[ Free Textbooks ] The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape CodAuthor Henry Beston – Bilb-weil.de

The seventyfifth anniversary edition of the classic book about Cape Cod, written with simplicity, sympathy, and beauty New York Herald TribuneA chronicle of a solitary year spent on a Cape Cod beach, The Outermost House has long been recognized as a classic of American nature writing Henry Beston had originally planned to spend just two weeks in a seaside cottage, but was so possessed by the mysterious beauty of his surroundings that he found he could not goInstead, he sat down to try and capture in words the wonders of the magical landscape he found himself in thrall to: the migrations of seabirds, the rhythms of the tide, the windblown dunes, and the scatter of stars in the changing sky Beston argued that, The world today is sick to its thin blood for the lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot Seventyfive years after they were first published, Beston's words are true than ever

10 thoughts on “The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

  1. Jim Fonseca Jim Fonseca says:

    The Outermost House by Henry Beston

    I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, about an hour’s drive in those days from the Cape Cod Canal. I have fond memories of fishing with my father off the rocks of the canal. Now via Interstate that trip takes a half-hour.

    This book, a follow-up in a sense to Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod (1865), was written in 1928 and it is an early naturalist/environmental work. The introduction tells us that Rachel Carson (Silent Spring, 1962) said that it was the only book that influenced her writing. In the 1960’s this book was instrumental in getting the Cape Cod National Seashore established.


    So the author, an aspiring writer, bought 50 acres of land in the dunes of the Cape and built a two-room summer home. The house was near Eastham, kind of near the ‘wrist’ if you think of a map of Cape Cod as shaped like a flexed arm. It’s about 20 miles and a half-hour south of Provincetown. There was no road in, so his food and supplies had to be brought in by backpack. He decided to stay a year and write a book about his experience.

    He spent most of his time alone but the was not isolated. He had friends visit and bring food and supplies, but mainly it was the coast guard men who gave him company. In those days there were twelve coast guard stations along the 35-miles of Atlantic frontage along the eastern Cape. They did not have twelve lighthouses, so the men patrolled the beach daily and during storms, carried and shot off flares to warn ships off the beach.


    The year he was there, there were three wrecks on the coast and one coast guardsman found his own father’s body washed up on the shore from a fishing vessel.

    We’re probably all read nature books and the chapters are what you would expect. The birds and fish, the seasonal changes, a walk inland, the beach at night, the beach during a great storm – a nor’easter, and so on. I was surprised at how little there was about land animals other than brief mention of a deer trapped in an ice pond, muskrats and mice.

    Most of the book focuses on birds, especially the northern sea birds, many of which come down from Greenland and Labrador in the winter (Cape Cod in winter is their Florida, lol): all varieties of gulls and sandpipers, gannets, auks, scoters, geese, ducks, arctic sea ducks, guillemots, eiders, widgeons, plovers. I got a kick out of his description of gannets, which he also called plummets, one of the largest seabirds. These six-pound birds with six-foot wingspans, drop on a fish from 50 feet out of the sky, throwing up a cascade of water like a bomb. All year long the Cape is major stopover on the east coast bird migration routes so you see all kinds of birds.

    In among the nature stories once in a while he waxes poetic as here, talking about the beach by night:

    “When the great earth, abandoning day, rolls up the deeps of the heavens and the universe, a new door opens for the human spirit, and there are few so clownish that some awareness of the mystery of being does not touch them as they gaze. For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars - pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience.”

    And I liked this passage: “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 the ocean is the most awesome, beautiful, and varied. For it is a mistake to talk of the monotone of ocean or the monotonous nature of its sound. The sea has many voices …hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones…”


    After writing this book the author married and moved to Nobleboro, Maine, about an hour north of Portland. He wrote several books about nature in Maine and about being a gentleman farmer. When he died the house and property were willed to the National Seashore and the house became a National Literary Landmark. Unfortunately it was completely destroyed by a severe storm in 1978.

