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

Advertisements

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

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.

A Winter Book

Too many days have passed in a fog and even this is hard to write, because I had already written and lost it, so peeking out from the blur of la grippe (flu), I hope I find the inspiration that assisted me first time round.

A Winter BookI came across a review for Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book after spending an evening reading Katie Metcalfe’s sublime poetry here.

Metcalfe is a young contemporary poet from Teesside, in the North of England, who churns out poetry at an astonishing rate and has an abundant talent for getting to the heart of it, all of it, any of it, whatever it is she chooses to write about in that heart-felt way that only poetry can do.

Inspired by the Arctic and snowy landscapes, it was no wonder a book like Jansson’s would appeal to her. And something about it appealed to me too, a collection of tales to read in winter, semi-autobiographical bite sized vignettes of another creative spirit.

The Moomin Family

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was not known to me, but will be known to many as she was the author of the children’s fantasy Moomin books. The Moomins are a family of pale, rotund trolls with large snouts, resembling hippopotamuses. Sniff, Snufkin, Moominmamma, Moominpapa and more, they live in Moominvalley in the forests of Finland and have lots of adventures.

Jansson was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature in 1966.

Her first collection of stories for adults The Summer Book was published in 1972, and this more recent collection spans her writing career, like seaside keepsakes gathered over the years. I now have The Summer Book, but shall make that a seasonal read as well.

The daughter of creative parents, her father a sculptor and her mother an illustrator, Jansson’s own imagination has been given full rein and it comes out in her first stories, which are told from the perspective of a girl, whom I am sure was the author herself. In fact all through the book, I was left more with a feeling of reading non-fiction than anything else. This selection draws from five collections presenting the best of her short fiction.

In one story entitled Snow, she writes of a girl and her mother being snowed in, the light slowly disappearing as the windows are covered up and expresses her delight in having escaped the outside world, warm in the safe and secure presence of her cheerful mother.

“..we have gone into hibernation. Nobody can get in any longer and no one can get out!”

I looked carefully at her and understood that we were saved. At last we were absolutely safe and protected. This menacing snow had hidden us inside in the warmth for ever and we didn’t have to worry a bit about what went on there outside.

Jansson spent every summer living and working on a tiny island off the coast of Finland, returning to Helsinki for the more difficult months and clearly spent many summers in boats and on the island during her childhood. Another memorable story was The Boat and Me, she is given her first boat at twelve-years-old and wastes no time in asserting her new-found independence, taking the boat out along the coast to look at her favourite spots from another perspective, with little regard for the hours that pass by or the hearts that might be fretting.

I go slowly, hugging the shore, into each creek and out round each headland; I mustn’t miss anything out because it’s a ritual. Now I’m about to see my territory from the sea for the first time, that’s important.

I pulled up the anchor-stone and rowed straight out into the path of the moon. Of course the moon’s path is lovely as a picture in calm weather, but when it’s rough, it’s even more beautiful, all splinters and flakes from precious stones like sailing through a sea set with diamonds.

And at that very moment Dad turned up…

Tove SquirrelBut my favourite story has to be the one that follows, in a section entitled Travelling Light, signifying the latter years, where annoyance is more likely the emotion of choice to greet uninvited guests in place of the enthusiasm or delight of her more youthful years. Even when that guest is an island-hopping squirrel.

Either I am incredibly gullible or this story will teach you something new about the intelligence of squirrels, as a reader I was right there with squirrel and hoping for the best, while Jansson was lining up his escape options, ill inclined to do anything to encourage the lonesome animal to stay.

She didn’t care about squirrels, or fly fishermen, or anyone, but just let herself slip down into a great disappointment and admit she was disappointed. ‘How can this be possible?’ she thought frankly. ‘How can I be so angry that they’ve come at all and then so dreadfully disappointed that they haven’t landed?’

Not just a quiet, honest collection of stories, but containing wonderful black and white photos that add to the atmosphere the author evokes and make us feel the heaviness and significance of that final story, Taking Leave, the last visit, when the nets have become too heavy to pull, the boat too difficult to handle, the sea too unpredictable for two aging women. It is with a quiet sadness but knowledge that many happy hours were spent, that we turn the last page on that final visit.

Kathleen Jamie’s Findings

FindingsHer latest poetry collection The Overhaul recently won the Costa Prize for poetry, another accolade for this award-winning writer who has found her niche, her publisher previously having had difficulty placing her work in a clear genre.

Findings was, by anyone’s standards, a fiendishly tricky sell. Jamie’s choice of the essay form was unfashionable; her subjects (Orkney in midwinter, a pair of nesting peregrines, 21st-century flotsam on a Hebridean shoreline) were queer and disparate. Her publisher wasn’t even sure how the book should be classified. Travel writing? Not quite: none of the essays took Jamie outside her native Scotland; many were written from her own back door. Autobiography? The book was bewitchingly first-person, but there was no sense of a coherent memoir.

An extract from the Guardian’s Kathleen Jamie – A Life in Writing

 

Nesting Peregrine Photo by Christophe Cage, Wikipedia

I see them as wonderful nature essays, a form of creative non-fiction, much more than notes of a nature walk, though they are  inspired by her time on the Hebridean and Orkney Islands and near her home in Fife; but with the purpose of observing and learning to capture in words what she sees, without the need to analyse.  She describes watching ospreys and peregrines and shares her concern over whether they are nesting or not, there having been evidence of only two pair of these birds attempting to nest in the entire country.

She moves away from identifying and labelling what she sees, towards painting a picture with words, a description so apt, it is as if you are there with her as that large unknown bird she describes so vividly traverses the sky overhead.

This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering, ‘My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis – don’t be silly, it’s just a wild heron.’ Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and learn again to look, to listen.

Visiting a few of the Scottish Hebridean Islands, Ceann Iar, Coll, meandering along the tide line of inlets, she and her companions find the washed up remains of a small whale, a bit of a plane and other flotsam including seal’s vertebrae, an orange traffic cone, driftwood and plastic garbage.

This is what we take away from Ceann Iar: a bleached whale’s scapula, not the door of a plane: an orb of quartz, not a doll’s head.

Visiting a Shieling – from Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories (1939) by Emily McDonald

Traces of contemporary life at the water’s edge and higher up in the hills, she walks among remnants of an earlier life, the shielings, now abandoned summer huts made of stone and turf, built in the mountain pastures where girls often spent their summers, grazing the animals, receiving visits once a week to take back the cheese and butter they’d produced and to replenish their food stocks, not to mention the young men who paid calls on them in the evening, the time passing sharing local news, story-telling, fun and laughter.

The top of the year, the time of ease and plenty. The people would come up from the farmsteads below around the beginning of July – ‘the girls went laughing up the glen’ as the poem says – and return at harvest time. Up here, they made milk, butter and cheese, and it was woman’s work. What a loss that seems now: a time when women were guaranteed a place in the wider landscape, our own place in the hills.

Not only does Kathleen Jamie evoke something of the present and the past in her observations of these remote islands, she leaves you reminding yourself to pay more attention, to be mindful, to stop, to listen, to stand and stare, to look up – promising as a reward, a renewed connection to our surroundings and an appreciation of all the species that live and have lived within it.

To read Kathleen Jamie is the next best thing to a slow walk in that great living outdoors, I believe she has found the perfect niche.  I’m already looking forward to her next collection of essays ‘Sightlines‘. Do you have a favourite nature writer?