Recently I spent a year immersed in the elemental land and seascapes of Cape Cod, on the Atlantic coast of the United States. In my mind’s eye at least. This is where Henry Beston’s book ‘The Outermost House’ transported me. I will let his captivating prose set the scene:
“At the foot of this cliff a great ocean beach runs north and south unbroken, mile lengthening into mile. Solitary and elemental, unsullied and remote, visited and possessed by the outer sea, these sands might be the end or the beginning of the world.”
There are many other passages in the book that bring the elements to life. Here is another evocative description that captured my imagination.
“The beach at night has a voice all its own, a sound in fullest harmony with its spirit and mood – with its little, dry noise of sand forever moving, with its solemn, overspilling, rhythmic seas, with its eternity of stars that sometime seem to hang down like lamps from the high heavens – and that sound the piping of the bird.”
It was 1926 when Henry started his sojourn on the barrier beach at Cape Cod. The previous year he had bought 50 acres of dune land and had a two room house, christened Fo’castle, built there. He intended to use the house as a vacation retreat then ended up living there to experience the cycles of nature and mysterious beauty of the surroundings. Such was the power of the place, the “last defiant bulkwark of two worlds”.
Since ‘The Outermost House’ was published in 1928 it has become a classic among nature writing in the United States. Up there with John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Rachel Carson, best known as the author of Silent Spring, is attributed as saying that Beston was the only author who ever influenced her writing.
Carson also wrote about the sea, which was her true passion. Her books, published in the 1950’s, bring to life the dynamic and fascinating sea (‘The Sea Around Us’) and the magic of the sea-shore (‘The Edge of the Sea’). Much of Carson’s widespread appeal was due to her ability to communicate science in an accessible way. As with Beston, her writing captures the elemental moods of the ocean and it’s interplay with land. Here is an entrancing example from ‘The Edge of the Sea’:
“By day the sunlight filters through the jungle of rockweeds to reach its floor only in shifting patches of shadow-flecked gold: by night the moonlight spreads a silver ceiling above the forest – a ceiling streaked and broken by the flowing tide streams; beneath it the dark fronds of the weeds sway in a world unquiet with moving shadows.”
Beston and Carson were astute observers of nature and humanity. Both authors were concerned about the future of planet Earth and people’s disconnection with the natural environment. Beston, for instance, felt that the world was sick for “lack of elemental things” such as fire before the hands and the dear earth itself underneath.
Both authors did something about their concerns, sharing their fervour for the natural world. I’m pleased that they did. The writing of both authors has influenced modern environmentalism and helped reconnect people with the awe and wonder of nature. It touches something fundamental to being human.
Postscript: Alan Burdick and Carl Safina use quotes from ‘The Outermost House‘ in their publications on how animals sense, think and feel. You can read more about non-human animals and the elements, and their quotes, in the post ‘Watching and truly listening.’