing birds above dive to get their catch. The sea is freezing and unforgiving. Beston must have felt part of the elements here. All along the coast, there are shipwrecks that the ocean broke-up and then spat out as a warning to those foolish enough to attempt conquering something so much greater, so much more powerful than humans.

Beston observes every detail of the changing seasons, the days and the nights. Not wanting to miss anything, he hardly sleeps; his couch positioned by the open (even in winter) window, he longs to be part of the beach, the sea, and the sky. The sea often laps the steps to his cabin, while his sleepless mind is drawn to the stars, the moon, and the sun and the vastness of the firmament stretching above the ocean. Yet, it is the sea that is the greatest drama, because it is always there and it answers his yearning for reconnection with the natural world. The famous passage (I would say every sentence is!) in which he writes:

“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 civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge
and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion,”

In another he writes:

“Solitary and elemental, unsullied and remote,
visited and possessed by the outer sea, these sands
might be the end or the beginning of a world.
Age by age, the sea here gives battle to the land;
age by age, the earth struggles for her own,
calling to her defense her energies and her creations.”

The Mayflower arrival at America’s shore

It was only by leaving the Cape that Beston could write and tell us about his experience, his vision in his house at the end of the world. In his book, he immortalised the roaring, crashing, rising sea, the unique landscape, the creatures of the land, the sea, and the sky. One critic called him a highly moral and innocent man, and his work, unforgettable. THIS WAS HIS LEGACY.

Beston returned to the house for the last time in October 1964, when it was dedicated as a National Literary Landmark.

Henry Beston died on 15 April 1968. His cabin only outlived him by ten years. It was washed away in the storm of 6-7 February 1978, and the beach, desolate once more was returned to nature and its creatures. Only the dunes grew bigger and higher.

Here is an extract from THE  OUTERMOST  HOUSE

.               Masterpiece

“The last two weeks in October see the peak of the autumnal visitations. In November and December, the stream from the inland shrinks, but the coastwise stream, continuing to flow, brings us down a rare and curious world. Of this, I shall write at greater length, for I found it of enormous interest. Here, approaching the end of my notes on birds and autumn, I chance to remember that one of the strangest and most beautiful of the migration over the dunes was not a movement of birds at all but of butterflies. There came a morning early in October which ripened, as the sun rose higher, into a rather mild and September-like day, the wind was autumnal, I recall, and from the north by west, but the current was both mildly warm and light. As it was a day to be spent out-of-doors, soon after ten o’clock I went out round the back of the Fo’castle* into the sunlight and began to work there on a bin I was putting together out for driftage. I looked about, as I always do, but nothing in the landscape chanced to take my eye. Sawing and hammering, I worked for about three quarters of an hour and then downed tools to take a moment’s rest.

During the hour, a flight of twenty or more large orange-and-black butterflies had arrived in the region of the dunes. It was a flight, yet were the individuals far apart. There was at least an eighth of a mile between any two, some were on dunes, some were on the salt meadows, three were on the beach. Their movements were casual as the wind, yet there was an unmistakable southerly pull drawing them on. I tried to catch one of the travellers on the beach, and though I count myself a fair runner, it was no easy work keeping his turns and erratic doublings. I wish him no ill; I simply wanted to have a better look at him, but he escaped me by rising and disappearing over the top of a dune. When I reached the same top after a scramble up a steep of sand the fugitive was already a good eight of a mile away. I went back to my carpentry with an increased respect for butterflies as fliers.

An entomologist with whom I have been in correspondence tells me that my visitors were undoubtedly specimens of the monarch or milkweed butterfly, Anosia plexippus. In early autumn adults gather in great swarms and move in a generally southward direction, and it is believed  (but not proved) that New England specimens go as far as Florida. The following spring individuals (not swarms) appear in the North apparently coming from the South. We do not know – I am quoting this paragraph almost verbatim – whether these are returning migrants or whether they are individuals that had not previously been in the North. We do know that none of the fall migrants had previously been in the South.

The butterflies of Eastham remained upon the dunes the rest of the morning. I imagine that they were in search of food. Between half-past one, they melted away as mysteriously as they had come, and with them went the last echo of summer and the high sun from the dunes. And that day I finished my bin and filled it and began to build a wall of seaweed round the foundation of my house.  A cricket sang as I worked in the mild afternoon, alive and hardy in his cave under my driftwood mountain, and beyond this little familiar sound of earth I heard the roar of ocean filling the hollow space of day with its inexorable warning.”

