I love books that are like a fine meal, read slowly and savored.
Disappointingly, it is far too rare that I encounter one, whether fiction or non-fiction. I don’t frequently venture into fiction realms these days (though I used to devour shelves of it), largely because I am so very particular about what I desire to read—or experience, rather, because that is what good writing is. A well-written work immerses readers in word and image, guiding us into a different room or realm, and, at its best, delivers a felt sensation that moves in some way.
I keep thinking I’d like to get back into reading fiction, but when I pick up novels at a bookstore, after reading the rear cover synopsis or thumbing through the pages, I end up simply laying the book back down and moving on. Often the writing fails to spark my interest, or the story seems overly contrived, following a predetermined method and predictable arc of plot, even in a supposedly ‘character-driven’ novel.
Among writers there is an unspoken sentiment that to craft real or worthy fiction, it must be serious. There seems to be an ongoing, strong trend towards the tragic these days, a disaster required in the pages as part of the novel’s formula—an assumption that people need something intense to hook and maintain their interest, or to actually feel. I don’t mind serious or weighty, but the tragic holds little allure for me. The books that I most like to read, the quietly moving story in beautiful prose, or an artful tale that uplifts and inspires, these are rare gems.
Thus, most often I find myself reading non-fiction. Not because it necessarily moves or delivers me to another realm but I do find a wider band of books to enjoy, and generally I am less looking for a literary experience. (That said, as surely as with novels, an art exists to good non-fiction writing.)
Amid the non-fiction ranks, one of my favorite genres is that of the personal narrative: a chronicle as told through a person’s direct experience. The best ones are written with an engaging voice and descriptive eye, and as with skilled fiction, summon us into the territory of feeling. I tend to enjoy personal stories about nature, living abroad in a foreign country, fixing up an old house at the end of a road, or the work and pleasures of a garden and cooking with the bounty it yields; narratives that reflect some aspect(s) of quiet, soulfully engaged living and observation. Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is one I have returned to over and over, and always survives the repeated culling of my bookshelves as a wandering nomad.
So it was with great delight that I learned of The Outermost House from my friend, the poet Carolyn Brigit Flynn, when she and her wife (who is also a fine poet) came for dinner one evening at my little writer’s studio. Hearing about the book and how dear it was to her, a woman who loves well spun words and weaves them masterfully herself, I knew instantly that I needed to obtain a copy.
Written in 1928, the narrative details the solitary year spent by author Henry Beston in a tiny cottage on the eastern shore of Cape Cod. He called it the Fo’castle but it was dubbed the Outermost House because it was simply that: built upon a high dune on the great beach of the outermost Cape, only other dunes and marshland around it, and nothing beyond except the wide grey Atlantic.
The thirty-something year old Beston went originally in September to spend two weeks at the two-room cottage, its total dimensions just twenty by sixteen feet, with a fireplace for heat.
“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.”
Though it has never achieved the fame of Thoreau’s works, The Outermost House is a quiet classic of American nature writing. Pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, claimed Beston’s work was the only book that influenced her writing. Reading the pages of elegantly written words, it is not hard to understand why. Here is a record of quiet observation, a keen-eyed discovery of the elemental world that enfolded the author—a study of changing tides, wind and clouds, migrating birds, and shifting moods of light and weather in the solar ritual of a year.
In 1964, Beston’s small, rustic cottage was proclaimed a National Literary Landmark. During a great winter storm in 1978, the Outermost House was swept away and perished, though many of its humble relics (such as Henry’s wooden writing chair) were salvaged.
Beston conveys a compelling sense of the natural drama that enfolded him, a restless sea and mutable land, a wild and unsullied realm utterly independent and oblivious of mankind. There is a young man’s sense of discovery within the pages, looking intently at the world and reveling in the delight he feels for it. The focus is decidedly out there rather than inward or introspective, yet he clearly senses the importance of wild nature for our human souls:
“The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling up from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot… The longer I stayed, the more eager was I to know this coast and to share its mysterious and elemental life.”
Nearly a century old, the languaging is exquisite and the young author’s powers of description are formidable. Eloquently and evocatively, he captures his undomesticated world with a kinesthetic touch and a full engagement of the senses. I am utterly seduced and transported away.
In the quiet of an early morning, seated in the alcove of windows of my rented writing studio, bathed in pale winter light and listening to the dull chant of the ocean though the old glass panes, I too am at the edge of the world, apprenticing to tides and shifting light. I have read it as I do all wonderful books—slowly, not more than a chapter a day, sipping the experience like a well crafted wine.
