A Natural Year

Painting by Cindy House
Cindy House, The Path to the Headlands, Monhegan. Pastel.

It seems a good way to structure a naturalist’s writings, to follow the timeline of the seasons. Julie Zickefoose did just that with her lovely recent book, Letters from Eden, and so did Henry Beston nearly 80 years earlier in The Outermost House, A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod. Both are built on the same foundation of chronology and natural pageant of the year, and both writers share a songwriter’s ear for melodious language and rhythm.

In Outermost House, one doesn’t so much read as inhabit the salt marsh and beach along with Beston, experiencing the sights, sounds and life in unexpected, twisting sentences which capture his impressions with particular vividness. He devotes an entire chapter to the character of surf:

Consider the marvel of what we see. Somewhere in ocean, perhaps a thousand miles and more from this beach, the pulse beat of earth liberates a vibration, an ocean wave. Is the original force circular, I wonder? and do ocean waves ring out from the creative beat as they do on a quiet surface broken by a stone? Are there, perhaps, ocean circles so great and so intricate that they are unperceived? Once created, the wave or the arc of a wave begins its journey through the sea. Countless vibrations precede it, countless vibrations follow after. It approaches the continent, swings into the coast line, courses ashore, breaks, dissolves, is gone. The innermost waters it last inhabited flow back in marbly foam to become a body to another beat, and to be again flung down. So it goes night and day, and will go till the secret heart of earth strikes out its last slow beat and the last wave dissolves upon the last forsaken shore.

I’ve been reading this with another book handy- The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Beston has a particular fondness for birds. Some names have been changed since Beston was out on Cape Cod walking the dunes with shore larks, Otocoris alpestris, scattering out of his way, and Skunk cooters Oidemia perspicillata, and Common Eiders Somateria dresseri floating in great rafts offshore. I looked these up. Shore larks, or Horned larks, are now called Eremophila alpestris; Skunk cooters are Surf scotors Melanitta perspicillata, and Common Eiders go by the new designation Somateria mollissima. And this could change again next year, depending on what the latest DNA report reveals, and what the American Ornithologists Union decides to do about it.

One nice thing about this field guide exercise was enjoying Cindy House’s waterfowl illustrations again. She painted all the plates for pages 61 through 95 in the Field Guide, all of the Anatidae, the ducks, geese, and swans. If you want to see what a first-class artist can do with the web-foot set, have a look at this book. And take a look at what she is doing now– pastel landscapes of the New England coast, sometimes with birds integrated as subtle elements rather than the main subject- a perfect complement to the writing of Henry Beston, her visual melody matched to his written lyrics.

One thought on “A Natural Year

  1. Mike says:

    I love the name “Skunk cooters” for those scoters, though I can’t imagine any animal would like to be tagged with it. Shore lark makes a lot of sense too, considering how often these birds are found at beaches in winter.

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