The Outermost House by Henry Beston #NatureWriting

A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

outermost

Reading Beston on Plage de Notre Dame, Porquerolles Island, France

Originally published in 1928, and still in print today, this is perhaps one of the early examples of literary nature writing, an account of a year spent living among the sand dunes of the great peninsula of Cape Cod, living closer to the ‘rough sea nature’ in all her aspects than most humans do and observing all that passes through and by, using all the senses.

Having planned to stay two weeks in his newly built house on the sand dunes, Henry Beston’s fascination with the changes of the dunes, the tides, the sky, the migration of birds and butterflies keep him captivated; thus he keeps extending his stay, observing the minutiae of life and nature, writing it into this book.

I first came across the title while reading one of my favourite nature writing books by Rachel Carson, Under the Sea-Wind, in which she mentions this volume as one of her inspirations.

Under Sea Wind2And though I enjoyed Henry Beston’s book considerably, Carson’s book for me left a greater impression, for who could not forget being made to see life through the eyes of the very creatures Henry Beston observes. Carson chose to narrate the three parts of her book from the point of view of a sanderling (bird), a mackerel, and a migrating eel. If you haven’t read it and loved this book, I am sure you will enjoy and appreciate Rachel Carson’s personal favourite of all the books she wrote, it is the perfect companion to The Outermost House.

I got the impression Henry Beston may have been something of an insomniac, or perhaps it was because during winter he abandoned the cold bedroom and slept in his front room, where there was the warmth and then cooling of the fire and the changing light of the seven windows he’d included in his simple design. Often throughout the book, he wakes in the night and so making the most of it, seeing these awakenings as an unwitting opportunity, he dresses and goes out to see what’s up. And though we might think that one night must surely be just like another, he always finds something new to observe, reflect on and write about.

He was often visited by the “surfmen” who patrolled the coastline, making sure he’d survived the latest storm, men he said knew the conditions of that coast like no other, not as sailors, but like those who are land based who watch and develop their knowledge and instinct as he learned to, observing how quickly the elements could change and become violent, showing little compassion for floating man-made vessels that attempted to navigate its peripheries.

shipwrecksIt was the late 1920’s and no doubt a year like any other, with its share of wrecks, disasters. The pragmatic attitudes of the locals, as likely to come to the rescue and do anything to help, as they are to salvage what is left, not always understood by the families of victims of the many shipwrecks.

“a wreck was treasure trove, a free gift of the sea; even to-day, the usable parts of a wreck are liable to melt away in a curious manner.”

To get a feel for the prose, I’m sharing a few more of the passages I highlighted as I read, they best portray a sense of his experience and lyrical turn of phrase.

He develops a compassion and understanding for birds and animals and insects that he finds at odds with what an education (or perhaps religion) has taught him, he questions the self-perceived superiority of man and wonders that we ought not perhaps rethink this arrogance.

“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 civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken a form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly 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 extensions 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 earth.”

He attempts to put into words, his great awe and the magnificence of the ocean, implying that of nature’s three great elemental sounds in nature (the rain, the wind and the sound of outer ocean on a beach) the ocean is the most awesome, beautiful and varied.

“For it is a mistake to talk of the monotone of ocean or of the monotonous nature of its sound. The sea has many voices. Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears, and you will hear in it a world of sounds: hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of people in the sea. And not only is the great sound varied in the manner of its making, it is also constantly changing its tempo, its pitch, its accent, and its rhythm, being now loud and thundering, now almost placid, now furious, now grave and solemn-slow, now a simple measure, now a rhythm monstrous with a sense of purpose and elemental will.”

He is prone to talk of the sounds of natures as if they were a symphony of his making.

“As I muse here, it occurs to me that we are not sufficiently grateful for the great symphony of natural sound which insects add to the natural scene; indeed, we take it so much as a matter of course that it does not stir our fully conscious attention. But all those little fiddles in the grass, all those cricket pipes, those delicate flutes, are they not lovely beyond words when heard in midsummer on a moonlight night.”

Cape Cod Birdlife by Janet DiMatta

Cape Cod Birdlife by Janet DiMatta

A delightful read that I enjoyed even though I have never visited the area, it does make you wish to see it for yourself, a unique ecosystem and landing point between here and there for so many species, one that Henry Beston has succeeded in depicting so well, it has ensured his book has become a classic, continued to be read, reread and appreciated by multiple generations of readers.

