The Great Books of the World – Part 6

 

“The Sea” by HAEVN (courtesy of Kim Lichtenberg):

“Nature is a part of our humanity,
and without some awareness and experience
of that divine mystery man ceases to be man.“
Henry Beston

 

“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 filmmaker and writer

“Le Onde” (The Waves) by Ludovico Einaudi (courtesy of Beatriz):

 

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

The trailer for a documentary in production about Henry Beston (courtesy of Christopher Seufert):

 

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.”

“Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102 II. Andante” by Dmitri Shostakovich:

 

“The Quiet Room” by Debbie Wiseman:

 

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.”

“When The Light Of Morning Comes” by Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci (courtesy of Lisa Gerrard):

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.

“The Sea” by Morcheeba (courtesy of Jovan Uhrin):

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.

Courtesy of Don Wilding:

Here is an extract from the masterpiece THE  OUTERMOST  HOUSE:

“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.

Courtesy of Atheos Nous:

 

“An Ocean of Memories” by James Horner (courtesy of marazulmalaga españa):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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36 thoughts on “The Great Books of the World – Part 6

  1. Dear Joanna
    Thanks for introducing us to this wonderful author, poet. A very lovely write up dear. Will try and read this great book for the sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Howdy. My wife and I have been going to Cape Cod almost every year since the late 1990s. I’m very familiar with much of the Cape. I know the sands where Beston had his house. You have featured a terrific book in this essay. I’ve read The Outermost House and love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another cracking post Joanna about the life of Henry Beston and his ‘Outermost House’. I’ve never read the book but it certainly appeals to me. Thanks for the enlightening me once again.

    Like

  4. Thank you, Malc, for your generous comments! If you read the book, I had done my job!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Neil, for your kind comments! You have made me very happy with your praise for Beston. Thank you.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Amrita, for your kind comments! I did tell you that we have so many things in common, we could be friends!

    Joanna

    Like

  7. I opened this post at 6.00 am this morning and it was the best way to start my day. I wish I had read the book when I was a young man, perhaps my life might have been different. Reading it for the first time only a couple of years ago made my heart beat faster. It is an AMAZING book: whole chapters on winter visitors, on the “surfmen”, on waves! We have lost so much in this technological age that nature is sidelined. This book reminds us of what we should really be thinking about! Now at 2.00 pm I must go back and listen to all the wonderful music you have included in the post. Enjoy your weekend, Joanna! I find it difficult to think of what might come next in this marvellous series. 💝💖🤍🌹🙋‍♂️

    Like

  8. Another outstanding post Joanna. I am grateful to you for talking about this great writer, whom I unfortunately did not know yet

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you, Luisa, for your kind comments. I do hope that after reading the extracts you were tempted to read the book that so many readers loved.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you, Ashley, for your wonderful comments that touch my heart and I will cherish. Thank you again, Dear Ashley, and see you next week for more surprises.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Joanna, you have piqued my interest in this lovely post about an author I’m not familiar with. I’ve never been to Cape Cod but would love to visit sometime. The location sounds so beautiful and soothing, and I’m definitley going to read The Outermost House. Even his prose is poetic. 💞

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dear Joanna, the music you have chosen for this post is so gorgeous. Many of the clips I shall forward to my family and to my friends, but especially the OTHER NATIONS video by Atheos Nous; beautiful 🤗😘😘🌹

    Like

  13. Thank you, Lauren, for your kind comments! It would make me very happy to think that you read this special book as this is the reason for creating the book series.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Someone as sensitive as Beston obviously was would have been terribly traumatized by his war experience, the insanity that grips the human race. I shall go through your post again. I find it deeply touching. Thank you Joanna.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thank you, Carolyn. I will wait until you have time to read more as he is a wonderful writer, notice the nature observations.

    Like

  16. I don’t know how you manage to choose such exquisite music to intersperse your so well researched posts Joanna but you do an amazing job. Henry Beston seems to have been a man deeply troubled by his war experiences who found solace in nature and he was able to share his passion in prose that was almost ethereal. Thank you, once more, for a marvellous read. The video “Other Nations” is so beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Thank you, Joanna, for refreshing memories of this great writer and his magnum opus. From French Army to US Navy and then to writer and naturalist was a great journey for Henry Beston. He had seen the stark realities of soldiers, like the death of young soldier on guard duty. But input on his marriage and kids was new to me, particularly information about his perfection- working on one sentence all day- is fascinating.

    Though there was no human contact apart from two young surfmen, during his stay at the Eastham beach on Cape Cod, I feel nature was always with him, and for a naturalist like him, it was a luxury for him, as he needed peace and solitude like any other creative person, to witness inter alia choreography of wind, sand and ocean. Yesterday we had discussed about this very topic.

    Your pictures are always amazing and appropriate, and videos and music are quite entertaining, as always. Thanks, Joanna, again for one more fantabulous post. Have a great weekend!

    Like

  18. Thank you, Kaushal, for the wonderful comments! I am glad that there were a few new facts for you to enjoy. Thank you again. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Thank you, Peter, for your thoughtful comments! I greatly appreciate your generous praise!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  20. A profoundly amazing essay, Joanna. Worthy of the author. I want to read this book. Wish I could write like him when I grow up.

    Like

  21. Thank you, Pat, for your lovely and witty comments! You will make me very happy, Pat, if you do read his book as it is a gem!

    Joanna

    Like

  22. Oh yes, I think I’ll read it!
    Thank you again🌺🦋🌺

    Like

  23. You’re welcome, Joanna, always!

    Like

  24. Thank you for introducing this author to me, Joanna. I appreciate his love for Nature. What a beautiful, but at times lonely, life he must have lived on the Cape. 🌞

    Like

  25. Thank you, Lisa, for your kind comments. Henry Beston lived in his outer house for a year to document nature and the sea around him. He hardly slept but by the end of the year, he had his book planned and drafted. Most writers or inventors need solitude to create.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Another great introduction, thank you Joanna. I especially enjoyed the therapeutic sea clips. Wonderful documentary and images too.

    Like

  27. Thank you, Henrietta, for your wonderful comments! The sea is part of our DNA. I wonder if your name has a connection with the film Around The World in 80 Days, as there is a ship in it with the name Henrietta?

    Joanna

    Like

  28. Goodness, thank you for this in-depth look into the life of a man in love with nature and his blessings. Now I’m going to have to make a trip to Cape Cod someday, but this account is a great reminder to listen to the breath of the world and enjoy its wonders.

    Like

  29. Thank you for another great post and intro to an amazing author. I enjoyed it all so much. Nature is such a gift.
    💖💖

    Like

  30. Thank you for your kind comments. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Thank you, Cindy, for your generous comments. Greatly appreciated.
    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  32. It’s a pleasure Joanna! Most deserved! 💖

    Like

  33. You’re very welcome. Have a great day!

    Like

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