American Writer and Naturalist
Henry Beston, born Henry Beston Sheahan
American Writer and Naturalist
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.
My year upon the beach had come full circle; it was time to close my door. Seeing the great suns, I thought of the last time I marked them in the spring, in April west above the moors, dying into the light and sinking. I saw them of old above the iron waves of black December, sparkling afar. Now, once again, the Hunter rose to drive the summer south before him, once again the autumn followed on his steps. I had seen the ritual of the sun; I had shared the elemental world.
Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, to-day's civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day.
Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy.
Sleep gone and past recapture, I drew on my clothes and went to the beach. In the luminous east, two great stars aslant were rising clear of the exhalations of darkness gathered at the rim of night and ocean-Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, the shoulders of Orion. Autumn had come, and the Giant stood again at the horizon of day and the ebbing year, his belt still hidden in the bank of cloud, his feet in the deeps of space and the far surges of the sea.
Some have asked me what understanding of Nature one shapes from so strange a year? I would answer that one's first appreciation is a sense that creation is still going on, that the creative forces are as great and as active to-day as they have ever been, and that to-morrow's morning will be as heroic as any of the world. Creation is here and now. So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through debatable existences of time. Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy
A garden is the mirror of a mind. It is a place of life, a mystery of green moving to the pulse of the year, and pressing on and pausing the whole to its own inherent rhythms.
The leaves fall, the wind blows, and the farm country slowly changes from the summer cottons into its winter wools.
Although I have been held back all day from various tasks outside, I find my mind content to stay under a roof on so cheerless an afternoon. It is on such a day that one comes to feel and appreciate the personality of one?s house and that "house spirit," as the Chinese say, seems in a mood to tell what it has to tell. If the house is an old one, and has been cherished, a real sense of the past comes to life within the walls and the window panes. A hundred and twenty-five years have passed like cloud shadows over this roof since young men raised the timber above the fieldstone cellars and the boulders at the corners, for well over a hundred years the touch of human life has smoothed the house as the flowing of a brook wears smooth the pebble in the current of a stream. Every outer threshold, for instance, shows the scooped hollow of the footsteps of those who have come and gone down the archways of the years.
The quality of life, which in the ardor of spring was personal and sexual, becomes social in midsummer
And what of Nature itself, you say ? that callous and cruel engine, red in tooth and fang? Well, it is not so much of an engine as you think. As for red in tooth and fang, whenever I hear the phrase or its intellectual echoes I know that some passer-by has been getting life from books.
The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach. I have heard them all, and of the three elemental voices, that of ocean is the most awesome, beautiful and varied.
As well expect Nature to answer to your human values as to come into your house and sit in a chair. The economy of nature, its checks and balances, its measurements of competing life-all this is its great marvel and has an ethic of its own.
The world today 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 june these elemental presences lived and had their being.
For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.
These are the seven stars which come and go through the ages and the religions. Collectively known to the medieval past by the fine name of "The Plough," the configuration is today the Great Dipper to beholders, and gathered thus into a household and utilitarian shape, places something of our small humanity in the shoreless oceans of the sky.
I am glad that the country world?retains a power to use our English tongue. It is a part of its sense of reality, of its vocabulary of definite terms, and of its habit of earthly common sense. I find this country writing an excellent corrective of the urban vocabulary of abstractions and of the emotion disguised as thinking which abstractions and humbug have loosed upon the world. May there always be such things as a door, a milk pail, and a loaf of bread, and words to do them honor.
Touch the earth, love 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 the dawn seen over the ocean from the beach.
I muse again on the dogmatic assertion which I often make that the countryman's relation to Nature must never be anything else but an alliance... When we begin to consider Nature as something to be robbed greedily like an unguarded treasure, or used as an enemy, we put ourselves in thought outside of Nature of which we are inescapably a part.
Touch the earth, love the earth, honor the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places.
If gardeners will forget a little the phrase, "watering the plants" and think of watering as a matter of "watering the earth" under the plants, keeping up its moisture content and gauging its need, the garden will get on very well.
We lose 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 in it and awe of it, not to share in it, is to close a dull door on nature's sustaining and poetic spirit.
It is only when we are aware of the earth and of the earth as poetry that we truly live.
We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.
It was a night such as one sees perhaps half a dozen times a winter. The sky was less a sky of earth than interstellar space itself revealed in its pure and overarching height, an abyss timeless and remote and sown with an immense glittering of stars in their luminous rivers and pale mists, in their solitary and un-neighbored splendors, in their ordered figures, and dark, half-empty fields. It was the middle of the evening and in the north over a lonely farm, a great darkness of the forest, and one distant light, the dipper, stood on its handle, each star radiant in the blue and empty space about the pole.