To see some pictures of the house, you can visit the website Outermost House.

Click here to buy a copy of

The Outermost House or Under the Sea-Wind

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Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson

Under the Sea-Wind (1941) was Rachel Carson’s literary debut and the first title in her Sea Trilogy, three books she wrote about the sea, the second The Sea Around Us (1951) and finally The Edge of the Sea (1955).

I discovered Under the Sea-Wind one day because I felt sure someone must have written a book about the sea, as I had imagined.

I like to read page-turning, lyrical nature writing, the kind of prose written by poets, though not poetry; authors like Kathleen Jamie who wrote Findings (my review here) and Sightlines, Barry Lopez and his Arctic Dreams (review here), Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. They are all books that fascinate, entertain and enthrall on the subject of nature, in a way that traditional, factual texts about those subjects rarely inspire.

So I asked myself, well who has written in this form, about the sea? Because the sea is my muse, my resting place, that living, moody, playful, dangerous place that I never tire of and rarely get enough of and I wanted to read something that attempted to articulate the essence of it. So I could bring the sea nearer to me, when I can’t go to her. In that search I discovered Rachel Carson’s literary debut, her personal favourite book of all those she wrote, a book all about the sea, invoking its mystery and wonder.

The book started out as an assignment she completed in 1936, when she was an unemployed zoologist and freelance writer for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Asked to write an introduction to a brochure on marine life, she submitted an essay entitled “The World of Waters” neatly typed by her mother, as all her manuscripts would be.

The next day Carson sat in Higgins’s Washington D.C. office waiting for his verdict.The government ichthyologist knew at once that it was unsuitable. What he was reading was a piece of literature. Carson never forgot the conversation: ‘My chief…handed it back with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I don’t think it will do,’ he said. ‘Better try again. But send this one to the Atlantic Monthly.’

The essay was a narrative account of the countless sea creatures that cohabit in and underwater and introduced her two most enduring and renowned themes: the ecological relationships of ocean life that have been in existence for millenia and the material immortality that embraces even the tiniest organism. It was the essay that spawned a classic in nature literature.

A sanderling shore bird

A sanderling shore bird

Under the Sea-Wind is structured in three parts, and in each part, we view the sea and sea life from the point of view of one of its inhabitants.

In Part One, Edge of the Sea, written for the life of the shore, and inspired by a stretch of North Carolina sea-coast, we meet a female sanderling she names Silverbar, it is Spring and the great Spring migration of shore birds is at its height and concludes with the end of summer where the movements of  birds, fish, shrimp and other water creatures heralds the changing of the seasons.

“Pressing close to the backwash, Silverbar saw two shining air bubbles pushing away the sand grains and she knew that a crab was beneath. Even as she watched the bubbles her bright eyes saw that a wave was taking form in the tumbling confusion of the surf. She gauged the speed of the mound of water as it ran, toppling, up the beach. Above the deeper undertones of moving water she heard the lighter hiss that came as the crest began to spill. Almost in the same instant the feathered antennae of the crab appeared above the sand. Running under the very crest of the green water hill, Silverbar probed vigorously in the wet sand with opened bill and drew out the crab. Before the water could so much as wet her legs she turned and fled up the beach.”

She describes the terror of the shore birds as they hide in the beach grass from the noisy, boisterous migrating flocks that briefly occupy their territory; the terrible snow storm that will freeze hundreds of egg embryos, where only the fittest and strongest survive; the way the birds lure a fox away from their nests and the day the parents finally abandon their young, their job complete.

A school of Mackerel

A school of Mackerel

Part Two The Gull’s Way, is dedicated to the open sea, a parallel time period in the open ocean and here we encounter Scomber the mackerel, following his journey from birth through infancy and youth in a quiet New England harbour, only to join a school that follows its instinct into the great sea where numerous predators await. As the fish move from one location to the next, trying to outwit predators, including man, the sea becomes the scene of a thriller and Scomber the mackerel, our fugitive!

Anguilla, the eel

Anguilla, the eel

Part Three River and Sea is written in the deepest, darkest, fathoms, we follow Anguilla, the eel from the far tributaries of a coastal river pool, downstream to the gently sloping depths of the sea, ‘the steep descent of the continental slopes and finally the abyss’.

