The Great Beach
Most habitués of Cape Cod and many readers of “nature books” know The Outermost House by Henry Beston, the record of a year spent on Nauset Beach near Eastham. Without wishing to lessen anyone’s pleasure in that good book. I want to recommend two Cape Cod books by John Hay, his new The Great Beach and its companion volume of 1961, Nature’s Year: The Seasons of Cape Cod, which, in my estimation, stand to the Beston as L’Avventura to, let us say, Shane or any good, hearty, panoramic Hollywood western. The true cinéaste knows that his pleasure is deepened by exposure to both styles and doesn’t waste much time in invidious comparisons. But he also knows that the “epic” manner of Hollywood outdoors—those fruity Dmitri Tiomkin chromatics, those world-renouncing, unbegotten, silhouetted heroes—often aims at the easier ways of raping his feelings at the expense of his mind. Here is a passage from Beston:
As I muse here, it occurs to me that we are not sufficiently grateful for the great symphony of natural sound which insects add to the natural scene; indeed, we take it so much as a matter of course that it does not stir our fully conscious attention. But all those little fiddles in the grass, all those cricket pipes, those delicate flutes, are they not lovely beyond words when heard in midsummer on a moonlight night?… Here, at this especial moment, there is no trace or vestige of the summer’s insect world, yet one feels them here, the trillion trillion tiny eggs in grass and marsh and sand, all faithfully spun from the vibrant flesh of innumerable mothers, all faithfully sealed and hidden away, all waiting for the rush of this earth through space and the resurgence of the sun.
Before training our microscope on this robust pensée, we must grant that a celebration not of one but of “innumerable mothers” is, to a degree, beyond criticism. What I want to point out is that Mr. Beston has no sustained interest in this book in the genesis, taxonomy or ecology of insects, or indeed of any other species of life. The idea is to arouse a warm, airy, outdoorsy buzz of feeling by whatever literary devices come to hand at the moment. Beston is an honest writer and his book worth reading if only for the anecdotes, but it’s also fair to say that such grasshopper leaps from image to image, cliché to cliché, do little to renew our jaded sense of the eternal verities. The picture is rather of someone tagging along after Henry David Thoreau with a transistor radio playing Brahms. Here is a passage from Hay’s The Great Beach:
I remember one evening at Morris Island in the latter part of August, with the day beginning to fall and the surf’s dull roar sounding from the sands of the great beach, a beach behind me, still beyond me, still in a sense not …