At the end of his two-week vacation on Cape Cod, Henry Beston couldn’t bear to leave. He stayed on in his remote beachfront cottage until autumn. Then he returned for an entire year, writing down his observations of the wind in the grass, the voice of the surf, the glittering stars, the faded bloom of the beach pea, the webbed impressions of a gull in the sand.
It was 1926, and Henry Beston was 38 and single. He would meld his notes into a literary classic when he returned, a book called The Outermost House. It would influence generations of nature writers such as Rachel Carson and lead to the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore. It is still in print.
He was born Henry Beston Sheahan on June 1, 1888, in Quincy, Mass., to a middle-class family. His mother was French, and he eventually identified with his French heritage and dropped ‘Sheahan’ from his name. He graduated from Harvard and volunteered with the civilian ambulance corps in World War I.
After the war he bounced around, taking jobs as a teacher in France, a journalist, a fairy tale writer and a magazine editor. In 1925, he bought 50 acres on the coast in Eastham, Mass., and built a two-room cottage on the sand dunes two miles south of the Coast Guard station at Nauset.
He left the beach in the fall of 1927 with sheafs of notes but nothing publishable. He suggested to Elizabeth Coatsworth that they set a wedding date. She insisted he first write a book about his year on Cape Cod. “No book, no marriage,” she said. He published the book in the fall of 1928. They were married the following June.
The couple wrote books for the rest of their lives. Henry Beston died on April 15, 1968.
Here is how he described an April morning:
An April morning follows, spring walks upon the dunes, but ocean lingers on the edge of winter. Day after day the April sun pours an increasing splendour on the ocean plain, a hard, bright splendour of light, but the Atlantic mirror drinks no warmth. A chance cloud upon the sun, a shadow, and the sea of an instant returns to February. No shadow of cloud may do the same upon the dunes. Under this April light the mound and landward slopes of the great wall have put on a strange and lovely colour which lies upon them with the delicacy of a reflection in the pool. This colour is a tint of palest olive, even such a ghost of it as one may see in spring on the hillsides of Provence, and it is born of the mingling of pale sand, blanched grass, and new grass spears of a certain eager green.
This story last updated in 2022.
Het Corde Johnson
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