Articles

The Outermost House, Henry Beston’s Cape Cod

Henry BestonBy Don Wilding

When taking the initial walk down the path to Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, MA, one might not have the notion that a deeper understanding of the great cosmic picture could be right here among the surf, sand and stretches of beach and marsh. It was on this beach over 70 years ago that Henry Beston, a burned out magazine editor, tried to hash out the relation of nature to the human spirit when he gathered the material here for his literary nature classic, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod.

Having never seen the house (named “The Fo’castle” by Beston), I found it easier to understand what Beston was seeking after taking the long drive out on Route 6 to the Outer Cape and visiting Coast Guard Beach several times myself (in all kinds of weather) over the last few years.

Beston built the House on the Eastham dunes in 1925 and stayed there (more or less) for a year. At this two-room bungalow, he scribbled notes for his book at the kitchen table. The House was designated a literary landmark by the U.S. government in 1964, but the House and the rolling duneland, which stretched for nearly three miles south of the Eastham Coast Guard station, was obliterated by the abnormal high tides caused by the Great Blizzard of February 6-7, 1978. Today, the “spit,” as it’s referred to, is less than a mile long and has been flattened out, leaving only a thin barrier beach to protect the fragile Nauset Marsh.

Beston, who died in 1968, spent an entire year (1927-28) at the House, retreating occasionally to the Overlook Inn in Eastham when the elements turned harsh. While staying there, he had the opportunity to witness bird migrations, shipwrecks, severe weather conditions, or just take in the roar of the sea outside his door. As a journalist who had dedicated his life to being a “writer-naturalist,” he merely wanted to experience what this small corner of the world had to offer.

The beach of Beston’s day is no more, but coming to Coast Guard Beach, Nauset Marsh and the Spit still enables one to get close to nature. As Nan Turner Waldron, author of Journey to Outermost House, puts it, Henry’s experience on Coast Guard Beach “inspires a quest, perhaps inherent in man, to understand human nature.”

Beston takes on the wind blowing through the dune grass, thousands of monarch butterflies hovering over Nauset during their migrations in autumn, and the power of a winter nor’easter or the roar of the surf. Each seem very much alive while walking on the sands of Coast Guard Beacheven if you only happen to be there for a few hours.

I’ve walked the spit in 95-degree heat in July, minus 40-degree wind chill in January and in a driving, wind-swept October rainstorm. I’ve seen seals poking their heads out of the surf while fishing, crabs scurrying about in the marsh and the waves pounding and resculpting the landscape of Nauset Spit–all experiences that gave me some idea of what Beston was after. All kinds of birds come and go, creatures large and small wash up on the beach; the tides paint a new picture for us every six and a half hours–just as they did for Beston over 70 years ago.

After viewing the special plaques dedicated to Beston and the Coast Guard in front of the Coast Guard Station, take the path from the Coast Guard Station on to the beach, turn to your right and keep going, and it won’t be long before you understand why Beston stayed here as long as he did. Walking the beach and getting that secure footing on the sand near the water line (although it can be at an incline sometimes), you can begin to get a feel of what Beston experienced.

Coast Guard Beach still attracts throngs of crowds during the summer months, but countless others visit the beach year-round, many of them under the same spell that was cast on Beston, Thoreau, Waldron, John Hay, Robert Finch and so many other messengers of nature on Cape Cod. Coast Guard Beach offers the wonders of nature anytime during the year.  The cool breezes blow in from the cold ocean in summertime. Snow and sand combine for spectacular tapestries in winter. The fog rolls in at a moment’s notice during the spring.

However, autumn with the greatest variety of bird migrations and a multitude of colors decorating the dunes, is a season not to be missed here. It was during this season that Beston was sold on the idea of staying here for a year:

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.

Many have come to Coast Guard Beach in search of the House, only to be told by the Cape Cod National Seashore tour guides that it was taken by the sea in 1978. Others want to know where it stood, only to find out that location, like Thoreau’s path on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, is now hundreds of yards out at sea.

Then there’s the few who recommended building a new “Outermost House,” but “it wouldn’t be the same,” says park ranger, Walter Morey, of The Cape Cod National Seashore, the arm of the U.S. National Parks Service that maintains Coast Guard Beach. Even though millions loved Beston’s little house, they, like him, realized it was merely a material possession and nature was just taking its course when the ocean consumed the “Fo’castle” in 1978.

The Outermost House is not just about a day or even a year at the beach. Even though the House and the dunes are gone, the spirit of what Beston tried to convey lives on.

Don Wilding is Editor of The Outermost Web Site, an online dedication to Beston’s The Outermost House.