Summer at the Outermost House
In the summer of 1927 as Beston approached the end of his year living on Cape Cod, life came to “flood tide” with the return of summer. As Beston wrote, “now do insects inherit the warm earth…the sand quivers with insect lives.” Beston was not always enthusiastic about this aspect of summer; he particularly loathed the swarms of biting flies, greenheads, that returned with the summer heat. More happily, the seasonal birds retuned as well, including a pair of song sparrows of which Beston became particularly fond. Each morning, he wrote, the first sound to reach his ears was the surf—“then do I hear a patter of tiny feet on the roof over my head and the cheerful notes of a song sparrow’s homespun tune…My building of the Fo’castle has given them something to sit on, something they can see the world from, and on its ridgepole they perch, singing at life in general with a praiseworthy persistence.”
The Outermost House was, in a sense, Beston’s way of “singing at life.” In later years Beston would often summarize his philosophy as “being on the side of life.” The phrase encompassed much of what Beston learned on the great beach about nature and its cycles, the importance of maintaining a sense of the poetic and spiritual mystery of nature in one’s life, and regarding with distrust any of the new paradigms of the industrial age that failed to take into account the vital connection between man and nature. He felt that the contrast he drew between a life spent in outer nature and this “fantastic civilization” of ours (a phrase not intended as a compliment) was a point particularly suited for a modern audience struggling with many of the post-war issues about modern industrial society that he himself had confronted after returning from the Great War. As critic Thomas J. Lyon observes “In the modern era, being alone in nature may still refresh the spirit, but the literary record observes there now may be, quite often, a certain shadowed quality to the experience. Henry Beston, for one, felt the historical moment keenly…He does not give his personal reasons for wanting to spend a year alone, facing out to the ocean not far from the pounding surf on the ‘forearm’ of the Cape but he does describe the insulation and malaise of modern man.”
Beston described his year on the beach as “the most important event of my life,” and addressed the often-asked question of why he decided to leave “the excitement of city life” for a solitary existence on a secluded stretch of dunes:
During the war, and afterwards, I saw many people writing in New York. I was hearing a different drummer, unlike that life of the hustle and bustle of a constantly moving and noisy city. I was anxious to see what a year, more or less alone, in the midst of great natural beauty would mean. Cape Cod had good people—hospitable to wild and unexpected things…I called my house “Fo’castle,” which is the name of the crew’s quarters on sailing vessels. When I moved in, I intended to stay a couple of weeks. I had no particular plans beyond this—everything just went ahead, developed in its own way. The weeks lingered on until I knew my stay would be a whole year. I found that I lived in the midst of an abundance of natural life, which manifested itself every hour of the day. I couldn’t leave, for there was too much to discover in the natural, beautiful world that man too often forgets is there.
Walter Teller later named me “a loner in residence,” and maybe that’s what I was. But it was the first home, and I was able to brood, uninterrupted as long as I wanted, watching the sea, the sky and the animal life around me. I possessed them and was possessed by them. The longer I stayed the more eager I was to know more. The sky in the afternoon was a harmony of universal blue. It knew no discord. How could I give this up [?] The life I lived there found its way into my writing, shaped by the changes of the weather and seasons and the events happening each day. I realized that man is earth’s child who must not, in the mechanized and intellectualized forces of our modern age, lose touch with the rhythms she provides. Man must touch the earth, love the earth, honor the earth, and rest his spirit in her solitary spaces. Nature provides man the peace he needs very badly. I could see that living in outer nature keeps the senses keen, and living alone stirs in them a certain watchfulness. I was a little deaf, and nearsighted, but nature manifested itself within me, and I was keenly aware of her presence. Living indoors is only a journey along a paper calendar; living in outer nature is sharing in the pilgrimages of the sun."