    If you want to read how the glaciers created Cape Cod (also Long Island) here’s a good site:

    Photo of the house from blogspot.com
    Map of the house from jerico23.wordpress.com
    The author from alchetron.com

  2. Suzanne Suzanne says:

    I keep this book on my nightstand when I need to transport myself from this world to the natural beauty Beston describes. I love Cape Cod, particularly this Cape Cod, one full of sand and beach grass, salt air and ocean breeze. How many of us would just like to check out for awhile? Beston, like Thoreau, did this for a year and chronicled all he saw and felt.
    One description is unique to the time it was written. Rather than the traditional Coast Guard stations we are all familiar with, those along Cape Cod were lifesaving stations, and were manned by young men serving in the Coast Guard. They walked the beach each night, 365 days per year no matter what the weather conditions were. Their walks averaged 6-7 miles a night. They walked in Northeasters' and in gales looking toward the sea to find any boat that might be in distress. They then employed the old breeches buoy to rescue those fisherman trapped on a sinking vessel.
    This is just a naturalist's treasure.

  3. Celia Celia says:

    The Outermost House has long been recognized as a classic of nature writing.

    In 1925, Henry Beston built a two room cottage on the outer bank of Cape Cod as a vacation retreat. In September of 1926, he went to spend two weeks there, but The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and the mystery of this earth and the outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.

    He left the beach in the fall of 1927, with several notebooks full of material, but no publishable manuscript. When he proposed setting a wedding date with his fiancee, Elizabeth Coatsworth, she replied, No book, no marriage. The book was published in the fall of 1928. The Bestons were married in June of 1929.

    Henry Beston described himself as a writer-naturalist, and his love of nature comes shining through in this book. Each season of the year is lovingly described, and there are many pages showing Henry's love of birds.

    Two things really struck me when I read them: Beston was concerned about ocean pollution in 1926!! He also witnessed a naked swimmer enjoying the surf in the summer of 1927 and waxed eloquent on the human body. Watching this picture of a fine human being free for the moment of everything, I could not help musing on the mystery of the human body and how nothing can equal its rich and rhythmic beauty...

    Henry Beston's life spanned 1888- 1968. In 1964, the Cape Cod House was proclaimed a National Literary Landmark. In 1978, a massive winter storm swept it out to sea.

    The Introduction by Robert Finch is a must read. Much of what I included in this review, I found in this introduction.

    Finch states that Outermost House is written by a man in middle age, but is very much a young man's book, passionate and indulgent, full of a sense of discovery and self-discovery.

    A beautiful read, I recommend it to all lovers of nature everywhere.

    4 stars

  4. Vimal Thiagarajan Vimal Thiagarajan says:

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

    And what delightful Poetry it was! Not mere wordplay and expression of feelings, but an extremely astute and microscopic observation and description of the very molecules,the very atoms, the very quarks of nature.

    Henry Beston wasn't someone whose idea of outdoors is revelry in a crowded beach or DSLR photography in a zoo or botanical garden.His idea of outdoors was to live alone for a year in a house in a secluded beach with everything and everyone except humans for company(except for the late-night coast guard patrol).There, across the seasons he passionately and fondly observes the primeval dances of the tide and the offshore winds, the seasonal migrations of seabirds and butterflies and fish,the magic of dawn and night at the oceanside, the great symphony of natural sounds in which the waves and wind and insects and birds play their parts with elegance, and records them all in incredible detail and beauty with his rhythmic language.

    Apart from his physical observations, the book is filled with his elegant theoretical discourse on a variety of subjects like animals, birds, insects, waves, night, rain etc.Though every discourse was graceful and accurate, his discourse on animals simply stood out.

    Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys animals 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.

    I'm really surprised that this book isn't that well-known despite its status as a classic in Nature-writing. I didn't know of it until I stumbled across this one in an used-book exchange program in a library, and am so glad and contented to have picked it up and read it. As it transpires, Beston had served as an ambulance driver in France and then as a press correspondent through the length of world war 1, and came back depressed and entirely disillusioned about the excesses of modern industrial society and the violence that attended it. But instead of falling into Nihilism, he wrote this book as a means to seek spiritual remedy and to show the pointlessness of human hubris.

