Sunday, April 21, 2024

Orion Rises on the Dunes

Henry Beston (1888–1968)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Undated photograph from a postcard showing Henry Beston’s cottage in the dunes of the Cape Cod seashore. (National Park Service via Facebook)

“I drew the home-made plans for it myself and it was built for me by a neighbour and his carpenters,” wrote Beston in The Outermost House. “When I began to build, I had no notion whatever of using the house as a dwelling place. I simply wanted a place to come to in the summer, one cosy enough to be visited in winter could I manage to get down. I called it the Fo’castle. It consisted of two rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen–living room, and its dimensions over all were but twenty by sixteen.”
When Henry Beston graduated from Harvard in 1909, a classmate sketched in Beston’s copy of the yearbook a line drawing of his tombstone inscribed with the prophetic epitaph “He Hated Machines.” Two decades later, in The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, his best-known work, Beston wrote about how modernity and technology were destroying our ability to live in the natural world, and he was particularly troubled by how urbanization and electricity have removed the human experience of night:
Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, to-day’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day.

Night is very beautiful on this great beach. It is the true other half of the day’s tremendous wheel; no lights without meaning stab or trouble it; it is beauty, it is fulfilment, it is rest. Thin clouds float in these heavens, islands of obscurity in a splendour of space and stars: the Milky Way bridges earth and ocean; the beach resolves itself into a unity of form, its summer lagoons, its slopes and uplands merging; against the western sky and the falling bow of sun rise the silent and superb undulations of the dunes.
A native of Quincy, Massachusetts, Henry Beston Sheahan went through several careers before he became one of the better-known American nature writers. His mother, who died at the age of 41 when he was 12, was an immigrant from Paris, and after his graduation from Harvard he spent several years in France, where he taught English at the University of Lyons. In 1915 he joined the American section of the French ambulance corps for ten months. Published under the name Henry Sheahan, the book A Volunteer Poilu (1916) chronicled for American readers his harrowing experiences at the Battle of Verdun. In one chapter, he recalled discussing the “sinister” quality of the landscape with a French artist serving in the medical section. “Nature as Nature is never sinister,” responded the artist. “It is when there is a disturbance of the relations between Nature and human life that you have the sinister. . . . Here Man is making Nature unlivable for Man.” In 1917, he became a correspondent for the U.S. Navy and collected his journalistic accounts in Full Speed Ahead (1919), as Henry Beston, the name by which he would be known for the rest of his life. (Beston was his paternal grandmother’s maiden name.)

After the war, he returned to the U.S. and became editor of The Living Age, a weekly magazine that reprinted English-language articles from around the world. He then published four books for children: two collections of fairy tales, a book containing short biographies of several “gallant vagabonds” (such as Edward John Trelawny and Arthur Rimbaud), and a short narrative recording an oral legend of the Wampanoag tribe. “They were written to get the war out of his mind,” recalled his wife, Elizabeth Coatsworth, herself an award-winning author of books for children.

In September 1926, when he was 38, Beston hired a local resident to build a small cottage facing the Atlantic on Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach. He planned an initial trip for two weeks but instead lingered for “a year in outer nature,” and produced the book described by Bill McKibben in American Earth as “a singularly spare and beautiful account of a place with few people and much sky, much sea, much life.” His pile of disparate essays, journal entries, and notes cohered into something publishable only after Coatsworth told him, “No book, no marriage.” The Outermost House was published in the fall of 1928; Beston and Coatsworth married the following year. In “Orion Rises on the Dunes,” the final piece in the book, Beston concludes his year-long stay with a night spent “on the open beach under the stars.” We present that account below as our Story of the Week selection.

Beston’s gravestone bears a sentence from The Outermost House: “Creation is still going on, the creative forces are as great and as active to-day as they have ever been, and to-morrow’s morning will be as heroic as any of the world.” Four years before his death, the cottage was designated a National Literary Landmark but was swept out to sea during the Blizzard of ’78.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Orion Rises on the Dunes

So came August to its close, ending its last day with a night so luminous and still that a mood came over me to sleep out on the open beach under the stars. There are nights in summer when darkness and ebbing tide quiet the universal wind, and this August night was full of that quiet of absence, and the sky was clear. South of my house, between the bold fan of a dune and the wall of a plateau, a sheltered hollow opens seaward, and to this nook I went, shouldering my blankets sailorwise. In the star-shine the hollow was darker than the immense and solitary beach, and its floor was still pleasantly warm with the overflow of day.

I fell asleep uneasily, and woke again as one wakes out-of-doors. The vague walls about me breathed a pleasant smell of sand, there was no sound, and the broken circle of grass above was as motionless as something in a house. Waking again, hours afterward, I felt the air grown colder and heard a little advancing noise of waves. It was still night. Sleep gone and past recapture, I drew on my clothes and went to the beach. In the luminous east, two great stars aslant were rising clear of the exhalations of darkness gathered at the rim of night and ocean—Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, the shoulders of Orion. Autumn had come, and the Giant stood again at the horizon of day and the ebbing year, his belt still hidden in the bank of cloud, his feet in the deeps of space and the far surges of the sea.

My year upon the beach had come full circle; it was time to close my door. Seeing the great suns, I thought of the last time I marked them in the spring, in the April west above the moors, dying into the light and sinking. I saw them of old above the iron waves of black December, sparkling afar. Now, once again, the Hunter rose to drive summer south before him, once again autumn followed on his steps. I had seen the ritual of the sun; I had shared the elemental world. Wraiths of memories began to take shape. I saw the sleet of the great storm slanting down again into the grass under the thin seepage of moon, the blue-white spill of an immense billow on the outer bar, the swans in the high October sky, the sunset madness and splendour of the year’s terns over the dunes, the clouds of beach birds arriving, the eagle solitary in the blue. And because I had known this outer and secret world, and been able to live as I had lived, reverence and gratitude greater and deeper than ever possessed me, sweeping every emotion else aside, and space and silence an instant closed together over life. Then time gathered again like a cloud, and presently the stars began to pale over an ocean still dark with remembered night.

During the months that have passed since that September morning some have asked me what understanding of Nature one shapes from so strange a year? I would answer that one’s first appreciation is a sense that the creation is still going on, that the creative forces are as great and as active to-day as they have ever been, and that to-morrow’s morning will be as heroic as any of the world. Creation is here and now. So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through debatable existences of time. Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy.

And what of Nature itself, you say—that callous and cruel engine, red in tooth and fang? Well, it is not so much of an engine as you think. As for “red in tooth and fang,” whenever I hear the phrase or its intellectual echoes I know that some passer-by has been getting life from books. It is true that there are grim arrangements. Beware of judging them by whatever human values are in style. As well expect Nature to answer to your human values as to come into your house and sit in a chair. The economy of nature, its checks and balances, its measurements of competing life—all this is its great marvel and has an ethic of its own. Live in Nature, and you will soon see that for all its non-human rhythm, it is no cave of pain. As I write I think of my beloved birds of the great beach, and of their beauty and their zest of living. And if there are fears, know also that Nature has its unexpected and unappreciated mercies.

Whatever attitude to human existence you fashion for yourself, know that it is valid only if it be the shadow of an attitude to Nature. A human life, so often likened to a spectacle upon a stage, is more justly a ritual. The ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of Nature’s inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. Do no dishonour to the earth lest you dishonour the spirit of man. Hold your hands out over the earth as over a flame. To all who love her, who open to her the doors of their veins, she gives of her strength, sustaining them with her own measureless tremor of dark life. Touch the earth, love the earth, honour the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and dawn seen over ocean from the beach.

Originally published in The Outermost House (1928)