Tourists may get a taste of a distinctive natural wonder in a particular landscape during their brief stay, usually in prime season, but it’s not the same as dwelling there through an entire year. A winter night or storm, for example, is a much different cosmos than a summer day.
I’ve been fortunate to have experienced some remarkable destinations through all their varying weather, thanks to my career moves, but never to the degree of living largely alone, as Henry David Thoreau did at Walden Pond or Henry Beston along the dunes on Cape Cod.
I’ve come to know both places firsthand over the rotating years, and so reading the two classic books that emerged from them evoked personal awareness of scenes that likely struck the general reader as exotic or even confounding. I never would have appreciated them the same way had I still been in the Midwest or Pacific Northwest, for certain. Quite simply, the encounters provided a stronger foundation for revelation of so much I had missed.
One of the fringe benefits of my second marriage was that my stepdaughters’ Grandpa Jim lived in Wellfleet on the Lower Cape, or what Beston more clearly calls the Outer Cape. (Understand that the Upper Cape is south of the Lower Cape, much the way Downeast Maine is really up the coast. Welcome to New England.) So we got to visit throughout the year, making me a big advocate of visiting popular travel sites in the shoulder season. There’s no way to describe walking several miles along the surf below the bluffs and having the expanse totally to myself – in perfect weather the week after the normally crowded Labor Day.
My wife used to gaze on the few remaining gray cabins atop the bluffs and voice a dream of living in one of them – the National Parks Service has been removing them piecemeal – noting that you wouldn’t want to have anything there you wouldn’t mind losing to a hurricane or nor’easter.
Beston’s 1928 The Outermost House tells of spending a year in just such a house only one town south of Grandpa Jim’s, and so I could envision and even smell much of what he describes.
At first, I was put off by the feathery, slightly Victorian language, as well as the affectatious British spellings rather than American, but once Beston presented some sharp, detailed observations of wave and wind motion and sound, I was captivated. His examination of waterfowl and other birds, especially, is admirable, but the range of shore and sea life he portrays is also encyclopedic.
He writes from a time when the Cape still retained an older character that was being overlapped by newer ways that included telephones and flashlights, both unlike today’s suburban feel, and his book is credited with inspiring the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore to protect the wildlife and geology he treasured – as many of us do today, thanks to the protections.
My reading came a few months after moving into my own equivalent of Beston’s cabin, albeit it much further up the coast and in a fishing village – still in view of the ocean.
You’ll be hearing a great deal about it through the coming year.
Are there books you’ve especially enjoyed because they’re rooted in places you know?