    Man can be either less than man or more than man, and both are monsters, the last more dreadful

    If this book was relevant in 1928 and became a classic, it should only be a million times more relevant now.

  5. Robin Robin says:

    When I told my sister I was reading this book on a recent trip to Cape Cod, she asked me how many times I’d read it. She remembers me purchasing this 1969 edition when we were kids. I guessed I’d read it in entirety at least 4 times. However, an unusual feature of this book is that you can open it at random, read any chapter, and it will tell a complete story. I have read many chapters this way throughout the years.

    This is the most poetic book ever written about Cape Cod. Henry Beston is a careful observer of nature and worthy scientific theorist. Without being stuffy or tightly structured, Beston notes and comments on every nuance of nature on Eastham’s Great Beach and surrounding areas during his one-year stay in the late 1920s. He writes about bird migration, different types of waves and their sounds, flora and fauna of the Nauset salt marsh and dune, high winds and blinding blizzards, shipwrecks, 24/7 Coast Guard foot patrols, denizens of the deep, and seasonal changes.

    The following quote will give you an idea of Beston’s writing, describing the ocean: “The seas are the heart’s blood of the earth. Plucked up and kneaded by the sun and the moon, the tides are systole and diastole of earth’s veins. The rhythm of waves beats in the sea like a pulse in living flesh. It is pure force, forever embodying itself in a succession of watery shapes which vanish on its passing.”

    An interesting side note about this book: Beston had fallen in love with published poet Elizabeth Coatsworth before spending his year on Cape Cod. When he proposed marriage, she replied, “No book, no marriage.” So Beston, a slow and painstaking writer, spent the next year crafting this volume from the journal he kept while on Cape Cod. The book was published, Beston and Coatsworth were married, and The Outermost House was on its way to becoming the nature classic it is today.

    I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys Cape Cod, or anyone who has felt the desire to linger on a beach anywhere because they felt connected with all of nature.

  6. Jamie Jamie says:

    “When the great earth, abandoning day, rolls up the deeps of the heavens and the universe, a new door opens for the human spirit, and there are few so clownish that some awareness of the mystery of being does not touch them as they gaze. For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars – pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time.” (p. 173)

    This is one of the most beloved works of natural history in English. Its writing style set the tone for innumerable books to follow. Beston was no scientist, but he was a keen observer of his surroundings, and wrote with a graceful, lyrical style that pulls the reader into the scene he is describing. You can feel the sun, the sand, and the wind, hear the cry of the seabirds and smell the salt air. It is a rare author who can so fully immerse their readers into a time and place.

    All the afternoon long the surf had thundered high upon the beach, the ebb tide backed up against the wind. With the turn of the tide came fury unbelievable. The great rhythm of its waters now at one with the rhythm of the wind, the ocean rose out of the night to attack the ancient rivalry of earth, hurling breaker after thundering breaker against the long bulwark of the sands. (p. 84-5)

    He spent a year starting in late summer 1926 in a house he built along Cape Cod’s Atlantic shore, with the ocean at his front door and the tidal marshes of the inner Cape behind him. His days were spent reading, writing, and walking the dunes, noting the flotsam washed up along the wrack line, the animal tracks in the sand, the plants along his path, and especially the birds around him. He could recognize dozens of species, and described their appearance, their calls, their social and nesting behavior, and the time of year they arrived and departed. He felt himself enmeshed in the life around him, exuberantly alive and humbly grateful for the chance to be there. He had reason to fully appreciate life, since he had seen more than his share of death. His first book, A Volunteer Poilu, recounted his experiences as an ambulance driver in France during the First World War.

