Back on the Cape: An Elemental Interlude

categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside

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My Favorite Tree (from a bit earlier in the year)

Back on Cape Cod.  A happy four words, especially this time of year.  You feel like you’ve stepped into the pages of a story by Hawthorne.  The leafless pines and oaks, strain upward (though never too proudly), like gnarled hands against a sky bulked up with clouds.  Occasional shafts of light shoot down through the clouds like light I have never seen anywhere else.  (The closest I got was at a stopover once in Iceland—the same strange light spraying down on a purple landscape.)  The cranberry bog a purple all its own. The frozen whitecaps of the Bay letting you know it’s not summer anymore and that you wouldn’t last a minute out there.


I am taking my first true break in a year and a half and I have to say I am loving it.  Eating a lot, walking the dogs through the deserted summer camp near Slough Pond, sleeping a good nine hours, not checking the internet (much), reading Hadley the adventure book I wrote and gave her for Christmas.  And, while it may not go with the rest, drinking beer while staring up at those black branches from the hot tub that comes along with the house where we are dog-sitting   And reading, too, of course.  After a fall of hearing myself talk—at readings, in class, on radio interviews—I am pretty sick of my own words.  How nice to wake up and turn not to the pages of a writer named David Gessner, but to Mary Oliver’s poems and Jackson Benson’s biography of Wallace Stegner, and Ed Abbey’s Black Sun and Donald Hall’s Life Work.

And since this is Cape Cod in winter, I’ve also been dipping back into Henry Beston’s  The Outermost House, his account on living through a winter in a cabin on beach on the outer beach of Cape Cod. I’ve quoted Beston in this space before but today—the sun has just come up, smearing pink behind the Hawthorne trees—I can’t help but do it again. In fact, I’ll let him take it home from here with three quotes—one from the book’s first chapter, one from the middle and one from the end.  The language is old fashioned, but to me the sentences speak directly about what I get from spending so much time in the so-called natural world.

Take it away, Henry:

“My house completed, and tried and not wanting by a first Cape Cod year, I went there to spend a fortnight in September. The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and 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. The world to-day is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. In my world of beach and dunes these elemental presences lived and had their being, and under their arch there moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year.”

“A year indoors is a journey along a paper calendar; a year in outer nature is the accomplishment of a tremendous ritual.  To share in it, one must have a knowledge of the pilgrimages of the sun, and something of the natural sense of him and feeling for him which made even the most primitive people mark the summer limits of his advance and the last December ebb of his decline….We lost a great deal, I think, when we lose this sense and feeling for the sun.  When all has been said, the adventure of the sun is the great natural drama by which we live, and not to have joy and awe of it, not to share in it, isw to close a dull door on nature’s sustaining and poetic spirit.”

“Whatever attitude to human existence you fashion for yourself, know that it is valid only if it be the shadow of an attitude toward nature,  A human life, so often likened to a spectacle upon a stage, is more justly a ritual. The ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of Nature’s inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world.  Do no dishonour to the earth lest you dishonour the spirit of man. Hold your hands out over the earth as over a flame. To all who love here, who open to her the doors of their veins, she gives of her strength, sustaining them with her own measureless tremor of dark life.  Touch the earth, love the earth, honour the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and dawn seen over ocean from the beach.”

  1. Barbarann Ayars writes:

    Green with envy. But while not on the Cape, I do have that Nature thing going right outside my window wall. And down the path toward the deer droppings, nattered at by the pileated woodpecker and the chickadees, on my way to retrieve sanity.

    In today’s world, it is ever more difficult to capture solace. Needs a big net and dogged determination to cut the lines to the here and wander off, with self–permission (the hard part) to find my center….and stay there.

    But I’d kill to do it along a beach. Thank you Henry, and Hawthorne, for pointing the way to serenity.