Until recently I'd always scoffed at the notion that I might benefit in some way from going on a retreat. Retreats, so I used to think, were for tree-huggers, those with alternative lifestyles, and other people who lacked the gumption to endure the demands of modern life and who needed the reclusive setting of an old monastery or a converted campground to "recharge their batteries."
Lately, though, I've had reason to revise my opinion about what a retreat of a less formal kind could do for me. And my new outlook can be traced to a book about Cape Cod, Mass.
I've come to several worthwhile things late in life – a genuine appreciation of soccer, for one – and so it is with "The Outermost House." Several years back, I plucked a 1988 Penguin Nature Series edition of Henry Beston's classic from a remainder bin in the Cape Cod bookstore where I was working at the time. It is only in the past few weeks, though, as the more contemplative shadings of autumn have drawn in, that I've pulled it off the shelf for consideration.
My standard for all books about nature and one's place in the grand scheme of things has always been "Walden." Henry Thoreau's fiery iconoclasm and his keen eye for natural detail are always a tonic, and his passion and commitment to a certain way of life always ring true for me. (Even if his independent streak came at some cost to his steadier and more conventional friends around Concord.)
What I've discovered in "The Outermost House" is an equally classic treatise on the natural world, which has me regretting that I didn't venture out more often to Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro when I lived on the Cape.
Unlike Thoreau, Beston did not deliberately set out to live a "mysterious and elemental life" at the shore.
As he says: "My house completed, and tried and not found wanting by a first Cape Cod year, I went there to spend a fortnight in September. The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go."
I'm sure that those of us who are only visitors to Cape Cod have felt that same urge.
Beston, however, was free to act. Seduced by the beach, dunes, and the "incomparable pageant of nature" around him, he decided "to remain and try living for a year on Eastham Beach." Letting the solar year dictate his chapter headings, Beston went on to write about life on the beach in descriptive passages that are both wonderfully new and strikingly familiar.
Of course, Beston's account of his year on the beach might have taken its place alongside any number of similar odysseys of discovery – spoken of but never published – if his fiancée, Elizabeth Coatsworth, hadn't intervened. By the time he left the beach in the fall of 1927, Beston had collected several notebooks crammed with his observations and comments. Yet there wasn't a manuscript in sight.
When he proposed a wedding date, Miss Coatsworth replied: "No book, no marriage." "The Outermost House" was published about a year later, in the fall of 1928, and they were married the following June. (The mighty waves at Eastham, it appears, were nothing compared with the coercive power of love.)
Now, having declared myself a convert to retreats, I see very little chance that I'll be able to partake of one anytime soon – at least not the "weekend away with kindred souls" variety.
Nor does the possibility of withdrawing to a seaside cottage appear likely.
So instead, I'll look to Henry Beston to provide a few moments' refuge from my daily concerns.
And what better place to start than the 1949 foreword to his Cape Cod classic, now an integral part of the text, where the author sums up the year-round delights that lie ahead for readers: "Bird migrations, the rising of the winter stars out of the breakers and the east, night and storm, the solitude of a January day, the glisten of dune grass in midsummer, all this is to be found between the covers even as today it is still to be seen."
Yes, without doubt, reading "The Outermost House" is almost as good as retreating there.