    Beston was not a recluse. He would frequently walk the two miles to the nearest Coast Guard station, where his mail was delivered, to talk to the men on watch, and once a week he made the trip into the nearest town to buy supplies. He went everywhere on foot, but it is an interesting sign of how dominant Ford Motor Company was at this time that he used the word “Ford” as a general term for cars and trucks. By the time the year was up he had filled three notebooks with his writings, but it was not in publishable form. The impetus to do so came when he asked his girlfriend to marry him and she said, “No book, no marriage.” It was published the next year, and was immediately recognized as a classic. You can hear echoes of its style in many works of natural history, and Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, said it was the only book that influenced her writing style.

    He wrote of more than just the plants and animals and the weather. He also pondered the larger issues of time and space. The seas are the heart’s blood of the earth. Plucked up and kneaded by the sun and the moon, the tides are systole and diastole of earth’s veins,” (p. 47) and

    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 share in it, is to close a dull door on nature’s sustaining and poetic spirit. (p. 59-60)

    The winter he spent was hard, bitterly cold and stormy, and he slept next to his fireplace. In the days before radar and radio navigation beacons, the Cape was a dangerous place when fog obscured the shore and there was no way to tell how far out you were. By the time you could hear the breakers it was too late. Beston describes a number of shipwrecks that winter, several of them with fatalities. The heroes of the story are the Coast Guardsmen who manned the lighthouses and patrolled the beaches. Around the Cape, on both its inner and outer shores, were Coast Guard stations. Halfway between each station was a hut with a telephone. Every night, regardless of the weather, a lone Coast Guardsman would walk the beaches carrying signal flares in case he saw a ship too near the coast. The round trip was about seven miles, and it was made twice a night in the summer, and three times a night in winter: just after dark, at midnight, and an hour before dawn. These patrols were made in weather that was frequently so bad that most people would never have even considered going out into the wild night, but they did their long walks every day of the year, and saved lives doing so. If they found a ship in distress the entire station would gather their equipment and try to effect a rescue in the howling dark. This is a story of great courage that deserves to be better remembered.

    As he watched the seasons roll by Beston noted how life adjusts to each. Having endured a harsh winter he celebrated the arrival of spring, with new life and new hope. You can feel his relief in winter’s passing when he writes, “April and the sun advancing, the disk rising each day to the north of where it leaped from yesterday’s ocean and setting north of yesterday’s setting, the solar disk burning, burning, consuming winter in fire.” (p. 148)

    Robert Finch mentions Beston in his own book Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod’s Atlantic Shore (q.v.), published in 2018, which describes his thirty years of walks along the same dunes and marshes. As befits the times, he includes a discussion of the ecology and fate of the Cape, which is to be washed away within the next few hundred years. Henry David Thoreau also wrote a book about the area, called Cape Cod, in 1865, and the place where his house was is now under the waves a hundred yards off the beach. Beston’s house had to be moved shoreward twice, in 1933 and 1944, and even then a great winter storm in 1978 swept it away. Like Thoreau’s house, the original site is now under water. The Cape is slowly wearing away, losing more beach and more marsh every year.

    This is a wonderful book, well worth reading for anyone with an interest in sand, sea, and stars. It makes you want to lace up your hiking boots and head out to where the ocean meets the shore.

  7. Rebecca Rebecca says:

    The Outermost House (originally published in 1928; previously out of print in the UK before this reissue) is a charming meditation on the turning of the seasons and the sometimes terrifying power of the sea. The writing is often poetic, with sibilance conjuring the sound of the ocean. Beston will be remembered for his statement of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world. “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” he declares; “they are not underlings; they are other nations.” If one word stands out in the book, it’s “elemental,” which appears a dozen times, evoking the grandeur of nature and the necessity of occasionally getting back to life’s basics.

    (My full review is in the September 13th issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)

  8. Henrique Maia Henrique Maia says:

    The world happens everyday, everywhere. We're often forgetful whence we came and we easily dismiss that seemingly distant background which is always there – nature.

