The voices of the ocean
WHEN Henry Beston came to the Great Beach, near Eastham on Cape Cod, at the end of the summer of 1927, he intended to stay only two weeks. But the beauty of the dunes and the charm of the cabin in which he lived gripped him, and he left after a complete cycle of seasons on the beach. In a slim volume, ``The Outermost House,'' he recorded the events of that year's stay and, in publishing it, omitted his last name, which was Sheahan. The book was written while Beston lived in the tiny house which he called ``Fo's castle.''
The cabin measured only 16 by 20 feet and had two rooms and a fireplace. There were 10 windows looking over beach and marsh, and so little escaped Beston's sharp eyes and alert senses.
Beston lived hard by the sea, with ``Fo's castle'' standing only 25 feet above high tide and but 30 feet in from the edge of the water. Sometimes the cabin shook when great waves crashed upon the beach. ``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 voices that of the ocean is the most awesome, beautiful and varied...,'' Beston wrote.
The cabin had little space for provisions, so Beston made twice-weekly trips along the beach to a road where a friend met him and took him by car for groceries at Eastham or Orleans and then brought him back to the end of the road. With supplies tucked into a knapsack, Beston walked back to his house on the dune.
Beston maintained regular - often daily - contact with the crew of a Coast Guard lifesaving station two miles down the beach. In 1927, such stations were at close intervals along the coast. Each station was responsible for a certain stretch of beach, and twice each night patrols made their way on foot along the sea's edge to look for ships in trouble. Sometimes these men brought letters to Beston and told him of news from the outside world.
Beston's year on the Great Beach coincided with one of the worst winters in Cape Cod's history. In ``The Outermost House,'' the author tells of great storms and high tides, of slashing sleet and thundering waves, and of half a dozen shipwrecks, some with loss of life.
Now, 60 years after it was first published in 1928, ``The Outermost House'' is still in print, having gone through more than 30 printings. It still carries a message of the elemental life and of the influence of nature on the life of man. Not long before he died, Beston told a reporter he thought the book's longevity was because ``The interest in nature is growing. People see it's a kind of impossible world and they wish to have something else.''
Incredibly, Beston sounded an early warning of the dangers of pollution of coastal waters when he wrote of birds killed and beaches fouled by crude oil dumped offshore by tankers. ``Today oil is more the chance fate of the unfortunate individual. But let us hope that all such pollution will presently end,'' he wrote.
The rising of Orion just before dawn in late August marked the close of Beston's year on the beach. He wrote: ``Autumn had come, and the Giant stood again at the horizon of day and the ebbing year.... My year upon the beach had come full circle; it was time to close my door ... I had shared the elemental world. The gifts of life are the earth's and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and the dawn seen over the ocean from the beach.''
``It was a lonely life out there,'' said Beston in 1966. ``Nobody patted me on the back, but the life had great appeal. The most solitary time was on certain wild nights. Sometimes I would be inside when a single wave would crash on the beach and shake the whole house. I always had a fire going. I was an old-fashioned person and I always liked a hearth fire. I had a teacher who used to say hearth fire was the only fire fit for a human. It was a very happy year.''