A year indoors is a journey along a paper calendar. A year in outer nature is the accomplishment of a tremendous ritual. To share it, one must have a knowledge of the pilgrimages of the sun, and something of that natural sense of him and feeling for him which made even the most primitive people mark the summer limits of his advance and the last December ebb of his decline. – Henry Beston, The Outermost House, Chapter 4
After reading and letting this book rest for years, I picked it up again this month. I am not certain why I let it sit idle for so long, for it is a compelling a tale of a year spent in a small house among the dunes and overlooking the outer beach of Cape Cod. Beston chose the approach of documenting his experiences, season by season throughout the year, an approach tested and refined by nature writers since the craft began.
Perhaps the first impression I got of this approach was in the words of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, but that was required reading and the seasons are implicit rather than explicit in that text. I first truly appreciated the form in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.
Leopold was a forester by training with a scientific mind set and a meticulous pen. He began with a January thaw and marched through the seasons. With a naturalist’s eye and a sportsman’s appreciation for fresh game, Leopold told the delightful story of life on a rundown Wisconsin farm.
Beston began with a walk on a Cape Cod beach in early autumn and concluded with the rising of Orion over the dunes on a September morning. His description of the beach in winter matches my memories of a year spent in Truro (1987-88). The winter tides can bring the ocean inland to lap the base of the dunes.
Where Leopold marches us through the calendar months in short bursts, Beston’s essays are longer, devoted to entire seasons and their memorable events. He seems to love geese as much as Leopold and in one section of his autumnal essay, “Autumn, Ocean, Birds,” he describes their flight, just as Leopold describes their calls in, “Goose Music.” Beston’s early winter essay, “The Headlong Wave,” bridges autumn to winter.
Each of the two books presents the drama of the natural world on a Thoreauvian plot of ground and interpreted by different personalities, but neither gives adequate description of the full range of experiences in this season by season approach alone. Leopold expanded his almanac with additional essays in a second section titled “Sketches Here and There,” in which he explored his memories of such disparate geographies as those of Arizona, Chihuahua, Oregon and Manitoba. His third section, “The Upshot,” is more philosophical and became the vehicle for his introduction of “The Land Ethic,” for which he became famous.
For his own part, Beston included only the year at the house he designed in his book, The Outermost House, which he seldom visited afterward. He wrote other books and explored other landscapes, primarily the land on which he became a gentleman farmer. The house is interesting, in that he did not build it himself, but only designed it and left the construction to others.
Leopold bought his old farm with no house remaining and remodeled the chicken coup for The Shack. It was no permanent dwelling, but a retreat. He spent most of his life teaching at the University of Wisconsin and lived in a large house nearby. For more on this aspect of Leopold’s life catch Jim Pfitzer’s one man show, Aldo Leopold: A Standard of Change.
For his own part, Thoreau bought the shanty of an Irish laborer, dismantled it and reassembled it at Walden Pond. He lived there for nearly two years and moved on. Despite his protests that he had “traveled much in Concord,” he indeed traveled elsewhere in his lifetime and wrote other books. Within his lifetime he published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. His sister collaborated with his travelling companion, Ellery Channing in publication of his posthumous book, Cape Cod. It documents a journey apparently taken on foot.
Despite criticisms of Thoreau, some of them valid, he stands at the forefront of an entire school of literature. Leopold, Beston and others were certainly aware of his presence when they took up their pens.
Next Entry (Coming soon): “Nature Across America