A last anecdotal footnote: Henry Beston was a very handsome man but when he proposed to the nature writer, Elizabeth Coatsworth, she agreed only on the condition that he should publish this book first. By then, he had been already waiting quite a long time for her return from her travels abroad, but as that was their agreement, he published his masterpiece in 1928. They were married the following June. They lived in a farmhouse in Nobleboro, down east in Maine, where they brought up two daughters.

Elizabeth Coatsworth

Henry Beston and his daughter Kate

The Beston farmhouse, Chimney Farm, in Nobleboro, Maine

Known for his quest for perfection, he sometimes would work on one sentence all day; his wastepaper basket full of hundreds of pages with only one crossed sentence on each of them. When I read the sublime verses of his book, I find his method of working, fully justified.

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50 thoughts on “The Great Books of the World – Part 5

  1. Beautiful write-up!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Dear Athira, what are you doing reading my post instead of sleeping? I do greatly appreciate your kind comment.

    Joanna

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Where are you from Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To Athira,

    I live in England, close to London. And you?

    Joanna

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I really enjoyed your write up on Henry Beston. A very appropriate story for Thanksgiving week.
    One critic called him a highly moral and innocent man, and his work, unforgettable. THIS WAS HIS LEGACY.
    Seems I have seen this quote not to long ago!! :>)

    Liked by 5 people

  6. I wonder who that might have been? Do you know him? Thank you so much. I am so overwhelmed – 39 people read already this post,
    I also have two paintings of horses on the wall, but yours have that surf…

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks Joanna! I have enjoyed our connection on the blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Another eloquent and detailed write up, Joanna. You bring back breath in what has passed. Beston would be so proud. 💐♥️♥️

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Dear Joanna,
    I am very happy to discover your new article.
    One more author I didn’t know, and there you are!
    Today the stores are opening, I’m going to pick up this book The outermost house.
    Let me explain, my greatest joy in life is the beach, I love the sea so much, it is beyond reason. In French the sea is called “la mer”, and the mother “la mère” …
    I’m sure I’m going to love this book because I love this element and the authors who talk about nature.
    By the way, I recommend you a fantastic French writer that I LOVE, Sylvain Tesson, trained as a geographer, this young author describes the nature and the forces of the elements with a poetry and a beauty that capsize my heart. I do not know if there is an English version, I hope.
    Thank you very much, I still have the same pleasure to read you.
    If I understood correctly, you finished your series on the great authors?
    or well I say stupid;)
    Loud kisses Joanna

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I really enjoyed reading your post. You have so beautifully and in detail put up all the knowledge and framed this beautiful post. 🧡✨

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you, Corinne, very much. I don’t know about translation but I hope that it would do Beston justice. No, I could not stop after five books as there is so many to write about; Victor Hugo, Tolstoy, Dickens, can you imagine leaving those greats, and many others without acknowledgment? I will check the author you have mentioned. Thank you. Love you.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you, Nitesh, coming from you, it is a greatly appreciated praise.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The pleasure is always all mine reading your posts! 😊

    Like

  14. Awesome!
    We are very lucky to follow you, the cultural events that you offer us are precious and rich.
    I love Dickens, it’s a monument, I can’t wait to discover your article !!!
    beautiful day
    All strong

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I think, Diane that you have a very insightful, spiritual way of pinpointing the important point that was exactly my aim – to “bring back breath in what has passed”. This is what Narayan had said in the same words. In real terms, those books live on, never out of print like the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads, or Tagore, I mention those since I have so many Indian readers, but as there are readers in 104 other countries, I will aim to refresh, introduce other great works too. Thank you.

    Joanna

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Dear Corinne, you are a treasure !! You will have to “suffer” this event for some time to come.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  17. That is a great initiative, Joanna. May you keep inspiring us with your insightful posts. Thank you, and be blessed. ♥️♥️💐

    Like

  18. 🤗🙏🏻🎆😘

    Like

  19. After reading this I ask myself how on earth I have missed this author. I must find this book, The Outermost House! The east coast area of Cape Cod is one I have long wanted to visit but now there are too many places I have not visited and so I must read about them only.
    This series is brilliant; I think you must be brilliant too! I only wish I had met you earlier here, and Corinne! Who knows? Maybe one day we can meet and drink tea, or something stronger if that is acceptable. 😘😘🥰
    Ashley

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Thank you, Ashley, you are always so enthusiastic, really a great pleasure to ‘talk’ with. Yes, I aim to show such a gem like Beston, whose work I admired for so long. I will hold you to that promise of a tea; anything stronger and with your energy,I don’t know where we could end up!