After 10 years of uneventful river habitation, the eels are drawn by instinct downriver returning to their place of birth, a deep abyss near the Sargasso Sea where they will spawn and die. It is the most remarkable journey, as is that of the newborn spawn originating from two continents, who float side by side and drift towards those same coastal rivers their parents swam from, a voyage of years and over time the two species will separate and veer towards their continent, the US or Europe.

“Anguilla had entered Bittern Pond as a finger-long elver ten years before. She had lived in the pond through its summers and autumns and winters and springs, hiding in its weed beds by day and prowling through it waters by night, for like all eels she was a lover of darkness…Now it was autumn again… a strange restiveness was growing in Anguilla the eel. For the first time in her adult life, the food hunger was forgotten. In its place was a strange, new hunger, formless and ill-defined. Its dimly perceived object was a place of warmth and darkness – darker than the blackest night over Bitten Pond.  She had known such a place once – in the dim beginnings of life, before memory began. Many times that night, as the wind and rain tore at the surface film of the pond, Anguilla was drawn irresistibly towards the outlet over which the water was spilling on its journey to the sea.”

Rachel Carson writes about the sea, the sand, the birds, fish and the smallest of creatures and organisms in a way that makes us realise how little we observe of what is occurring around us, though we may stand, swim, float or fish in the midst of it. For the sea, its shore and the air above thrum like a thriving city of predator and prey of all sizes and character, constantly fluctuating, its citizens ever alert to when it is prudent to move and when it is necessary to be still.

Original, enthralling, it opens our eyes to much that we do not see or understand, I am in awe of shore birds, mackerel, eels, the sea, streams, rivers, ponds and the interconnectedness of them all.

Man, when his ambitions were more local, was once a balanced part of this ecosystem, though many of the practices of today appear to have stretched the boundaries of our role too far towards destructive exploitation, in our ignorance, we are upsetting this delicate yet complex ecosystem, which will be to our detriment if not stopped.

Fortunately, we have people like Captain Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who have made themselves guardians of marine wildlife, actively pursuing  and preventing those who exploit and destroy without regard for the destructive effect of their pillaging the oceans.

Rachel Carson explores the sea-shore, the shallow and the deep, seeing them from the point of view of three species natural to those habitats, while mentioning so many more that they encounter, in a narrative that makes nature writing absolutely thrilling and survival an astounding feat.

Highly Recommended!

Buy a copy of Under the Sea-Wind via Book Depository

The Bees by Laline Paull

I came across this book The Bees by Laline Paull during the Literary Bloghop giveaway. Deb from The Book Stop was offering it as one of her giveaways and I was intrigued by the premise as it is narrated from the point of view of Flora 717, a worker bee!

Bees2The story begins with Flora’s awakening as she becomes conscious of her surroundings and who she is and what she is capable of doing. For not all bees are born equal in The Hive. Flora is a sanitation bee, one of the lowest kin and perceived by others as the most ugly, neither are they capable of speech. Except Flora. She has characteristics that are not like her kin and is fortunate being a mutant bee that she has been allowed to live.

The majority of the bees in the hive are female, except the Drones, the only male bees and the only kin who don’t work. The bee kins have names like Clover, Sage,  Thistle. They mutter a mantra ACCEPT OBEY SERVE around the more senior sisters and priestesses, they do Devotions, are punished with Kindness, communicate what they have learned on the outside in the Dance Hall, including information about the dangers of the Myriad.

“The golden fragrance drew Flora on, until to her shock she realised she had passed unscathed through the scent-gates on the staircase to the highest level of the hive.”

Their talents and work include cleaning the hive, feeding the newborns with Flow, a substance some bees are able to regurgitate, foraging to collect nectar and pollen, working in the Patisserie, grooming the Drones and tending to the Queen.

Bee Castes

The bees possess a collective consciousness and through it they can receive information from the Hive Mind and Energy and Love from their Queen; their thoughts are able to be read by others through their antennae, unless they close them down, which Flora begins to do increasingly as she crosses boundaries and experiences thoughts she knows could endanger her life and others, should any of the  kin-sisters read them.

