Autumn is the season when Mother Nature makes her presence known to us, with her harvest of hues changing on a daily basis. Marshlands explode with yellow, reds, and oranges, as do the trees that line Route 6A. Pumpkins arrive on doorsteps, and leaves collect in restless piles. Above, our feathered friends fly decidedly south against skies foretelling of colder days ahead. And the sun's workdays grow shorter as Helios punches the celestial time clock a minute or two sooner each evening. Sunsets are magnificent events, and twilights grow more and more eerie as the calendar pages turn toward the end of October.
One of my favorite authors during this time of year is Henry Beston, on the left, who penned the immortal "The Outermost House" about a year he spent at his dune cottage in Eastham where he documented nature's pagent along the outer beach. He also wrote other nature books - notably "Northern Farm" about his farm in Maine. For those looking to read a sampling of Beston's work, look no further than the book "The Best of Beston," edited by Beston's wife Elizabeth Coatsworth.
The Best of Beston: A Selection from the Natural World of Henry Beston
Edited by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Reviewed by Jack Sheedy
As I search for an appropriate introductory paragraph to this review of The Best of Beston, I am reminded of what Elizabeth Coatsworth writes about her husband, Henry Beston, on the left, and his own struggles: "He sometimes spent an entire morning on a single sentence, unable to go on until he was completely satisfied with both words and cadence, which he considered equally important ... He wrote with a pencil or pen - on typewriter paper, except when taking notes - he never typed, for the sound of a machine would have interfered with the rhythm of his sentences."
Thoughtful comments from "Mrs. Beston," provided in the foreword and in introductions at the beginning of the book's three sections, provide a personal look at the writer/naturalist who penned one of Cape Cod's most celebrated books, The Outermost House.
The Best of Beston, which presents what Coatsworth considers the finest moments of her late husband's writing career, comes across as sort of a Henry Beston sampler, providing just a taste of the varied works of this impassioned writer. It also prompts the reader to search out the complete texts, especially of Northern Farm, which comprises the bulk of this compilation.
Excerpts from his first major work, The Outermost House, form the first section of the book. Here, Coatsworth provides "the greatest hits" from this classic, a smattering of text from eight chapters over the breadth of a scant 20 pages. For many of us who have read The Outermost House, these excerpts remind us of why the book is great and convince us that perhaps it is time to pick it up again. The section is particularly interesting because it also contains a number of insightful letters written by Beston to Coatsworth, his fiance at that time. In one, he relates to his bride-to-be that he recently stayed a fortnight at Coast Guard stations and walked the night beach patrol along with the lifesavers, episodes that do not appear in The Outermost House: "I went six miles through the worst storm, guided only by the surf thundering at our feet; the world seemed to swallow one up; one seemed to sink into a kind of interplanetary gulf."
Yet a great deal of this collection concerns Beston's work written at, and written about, his newfound home at Chimney Farm in Nobleboro, Maine. And as much as I enjoy The Outermost House, which is considered his most superior work (according to Coatsworth: "From the beginning, he was certain that The Outermost House was really good ..."), I was most interested in reading the excerpts from Northern Farm and Herbs and the Earth.
The latter presents Beston's reflections as he tended his Maine herb garden. It is a gentle work that, I'm sure, will eventually be added to my bookshelf. "An herb garden," writes Beston, "need be no longer than the shadow of a bush, yet within it, as in no other, a mood of the earth approaches and encounters the spirit of man. Beneath these ancestral leaves, these immemorial attendants of man, these servants of his magic and healers of his pain, the earth underfoot is the earth of poetry and the human spirit; in this small sun and shade flourishes a whole tradition of mankind."
Northern Farm, which makes up a solid one-third of this compilation, comes closest to matching The Outermost House both in terms of style and makeup. Many of the same themes of man's relationship with Nature are found here. Both books trace the course of one year - Northern Farm running from winter to autumn; The Outermost House from late summer to the following late summer. Though overall it is difficult for the farms and fields of Maine to compete with the majesty and mystery of the ocean, at times Beston's writings in Northern Farm surpass that of The Outermost House, as exampled by the following.
"All old farms, I imagine, have some such rustic flavor in their walls; country dwellers will recognize what I mean. A hundred and fifty years of barreled apples, of vegetables stored in a fieldstone cellar, of potatoes in the last of the spring, of earth somewhere and never very far, of old and enduring wood and wood-smoke, too, and perhaps the faintest touch of mold from things stored long, long ago in a bin - all these and heaven knows what other farmhouse ghosts are unmistakably present in the neat room with its lamp and books." Such prose makes you want to journey down east straightaway and purchase an old farm!
With Northern Farm, Beston returns again and again to his main message, that humanity has divorced itself from Nature and by doing so has become something less than truly human. Referring to the city, he writes, "Life there is so protected from nature, so insulated, so to speak, that it ends up being only a ghost of the human adventure." Of our agrarian ancestors he writes, "How wise were the ancients who never lost sight of the religious significance of the earth! They knew ... that in any true sense there is no such thing as ownership of the earth and that the shadow of any man is but for a time cast upon the grass of any field."
He comes to the defense of his adopted pastoral way of life: "When farming becomes purely utilitarian, something perishes." Pointing out a parallel between urbanization and increases in war and violence, Beston writes, "The farmer would reply that agriculture is an art of peace which requires a peaceful time, and that agricultural populations, as seen in history, are not by nature aggressively military."
In his foreword to The Outermost House, Beston writes, "When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit ... man becomes, as it were, a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity."
He concludes Northern Farm on a similar note: "Torn from earth and unaware, having neither the inheritance and awareness of man nor the other sureness and integrity of the animal, we have become vagrants in space, desperate for the meaninglessness which has closed about us. True humanity is no inherent and abstract right, but an achievement, and only through the fullness of human experience may we be as one with all who have been and all who are yet to be."
The Best of Beston provides readers with a glimpse of the writer's wonderful prose and ideals, tempting one to seek out his complete works to read again and again.