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Henry Beston: A Year of life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

My house completed, and tried and not found wanting by a first Cape Cod year, I went there to spend a fortnight in September. The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go. The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. In my world of beach and dunes these elemental presences lived and had their being, and under their arch there moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year. 

The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach. I have heard them all, and of the three elemental voices, that of ocean is the most awesome, beautiful and varied.

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. 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.

Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, today’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day.

Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy.

We lose a great deal, I think, when we lose this sense 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.

Hold your hands out over the earth as over a flame. To all who love her, who open to her the doors of their veins, she gives of her strength, sustaining them with her own measureless tremor of dark life. Touch the earth, love the earth, honour the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and dawn seen over ocean from the beach.” 

It may seem odd to contemporary readers to think of the natural year as a metaphor by which we live. As individuals, we have become far removed from direct participation in the patterns and particularities of the changing seasons. Insulated, air-conditioned, and jet-propelled, we have come to believe that we are largely independent of the earth’s basic rhythms. If we think of the year metaphorically at all, it is as a source of sentimental song lyrics and greeting card verses, rather than as a vital, ongoing ritual that includes us.


Of all such appeals to sensory recollection, none are more powerful, none open a wider door in the brain than an appeal to the nose. It is a sense that every lover of the elemental world ought to use, and, using, enjoy. We ought to keep all senses vibrant and alive. Had we done so, we should never have built a civilization which outrages them, which so outrages them, indeed, that a vicious circle has been established and the dull sense grown duller. 

Nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man. When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were, a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity. 

Public Domain. These quotations are from The Outermost House by Henry Beston.

Henry Beston (1888 – 1968) was an American writer and naturalist, best known as the author of The Outermost House published in 1928, now considered a classic of American literature. The book, a collection of meditations on nature, was written after Beston spent what he called “a year of life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod.” Spiritually shaken by his experiences in World War I, Beston retreated to the outer beach at Eastham in search of peace and solitude.

In winter, Lighthouse Beach in Chatham, Mass. (photo: Erik Jacobs/The New York Times)

One comment on “Henry Beston: A Year of life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

  1. Dena@shaldenandneatham
    September 6, 2020

    I enjoyed reading Beston’s book–I believe the house/cabin he stayed in was destroyed/swept away durimg the blizzard of 1978, although a few/other cabin’s did remain for lease.

    Liked by 1 person

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