Yet beyond the enviable skill of his writing, what has most moved me about Beston’s narrative is how strikingly different the world is nowadays. In our brightly lit, fast-paced, and noisy existence, few can imagine a life like Henry’s solitary year on the Cape; no electricity, warmth only from a fire, and no modern diversions like television, radio or Internet, only the deep wordlessness of nature suffusing the days. Indeed, to the restless and distracted, his descriptions of spending from sunrise to sunset simply observing the world around him—birds, surf, clouds, insects, weather—and long strolls of walking the ever-changing beach, constitute a very foreign realm.
“From the moment that I rose in the morning and threw open my door looking toward the sea to the moment when the spurt of a match sounded in the evening quiet of my little house, there was always something to do, something to observe, something to record, something to study, something to put aside in a corner of the mind.”
An unhurried pace and the ability to give our attention fully to something as an artist would—to really see it—this too has become unfamiliar territory. Most of us, after even a few hours in nature, as we call it, are ready for our familiar diversions once more. Disengaged from near-constant, chosen distractions or social exchanges, we are quickly bored and restless. Anxious, even. To spend an entire day alone on the land, simply walking and observing, perhaps writing in a journal, is far beyond the modern, shortened grasp and inclinations. And to do such a thing for weeks upon end, for months stitched into the long “ritual” of a year..? Nearly everyone I know would feel crazy after two days of such an existence (though by the gods, it would be good for them).
Once a week, at a predetermined time, Henry would traverse up to the distant road and meet a friend for a ride into town, where he would buy supplies and engage in a bit of socialization. Then he returned carrying his goods (coffee, flour, eggs, sugar) in a rucksack as he hiked through the whispering, shifting dunes to his modest retreat at the threshold of earth, sea, and sky.
Admittedly, I feel a certain resonance and kinship with Beston’s deep comfort in solitude. To be at ease with our own silent company and that of the wild world—we are never really alone, after all—is a rare, invaluable thing. Many of us are running from our demons (or simply trying to keep them medicated); alone and isolated, however, they draw quickly near.
I value my solitude. Honestly, I become a bit unhinged when I don’t have a good amount of it. Though the worlds are strikingly different in environment, reading The Outermost House, I am reminded of my first period of living in Taos, New Mexico, when in my early twenties I resided alone for six months on the wild sagebrush-covered mesa in an adobe tower. It was five miles down a deeply rutted dirt road, with no phone, television, or radio (though I had electricity and water from a deep well). My retreat was a profound and transforming time, one that altered the course of my life in a subtle but dramatic way. (On a long journey, if you shift your course just a few degrees early on, you’ll find yourself at a very different destination.) It was in the extended period of deep solitude that my senses truly started to unfurl, when as a city-raised person I began to engage the natural, living world in a different way than ever before—with a heart and soul wide open to wonder. And it was then I first learned that I had a secret name, one that only the wind, trees and stars knew.
When you navigate with your soul, when you live with an unshuttered heart, things affect you deeply. That, of course, is why most people avoid it whenever possible. Yet therein lies the beauty of being fully human, of becoming a full-spectrum being, one who embraces and values both the uplifting joys and heavy sorrows in life.
I am indebted for the gift of Henry Beston’s lovely book. (Thank you again, Carolyn.) It has gently inspired me with both its remarkable language and astute observations of the ‘more-than-human’ world, leading me on a journey to a much quieter time and place where I feel curiously at home in the richly woven solitude. Too, it stirs the misty blue longing I carry to be even more connected to the conscious symphony that enfolds us, the living “web pulse of life,” and offer it my ongoing, wordless attention. Awe. Praise and gratitude.
Soul Artists endeavor to live with their senses wide open. As I have written before, we are engaged in a polysensory love affair with the world. Too, we realize that what is out there is also in here, for we are never really separate: everything is relationship. Such individuals also understand that in solitude we draw nearest to ourselves, and if we allow the restless waters to settle and become still, we see our true reflection gazing up from the depths. Stepping away from the endless rattle and hum, more clearly we hear the small voice that guides us to the deeper truths we seek––which are everywhere, simply waiting to reveal themselves to us.
Gentle reader, here’s hoping that you encounter something this week that inspires or moves you. A book. A poem. A moment of unexpected beauty or tenderness that pierces to the core. Even a deep blue sadness. Whatever it is, may it steer you gently towards opening the shutters of your heart, welcoming the world in a bold and an undefended way. Pause to savor it, senses cast wide. Breathe.
Beston’s book is not one of action, dialogue, or even story; it is a testament to observation. We are only passing through, each of us. A book like The Outermost House compels one to ask:
To what will we give the gift of our attention?