If you’ve ever fantasized about living on a barren beach of the Atlantic coast, before the all consuming invasion of vacation and resort development, then you must read The Outermost House. After graduating from Harvard and surviving WW1 at the Battle of Verdun, Henry Beston had a tiny house built for him on the outer beach of Cape Cod near Eastham.
His little shack behind the dunes, dubbed the Fo'castle, was to serve as an occasional getaway on the Cape. But Beston became possessed by life on the beach and spent nearly all his time from the autumn of 1926 through the late summer of 1927 at the Fo'castle. He journals his year on the beach in his notebook, "A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod” and then finally writes and publishes The Outermost House in October 1928. I happened upon The Outermost House at a used bookstore in Middlebury, Vermont during a summer trip, where I purchased a ragged paperback copy of it for five bucks. It was a consuming read for me that winter. Every chapter offers a different captivating adventure on the outer beach, my favorite being Chapter 3: The Headlong Wave. Here is an excerpt:
From: The Outermost House by Henry Beston.
Chapter 3: “The Headlong Wave” written in 1928.
Every mood of the wind, every change in the day’s weather, every phase of the tide – all these have subtle sea musics all their own. Surf of the ebb, for instance, is one music, surf of the flood another, the change in the two musics being most clearly marked during the first hour of a rising tide. With the renewal of the tidal energy, the sound of the surf grows louder, the fury of battle returns to it as it turns again on the land, and beat and sound change with the renewal of the war.
Sound of surf in these autumnal dunes – the continuousness of it, sound of endless charging, endless incoming and gathering, endless fulfillment and dissolution, endless fecundity, and endless death. I have been trying to study out the mechanics of that mighty resonance. The dominant note is the great spilling crash made by each arriving wave. It may be hollow and booming, it may be heavy and churning, it may be a tumbling roar. The second fundamental sound is the wild seething cataract roar of the wave’s dissolution and the rush of its foaming waters up the beach – this second sound diminuendo. The third fundamental sound is the endless dissolving hiss of the inmost slides of foam. The first two sounds reach the ear as a unisonance – the booming impact of the tons of water and the wild roar of the up-rush blending – and this mingled sound dissolves into the foam-bubble hissing of the third. Above the tumult, like birds, fly wisps of water noise, splashes and counter splashes, whispers, seething, slaps, and chucklings. An overtone sound of other breakers, mingled with a general rumbling, fells earth and sea and air.
Here I do pause to warn my reader that although I have recounted the history of a breaker – an ideal breaker – the surf process must be understood as mingled and continuous, waves hurrying after waves, interrupting waves, washing back on waves, overwhelming waves. Moreover, I have described the sound of a high surf in fair weather. A storm surf is mechanically the same thing, but it grinds, and this same long, sepulchral grinding – sound of utter terror to all mariners – is a development of the second fundamental sound; it is the cry of the breaker water running its way ashore and dragging at the sand. A strange underbody of sound when heard through the high, wild screaming of a gale.
I am, perhaps, most conscious of the sound of the surf just after I have gone to bed. Even here I read myself to drowsiness, and, reading, I hear the cadenced trampling roar filling all the dark. So close is the Fo’castle [the name of Beston’s house on the beach] to the ocean’s edge that the rhythm of sound I hear oftenest in fair weather is not so much a general tumult as an endless arrival, overspill, and dissolution of separate great seas. Through the dark, mathematic square of the screened half window, I listen to the rushes and the bursts, the tramplings, and the long, intermingled thunderings, never wearying of the sonorous and universal sound.