    Like

  21. I can see why he’s your favourite writer and how he’s the ‘best nature writer there is.’ I haven’t read a lot many books but among the ones I have, very few have managed to capture nature in its true magnificence. I think the phrase “beyond all stain of present time” is my new favourite. I love animals and the opening verses you’ve included here are incredible! Have you read a poem titled ‘Animals’ by Walt Whitman? It isn’t this poetic but it’s profound all the same.
    Incredibly informative post as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. And that excerpt from The Outermost House is a proper gem!
    (Sorry, I forgot to include that in my previous comment).

    Like

  23. Dear D, thank you for your wonderful review. Beston command of the English language is beyond the very best, it is the same feeling
    I have when listening to Mozart, that it is beyond analysis because it was created by the powers outside the physical realm.

    I don’t know the poem you have mention – do you think I can see it on Google?

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Thank you so much, greatly appreciated!!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  25. My pleasure, Joanna! I agree, his use of words is remarkable.
    Yes, the poem is available on Google.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Thank you, D, my apologies for not replying straight away but I had to write a letter of great importance. I will read it first thing in the morning.
    I will let you know what I think, but as it is your recommendation, it will be very good. You are right that most people decent, and normal love animals, it is just most don’t have Beston’s subline talent to express it.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. O, i must be dead to read my name up here. Thank you for the honour.

    I found Beston to be a man that men normally should be. Simple and in that simple simplicity; in love with everything that can lead to one’s nature. More so, it becomes intriguing when majority of these writers have found themselves picked up for the hardest job that paid way for becoming what they could in thought. Through the world wars.

    A man that i once befriended while living on a beach myself; it was late in the night and he sat smoking alone where i used to sit looking at the sea. When we started talking, it was revealed that he has not really ever landed on earth ever since he left Austria during mid 70s. He only sails in his sailor boat that he built himself. I remember he got lost while telling me about the different colours of the oceans as you are leaving one touching the other. We sat through the night, and as we did, there was no moment when i had not felt that he is going sail away. Before leaving he asked for my mail. And I do not know anymore if i am still waiting 🙂

    Beautiful Beston, and even the condition from his lover, that found the world through it. Heart twitches thinking of that world past, when we could get surprised easily, through butterflies and single line to think, to sculpt all day.

    These are treasures for us readers, and you are the treasurer, Joanna.
    What all jewels you carry Jeweller, please keep us showing. For we might never know their value until …

    Love
    Narayan

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Thank you, Narayan, greatly for your comment. It takes my breath away how you never fail to bring to anything you write the originality of thought, a new, unexpected turn. The honour is all mine. I am privileged to know you. Your writing about nature surpass my own efforts tenfold, and your generosity in here shows how kind you are. I, as you know, love your work with the underprivileged community, your nature filming projects, the latest account in your post about the adventures in the Himalayas, judging by the score of enthusiastic comments, a must to be seen post. You are the chosen one.

    Thank you.
    Love,
    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  29. You were right. Very much different kind of author than last week. And didn’t know much about this one to be honest. Thanks for writing this all up and sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Thank you, Benjamin, very much. I do aim to introduce different authors to bring a sense of pleasant anticipation each week.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Beautiful post and photographs!

    Like

  32. Excellent and interesting history, photos and art among the dunes…

    Like

  33. I was a USAF Officer stationed at RAF Alconbury, Huntington circa 1977. Drove to London on Boxing Day and also saw a show there on an IRA Bombing Day!

    Like

  34. Thank you, Debasis, for your kind comment. I learn from your posts every day about Gita’s teaching, nature, flowers, and interesting poetry, so pleasure is all mine.

    Joanna

    Like

  35. Thank you very much for your kind comment! Greatly appreciated. By now, you know how much I like you and Judy. and your post
    always teaching me something invaluable and making me laugh,

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  36. I could feel that we have a connection! Thank you.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Nice of you to say that … makes my day … your reviews and such are interesting indeed!

    Like

  38. Welcome. Keep up the nice work!

    Like

  39. Wow, it’s rare that you hear about a person who’s so in tune with nature and the life around them. The words at the beginning from the postcard truly moved me. The rest was extremely interesting too – I’ve learnt so much from your posts! The way that you write about him is beautiful too: “Not wanting to miss anything, he hardly sleeps; his couch positioned by the open (even in winter) window, he longs to be part of the beach, the sea, and the sky. The sea often laps the steps to his cabin, while his sleepless mind is drawn to the stars, the moon, and the sun and the vastness of the firmament stretching above the ocean. Yet, it is the sea that is the greatest drama, because it is always there and it answers his yearning for reconnection with the natural world.” Those words were wonderful.

    Like

  40. Oh, Dear Simone! You do touch my heart with your beautiful review. Ultimately it is Beston’s doing, he is the master whose words can move the mountains. I love the Man. Thank you.

    Joanna

    Like

  41. Thank you, Simone, so very much for liking Beston.

    Joanna

    Like

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