“Flora tucked her antennae sleek down her back as she advanced her speed. Never again would she leave her channels open in the hive, for any bee to grab and read. Sister Teasel was old and  could no longer work efficiently – but Flora’s wings beat with a new strength. She felt she could fly a hundred leagues  to serve her hive, and the sky streamed with all the scents rising from the wet earth – including mesmerisingly delicious nectar. Flora locked onto it.”

There are threats both within the Hive and outside.  The beehive is like a cult, its members know their place, their role and their boundaries, however everywhere there are risks and dangers both outside and more dangerously, within. ACCEPT, OBEY, SERVE. They live in a symbiotic relationship that ensures the safe function and progression of the hive. When something threatens that relationship, their safe haven is no longer assured.

Laline Paull has channelled an incredible and yet what read like a totally credible life and universe within a beehive, from the perspective of Flora 717. I know little about the bee world, but the environment the author creates is fascinating, intriguing and imaginative with references to monarchy, spiritual devotion, universal instinct and power. It also contains a subtle environmental reference, one that will be recognised by nature lovers everywhere, without compromising the essence of great storytelling.

Labyrinthe of Knossos, Crete

Labyrinth of Knossos, Crete

Intrigued by the book, I was also interested to learn that Laline Paull was inspired by a Bronze Age Minoan Palace.

“The Cretan Minoan civilization dates from 1700BC, and was very sophisticated and sexually egalitarian, if not biased towards women. It was an inspiration for translating a real beehive into a fictional landscape.” Laline Paull

This description of the Labyrinth at Knossos, the largest of the Minoan palaces, gives you an idea of the influence on Flora’s world.

“Knossos is the largest of the Minoan palaces, and like others it is an agglomeration of rooms clustered around a long, rectangular central court. Only the ruins of its foundations have survived, but these reveal a vast interconnected complex of small corridors, staircases and private rooms containing residential quarters, workshops, administrative areas and many different cult centres.” Christopher Berg, Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World

The Bees is an utterly captivating read and a masterful feat of the imagination, Laline Paull has the reader on a knife-edge, knowing the dangers Flora 717 faces, yet her discretions feel necessary and we will her to continue, to survive and overcome all the challenges she faces.

I started it slowly and have since read others did find it is a slow start, however once into it, I could not put it down, it has been one of the best and most original reads of 2014 for me.

H is for Hawk, Winner of Samuel Johnson Prize, Costa Prize

H is for Hawk and for Helen Macdonald, and her Hibernation from Humanity in coping with her father’s untimely death and her own pending transition, as her Cambridge University fellowship is coming to an end and she must soon leave the comfortable country cottage that came with it.

H is for HawkResponding to an instinctive need to escape reality she obtains a goshawk, retreats into her cottage, unplugs her telephone and focuses on training the raptor at the same time observing her own behaviour which begins to resemble the bird’s.

“The kind of madness I had was different. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. The problem was that it had nothing to work with. There was no partner, no children, no home. No nine-to-five job either. So it grabbed anything it could. It was desperate, and it read off the world wrong.”

In all her years as a falconer, she had never wanted to fly a goshawk, she feared them and comes to realise she has taken on the attitudes of those who glorified falcons, bird of nobility, of aristocracy, men of privilege, those who mocked the humble goshawk. But times and perceptions had changed, and getting to know and train a goshawk was the challenge she set for herself.

“Goshawks were ruffians: murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign.”

She waits on a Scottish pier for the Belfast ferry, which is transporting a man and his goshawk, soon enough she will become the owner of the bird she names Mabel.

The days pass and her focus must be with Mabel, she spurns human company, spending her free time in the company of T.H White, rereading The Goshawk, a book she had read as a child when her passion for birds was in its formative stages. White wrote about his failed attempt to train a goshawk, his account wrapped up in childhood fears and inclinations. Helen Macdonald reads around the life and writings of this man in order to understand him, as if to explain to her childhood self, why he did what he did.

“I understood why people considered it a masterpiece. For White made falconry a metaphysical battle. Like Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea, The Goshawk was a literary encounter between animal and man that reached back to Puritan traditions of spiritual contest: salvation as a stake to be won in a contest against God.”

