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The Outermost House by Henry Beston

photo (1)This book came to me recommended by Rachel Carson. I’m relatively sure that I came up with this title in my reading of On a Farther Shore, a recent biography of the author of Silent Spring. And by that convoluted path, here we are.

The first thing that struck me about The Outermost House, and certainly the most striking overall, is its similarity to Thoreau’s Walden. I have been describing it as “Walden Pond on Cape Cod.” Henry Beston wrote this book in 1928 about a year he spent, rather by accident, on the island; he had a small, humble cabin constructed on a remote dune for the purpose of visiting more often, and moved in in the fall, thinking he’d be there only a matter of weeks but staying a full year. (My edition also contains a new foreword from 1949.) That Thoreau would be well-known to Beston, his literary descendant of just a few decades in the same region, is clear, even if he weren’t mentioned by name around page 100. The similarities are many (more below), but I don’t mean that to take away from Beston’s work. I think Walden bears some imitation, and Cape Cod is different enough from the Concord locale to justify its own study.

The next thing that struck me is Beston’s comfortable observation that, although “man” has altered & damaged the world mightily, “Nature” is overall impervious, and Cape Cod in specific remains untouched. I congratulate Beston that in 1928 (and ’49) he was able to feel such confidence. Today, sadly, he would not.

Like Thoreau, Beston describes his home in some detail, for its details are hugely relevant to his year on the outer beach. Like Thoreau, he sees his fire as a friend and companion, a major force in withstanding solitude. And like Thoreau, he overstates that solitude, first writing of how very, very alone he was – how very rare was a human face in his year out there in the wild – and in the next breath, shamelessly, noting that he saw his Coast Guard buddies from up the beach almost daily, and walked into town for groceries once or twice a week. Having come to terms with this dissonance in Walden, I just smiled at it. Solitude is clearly relative, and he’s enjoyed far more than I have experimented with.

The Outermost House is perhaps most lyrical and pensive in its contemplation of bird life and waves, and equally thoughtful in its treatment of the Cape Cod locals and the solidarity they feel with wrecked vessels on its shore. He seems to refer to a “god,” although not by name; he is very concerned with “man”‘s relationship to Nature (always the capital N), and how sick we get when we disconnect. These themes are timeless and not dated at all.

For those who enjoyed Walden, this will undoubtedly be a great pleasure. If anything, Beston is less pretentious and self-congratulatory than Thoreau was. His descriptions of the migratory birds of Cape Cod’s seasons are lovely and, I imagine, useful for scientists & natural historians. It’s well-written, short (under 200 pages), and solid.

I will let Beston himself close, with a few of my favorite lines.

Glorious white birds in the blue October heights over the solemn unrest of ocean – their passing was more than music, and from their wings descended the old loveliness of earth which both affirms and heals.

…today’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day.


Rating: 6 tseeps.

4 Responses

  1. tseep? onomatopoeia?
    here is an actual recording…
    http://ibc.lynxeds.com/sound/cuban-pewee-contopus-caribaeus/tseep-sounds-produced-pair-shrub-other-bird-sounds-are-also-hea

    anyway, I give your review 8 hurrahs – nicely done

  2. A feature length documentary film is now in production — details at http://www.outermosthousemovie.com.

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