Rereading Outermost House

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(Host) As hurricane season winds down once again, commentator W.D. Wetherell is reminded of writer Henry Beston. Beston built a tiny retreat like a ship’s living quarters on the easternmost tip of Cape Cod. There Beston wrote a book that has since become a classic.

(Wetherell) He called his cabin the “Fo’castle,” it was so shipshape and snug. Built atop the sand dunes of Eastham facing the great outer beach of Cape Cod, it consisted of only two rooms, the overall dimensions but 20 x 16, its one extravagance was windows – a pair to the east opening on the sea, a pair to the west commanding the marshes, a pair to the south for the winter sunrise, and one in the bedroom facing the reassuring beam of Nauset Light.

In 1927, a 36-year old Henry Beston moved to the Fo’castle and deliberately set himself a worthy and demanding task: to write a book whose prose would match the beauty of the great elemental scene his cabin faced. The book he wrote there, “The Outermost House,” has been in print ever since, and continues as an inspiration to every nature writer who’s come after.

The book, written so carefully, gives the feeling of being spontaneous and immediate, not constructed at all – it’s as if the beach is dictating to him as he sits by one of his windows, and he is wise enough to let it do the writing on its own. There’s philosophy, too, beliefs he cares passionately about, but blended so naturally into his narrative that they never seem forced on you or imposed.

After Beston left the dunes, he spent the remainder of his life on a saltwater farm in Maine, a story described in his evocative Northern Farm. In 1964, the Fo’castle was designated as a National Literary Landmark, and Beston and his wife, the poet Elizabeth Coatsworth, journeyed out one last time across the dunes to see a bronze plaque mounted on the cabin’s weathered shingles.

Sadly, the Fo’castle was destroyed in the great blizzard of 1978 – sad, but how Beston himself would have enjoyed the storm’s elemental fury! For me, the best chapter is “The Headlong Wave,” in which Beston sets himself as hard a challenge as a descriptive writer could think of: to capture in prose the sounds and the shapes of the waves crashing ashore on the beach.

“Along the ridge of blue forms a rippling crest of clear, bright water;” he writes, “a little spray flies off. Under the racing foam churned up by the dissolution of other breakers, the beach now catches at the last shape of sea inhabited by the pulse – the wave is tripped by the shoaling sands – the giant stumbles, crashes, and is pushed over and ahead by the sloping line of force behind…. Outermost cliff and solitary dune, the plain of ocean and the far, bright rims of the world, meadow land and marsh and ancient moor; this is Eastham; this is the outer Cape.”

And this is Walter Wetherell from Lyme, New Hampshire.

W.D. Wetherell is a novelist and essayist who writes frequently on the outdoors.

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