book review, books, henry beston, outermost house, solstice, sun
“A year indoors is a journey along a paper calendar; a year in outer nature is the accomplishment of a trememdous ritual. To share in it, one must have a knowledge of the pilgrimages of the sun, and something of that natural sense of him and feeling for him which made even the most primitve people mark the summer limits of his advance and the last December ebb of his decline. All these autumn weeks I have watched the great disk going south along the horizon of moorlands beyond the marsh, now sinking behind this field, now behind this leafless tree, now behind this sedgy hillock dappled with thin snow. We lose a great deal, I think, when we lose this sense of and feeling for the sun. When all has been said, the adventure of the sun is the great natural drama by which we live, and not to have joy in it and awe of it, not to share in it, is to close a dull door on nature’s sustaining and poetic spirit.”
—Henry Beston; The Outermost House, from Chapter 4: Midwinter, 1928.
Henry Beston’s memoir about living in a tiny cottage on the beach of Cape Cod contains what I consider some of the most beautiful prose ever written. Merging lush description with poetic meditations on the landscape, seasons, plants, and animals, The Outermost House is almost overwhelmingly rich. As with a batch of well-made fudge, it is perhaps best enjoyed in small chunks rather than consumed all at once. I often can only read one chapter—or even one scene from one chapter—before I must put down the book and ponder, stunned by what I’ve just read.
I discovered the book thanks to its possibly most often quoted passage, which begins “For the animal shall not be measured by man.” I believe that passage from the exquisite chapter about birds is popular among those concerned with animal rights and nature conservation, and I used it as the epigraph for Dekarna Triumphant, the final episode collected in Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus. The Outermost House has, for the past few years, greatly influenced how my usual third-person-omniscient narrator approaches descriptive prose in the more serious and emotional scenes in the series.
Whether Beston is describing a shipwreck, a sand dune, or the forlorn plight of a doe stranded all night on an island flooded by ice-filled water, his words bring to life the drama, beauty, tragedy, and timelessness of so many aspects of the natural world and her inhabitants. I’ve met many novelists who are concerned with the mechanics of storytelling and world building and character development; and that’s all well and good. But I have rarely if ever met anyone who could write sentence after perfectly crafted sentence like Beston.
I shared the quote at the beginning of this post because it reminds me of a feeling I lost touch with during the last year spent mostly indoors, withdrawn in frustration from the outside world despite living in a state known far and wide for its massive amounts of sunshine. And it seems like a good time to remember that things weren’t always this way, especially as we in the northern hemisphere approach “the last December ebb of his decline”. Here’s to a merry winter solstice and the seasonal rebirth of light.
Collector’s Guide: The Outermost House by Henry Beston is available in many editions on Amazon, including paperback, hardback, ebook, and audiobook. I easily scored a used 1971 paperback edition for just a few bucks, and it was money well-spent.