I love introducing old favorites to new friends, and Henry Beston’s The Outermost House is truly one of my old favorites.
This is one of those books that can scoop you up into the past and yet feels so present-day, a miraculous feat for a book that’s coming up on its 90th anniversary. (It was first published in 1928 by Henry Holt and Company, one of the many good publishers that no longer exists.)
The subtitle of this wondrous book is A Year on Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, and if you have ever lived or loved this sandy arm of life on the Atlantic Ocean—or a sandy stretch of anywhere on an ocean—then you will appreciate Beston’s journal.
He explains at the outset that he never started out to stay for a year in a very small cottage he called the Fo’castle that he had built for him on an amazing stretch of land that he called Eastham Beach, a stretch of sand that is now part of the National Seashore preserve. Beston just wanted a place to stay when he visited the Cape.
But the beauty of the place—the open sea, large dunes, a marsh, the lights of Eastham across a small bay, the birds and the ever-changing light—enchanted the man who had lived through World War I.
Beston turned out to be an acute observer and a gifted writer. His prose is so elegant in its simplicity, it is difficult to imagine any of his sentences one word longer or shorter.
Here’s a passage he wrote about birds in winter, a topic close to my heart at the moment as I spend my mornings eating breakfast with goldfinches in their winter green plumage, plucky chickadees, families of cardinals, tufted titmice, juncos, woodpeckers, brown creepers, and saucy blue jays.
It is early on a pleasant winter afternoon, and I am returning to the Fo’castle through the meadows, my staff in my hand and a load of groceries in a knapsack on my back. The preceding day brought snow flurries to us out of the northwest, and there are patches of snow on the hay fields and the marshes, and, on the dunes, nests of snow held up off the ground by wiry spears of beach grass bent over and tangled into a cup. Such little pictures as this last are often to be seen on the winter dunes; I pause to enjoy them, for they have the quality and delicacy of Japanese painting. There is a blueness in the air, a blue coldness on the moors, and across the sky to the south, a pale streamer of cloud smoking from its upper edge. Every now and then, I see ahead of me a round, blackish spot in the thin snow; these are the cast-off shells of horseshoe crabs, from whose thin tegument the snow has melted. A flock of nervous shore larks, hidden under an old mowing machine, emerge running, take to their wings, and, flying south fifty yards, suddenly drop and disappear into the grass.