I used to think I could read myself out of place, that the walls surrounding me could collapse and a new world would beckon. One of my greatest joys was entering a fugue state where — betraying the limits of the body — my mind would relocate across the globe or back in time through the pages of a book.
In these moments, I forgot where I was, what was needed from me or even who I presumed myself to be. A living room couch was at once a humid tent in some tropical forest, and I, no longer a conventional teenage girl, was a voyager.
This was how I read books in the long months of quarantine. Impulsively, I searched for transportation out of my hometown, finding fleeting joy in wrapping myself in fantastical, imaginative narratives. Reading like this was a perfect salve for days of sameness, but it never dulled my disorientation in an uncertain world.
Henry Beston, an American writer and naturalist, voluntarily committed himself to sameness and solitude when he wrote “The Outermost House” in 1928. Picking up this book a few weeks ago, my previous judgments on the value of literature — as a tool for escapism and “dropping out,” so to speak — were altogether changed.
A sort of Cape Cod Thoreau for the 20th century, Beston wrote his book as he spent a year living alone atop a dune in Eastham, a town on the Outer Cape. Most pages are filled with lyrical descriptions of tides, weather and animals. Beston was particularly fascinated with birds and their migrations, and he devotes an exhausting attention to detail in his ornithological observations.
This book found me in a time of need. I mean this both figuratively and literally, as it first crossed my path sitting on the back of the toilet seat in my parent’s bathroom. It’s just that kind of book, resigned to waiting unread and neglected, perched where people least look for meaningful literature.
I had been living for months in Truro, a small town on the tip of Cape Cod, just 30 minutes east of where Beston wrote his novel. In those months — although constantly surrounded by a landscape of wilderness — I found it altogether too easy to turn inward. Between a full-time job and full-time school, engaging with anything other than sleep, television or easy fiction felt impossible. Loneliness set in slowly, and, living alone, I started to feel trapped in an unforgiving place.
Fantastical fiction could not pull me out of this doldrum. Turning to those stories only briefly transported my mind from the din of solitude, and their comfort dissipated moments after I closed the cover. Social distancing was diminishing my faith in adventure and excitement. There was only me; there were only my four walls. I started giving up on books, swapping them for television. Then entered Beston and his year in the dunes, waiting quietly on its porcelain throne.
My favorite passage came early in the book, in a chapter where Beston described the sound of the ocean. He wrote, “For it is a mistake to talk of the monotone of ocean or of the monotonous nature of its sound. The sea has many voices. Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears, and you will hear in it a world of sounds.”
Beston’s entire book is predicated on this kind of close listening. He spent entire days watching birds, combing the beach and busying himself with other activities of suspended attention. In those moments, Beston uncovered complexity and nuance in unexpected places, expanding his world past the confines of his dune cottage. Listening to the voice of the sea, he realized that his surf came from the same beating heart that churned the waters across the world on the coast of Spain. His birds, like the waves, were also world travelers, migrating with the changing seasons. What was at once a narrow sliver of sand became a quilt; diverse life knit together to form an image of vibrancy and excitement.
In Beston’s account, to live in solitude is to appreciate the interconnectedness of life, to realize the natural cycles of change that occur beyond our scope of attention and to see yourself not as one against the world, but as a member of some larger ecosystem. This message was important for me, living in the same place in which Beston saw so much depth and energy. I also believe that anyone, no matter where or how they are living right now, can access a sense of healing and refuge by evaluating their relationship to their physical place. Both Beston and I are lucky to live so close to an ocean, but wherever there are birds, grasses, trees and insects, there are also stories of migration, growth and change. The trick, as Beston found, is to listen.
This story of the land should not be seen as absolute or exhaustive. Beston’s perspective — that of a financially comfortable white man — made the comfort and security of his yearlong endeavour seem given when, in fact, they were contingent on his privilege. This book belongs in a canon of naturalist literature that excludes narratives of people of color, omitting histories of racial violence and displacement. While Beston uncovered the stories told by his natural setting, he did very little to reckon with the social history of Cape Cod, a shortcoming that ultimately cheapens the sense of rootedness so central to this book.
However out-of-date “The Outermost House” is, it still soothed something in me. Where I was once trapped by feelings of isolation, I now find fulfillment in an early autumn sunset, bird tracks on the beach or a morning run interrupted by wild turkeys. In the midst of crisis, the world of Beston still endures, moving faithfully through the seasons. Instead of retreating from reality, Beston implored us to listen. There is so much right in front of us — whether in the outdoors or on top of the toilet — that begs to be read.
Anna Solomon PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. An aspiring thinker in the political sciences, she is passionate about breakfast cereal, long runs and defending the honor of listening to the radio.