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope
Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

It is a fascinating and insightful read as the author shares her commitment to an obsessive need to tame the hawk and exposes her vulnerability in coping with all that she wishes to avoid. Writing about the training of a goshawk is also a way of avoiding talking about herself. We must read outside the narrative of the book to know more about Helen’s previous experience and expertise with hawks, we can tell she is no amateur, however she avoids looking back or enlightening the reader too much about her past, we are kept very much in the present, as unnerved as she is by her descent into hawk-like behaviours and instincts.

I love nature writing that stimulates the imagination, that offers more than just an observation of what the author sees, but describes the environment and what an observer brings to it, one that provokes us to think about our own relationship to birds, animals and nature. Helen Macdonald comes to her goshawk challenge with fixed ideas about the need to escape all, she sets herself up like a scientific hypothesis, begins her transformation into a hawk like creature and then slowly deconstructs it, coming back to the realisation of her own humanity.

“Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Falconry_sport_of_kings_(1920)

Falconry, the sport of Kings Source: wikipedia

She reminds us of the place and symbolism of falconry within humanity, its association with the hunt, with death, war, power and subservience.

It is unique in being a woman’s perspective within a heritage that has long been the domain of men, nobility, landowners, gentry, medieval lords.

It is refreshingly alive, honest and knowledgeable, exhibiting how our weaknesses and our strengths advance and recede in unison as naturally as the ebb and flow of tides.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Arctic Dreams – Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez

“Sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive.”

Barry Lopez

Valorie Hallorin

This quote sits on the home page of one my favourite blogs, Books Can Save A Life and it is also where I came across the non-fiction writer Barry Lopez. Not just in this quote, but in her reviews of a number of his collections, reading about Barry Lopez makes me want to read every book he has written.

From the essays I review below, it may appear he is a nature writer, but he can not be categorised so easily, he  writes about humanity and could I am sure turn his pen towards any subject and make it an engaging read.

About This Life

Valories shares this quote from her review of About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory and the following conversation gives us a flavour of the diversity of his observations and subsequent learnings about life.

In the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:

She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.

She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.

Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”

Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she’ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.

Arctic dreamsHowever, it was her review Arctic Dreams – gathering words that had me chasing up this book, because it was not only a powerful book of nature essays, but as she says, it is a source of “the most dazzling and poetic passages about the natural world you’ll ever encounter.”

Valorie is “into words” and does Lexicon Practice, inspired by the author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Pricilla Long. Lexicon Practice involves compiling new words encountered in books into a notebook, noting the original sentence and creating a new one. It inspires our vocabulary which may otherwise degenerate into those overused phrases we read every day in various media. And Barry Lopez exposes us to an abundance of wonderful new words!

Arctic Dreams was originally published in 1986 and won the US National Book Award for non-fiction. It is a compilation of around 10 essays, which can be read separately, each one focusing on a different subject, as Lopez focuses on the inhabitants, visitors and four-legged, two-winged migrants of a frozen territory in the North.

Reading his work is a little like being mesmerised by a compelling narrator in a nature documentary, for it is not just the images of the animals and the landscape that are interesting, but his recounting philosophical thoughts of our interaction with nature and  local populations, whether they are polar bears, seals or Arctic peoples.

Narwhal

The Narwhal

I don’t think I have ever highlighted so many passages in one book, as I have in Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, it is a privilege to walk in his footsteps, to figuratively look over his shoulder and see inside a compassionate mind as he whispers words onto the page of this incredible collection of observations of natural life.

I recognise that change that can come over us, when we spend long enough in an environment completely foreign to our norm, long enough that our behaviour starts to change, something primal occurs and so it is no surprise to me when Lopez mentions that on his evening walks, he starts bowing to the birds he encounters. This ritual will inspire his own questions into how humanity imagines the landscapes they are in and how in turn the land shapes the imaginations of the people who dwell within it. And so he journeys into the unknown to find out.

“I took to bowing on these evening walks. I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, towards the birds and the evidence of life in their nests – because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down over the land like breath, like breathing.”

muskox

Musk-oxen

And so I find myself immersed in chapters that expound on characteristics and behaviour of musk-oxen, polar bears, the narwhal, the influence and importance of ice and light, the great migrations and more.

“Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them all south in the fall.”

Barry Lopez has a unique voice, on the page and in person. Even you never read his words in a book, listen to him here speaking for less than two minutes about the gift of story in our lives.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.