    Henry Beston is the willing witness of a year round experience in the sands of Cape Cod beach. Humbled by the very spectacle of change, the author becomes one of us, and through him we see, listen, feel, smell and become united with the majesty of a world thriving with life. We follow the old rhythm of the earth as it follows the Sun, and before us nature shines: glorious, beautiful, generous, bountiful. And as it happens, we see it unfolding, as it should be, as it always does, bewildering with an elemental and transcendental beauty. This is what makes this book a masterpiece. Nature becomes the main character of a novel without narrative, where people are but silhouettes in that greater background where everything happens, everyday, everywhere.

  9. Lynn Lynn says:

    Cape Cod is my happy place and my best friend gave me this book for Christmas. It is an old memoir/nature book written by a man who chose to live on the dunes of Eastham for a year. I read the book in one sitting and it transported me to the sand, surf, wind, and light that I so love.

    His descriptions and powers of observation are amazing. He tried to depict all that he experienced: listening to the sound of the ocean, watching deer playing on a beach, witnessing men dying in a shipwreck, decoding a myriad of birdsong, and chronicling the smells wafting around him. It made me homesick and wishful that I could write something so beautiful.

  10. Beth Bonini Beth Bonini says:

    Many thanks to Elise from Pushkin Press for sending me a copy of this classic of nature writing because I don’t think I would have otherwise come across it. Although I enjoy nature writing, it was really the subtitle “A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod” that truly captured my interest.

    I’ve been to Cape Cod several times, at least the 21st century version of it, but as with so many ‘romantic’ summery places, I find it difficult to imagine living on the island throughout the year - both because of its isolation and the long, hard winter. Henry Beston, a Massachusetts native and a veteran of the First World War, was clearly made of tougher stuff. If he found his island retreat too cold and stormy, and sometimes too lonely, he must have saved his moaning for letters to far-away friends. Certainly no trace of those all-too-human frailties appear in this book, and the memoir-ish aspect plays the faintest of second fiddles to the dominant orchestra of nature writing. This is not so much the account of a human year as a natural one.

    Beston begins his account by describing the island of Cape Cod - “the last fragment of an ancient and vanished land” - and the “sandy spit” of Eastham on which he grounds the house which he calls the Fo’castle. He was obviously a keen and knowledgable ornithologist and the migrations and perambulations of the birds which also home themselves on the island provides much of the structure of the book. The book begins in early autumn, after the summer revellers have gone and before the warmth-loving birds have left the island. This book has much to recommend it - poetically descriptive prose, and an interesting history of the Cape, to name two aspects which I enjoyed - but bird enthusiasts will definitely find the most pleasure in Beston’s account.

    I’m not sure if it’s just that I found the rhythm of it, or if the writing and subject matter actually improved, at least by my lights, but I found the last few chapters (‘Night on the Great Beach’, ‘The Year at High Tide’ and ‘Orion Rises on the Dunes’) the most engaging and beautifully written. Many of my highlighted quotes (some of which I will share here) came from that last third of the book.

    . . . I began to reflect on Nature’s eagerness to sow life everywhere, to fill the planet with it, to crowd with it the earth, the air, and the seas. Into every empty corner, into all forgotten things and nooks, Nature struggles to pour life, pouring life into the dead, life into life itself. That immense, overwhelming, relentless, burning ardency of Nature for the stir of life!

    To my mind, we live too completely by the eye. I like a good smell - the smell of a freshly ploughed field on a warm morning after a night of April rain, the clovelike aroma of our wild Cape Cod pinks, the morning perfume of lilacs showery with dew, the good reek of hot salt grass and low tide blowing from these meadows late on summer afternoons.

    Cool breath of eastern ocean, the aroma of beach vegetation in the sun, the hot, pungent exhalation of fine sand - these mingled are the midsummer savour of the beach.

    The bird really has two songs, one the nuptial aria, the other the domestic tune; it sings the first in the nest-building egg-laying season, and the second from the close of the honeymoon to the silence in the fall.