Sunday, September 18, 2005

Review: The Outermost House

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston. Highly recommended.

In his chronicles of a year spent in a tiny house on Cape Cod's great beach, on a dune between ocean and dunes and marsh, Henry Beston recognises something of which many of us are no longer aware—the cyclical nature of life.

Even the beach itself, embattled between land and ocean, wind and wave, is the result of a cycle. Beston vividly describes the many others that take place during his year, for example, the advance and retreat of the varied plant life upon the dunes and the corresponding changes in colour and tone. Even when the dunes seem dead, Beston finds life lurking in the development phase of its cycle; of the insects he says, " . . . yet one feels them here, the trillion, trillion tiny eggs in grass and marsh and sand, all faithfully spun from the vibrant flesh of innumerable mothers, all faithfully sealed away, all waiting for the rush of this earth through this space and the resurgence of the sun."

The cycle of night and day had been lost to most by 1925, the year of the outermost house, as Beston notes. He says, "Primitive people, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power . . . having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, [we] now have a dislike of night itself." On the beach, however, Beston can experience the "poetry of night"—beach-combing skunks, frolicking deer, stranded skates and dogfish, and great tempests and storms that ground boats and ships and drown or carry off their crews.

Of course, life and death are part of the cycle, eloquently illustrated through tales of shipwrecks (past and present), but perhaps most poignantly shown after a great summer storm, when all that Beston finds of a least tern colony is an eggshell fragment, then, upon further exploration, discovers the song sparrow determinedly sitting on her nest, which is now only inches above the wind-piled sand. Like the Lord, the sea giveth and the sea taketh away, a way of life that is most clear when predators drive in schools of fish to feast on, only to find themselves stranded by the relentless surf.

Immersed in all these cycles and rituals—the seasons, day and night, life and death, migration and hibernation— Beston, perhaps unconsciously, creates his own, including not only the practical such as weekly visits to town for supplies, but also the equally necessary—the regular seeking out of the Nauset light and the companionship of the Coast Guardsmen who man it and who patrol the coastline. These human contacts become the ritual of Beston's own human life, when it is not involved in observing the world and the life around him.

Beston did not write The Outermost House with a purpose, other than to please his fiancée; that is, his intent was not to preach or persuade but to observe and chronicle. At times, the passages ramble accordingly, but at other moments they sing, as when he says of animals, "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."

Given the constant flux of the world, where a thriving colony of terns may be replaced by a storm-tossed sand dune in the course of one night, it seems appropriate that the Fo'castle, the outermost house, along with its beach, was reclaimed by the ocean during a winter storm in 1978. Knowing the ocean and the land as he did, Beston may have been surprised that the house survived as long as it did. Beston does not have to resort to preachiness for the outermost house—and its fate—to make a point about our tenuous connection to our frail world and its rhythms. The outermost house is gone. Discover, explore, and preserve what remains.

Sunday, 18 September 2005.
© 2005 by Diane L. Schirf.

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