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 walked. The tide started to ebb, flicking lightly against the shore, lapsing with the evening as if the sea had an easy courtesy of its own, and with the smoky sunset low on the western sky, the waters moved out over gray sands. There was a perfect symmetry to the evening. Terns flew over, light, airy, floating with a swallow’s beat, but deep, sure and strong. Little sanderlings and redbacked sandpipers, half-seen in the dusk, ran through reflections in the shallow waters at the edge of the tide, part of its coolness and flow, the little waves in banked rows rippling. The birds tripped forward and dipped to the mirrored salmon, copper and crystal in these waters, in a communication. The terns trilled harshly and sometimes their bodies trembled as they beat up against the light wind and changed position. A single herring gull stood still on a hummock at the tide’s edge like an Indian in a ritualistic acceptance of darkness coming on. The order of change and constancy began to take light’s fire and warmth and its colors away, in the graduated motion of the sky, along with all flying elements like the terns, like thought, and the unimagined combinations of being. The wavelets edged out. The sanderlings started to flit off and disappear. Finally there was no turning back the authority of night.
I have given Mr. Hay a more severe trial than Mr. Beston by quoting the final paragraph of his book where the temptation to mere fine writing is greatest, where he might most easily be forgiven such a sweetmeat. It is, indeed, entirely familiar and accessible nature writing in the grand manner—an evening picked from thousands spent in more than a decade of settled life on Dry Hill in Brewster. But it is also much more than it appears on the surface. There isn’t one really casual word in the passage. “The authority of night” is welcomed because the authority of day has been accepted with an intensity that very few literary naturalists can equal.
Hay’s writing is therefore an ideal complement and the closest rival to Thoreau’s Cape Cod of 1864, the gayest, wittiest, and least self-conscious of Thoreau’s excursions. “One of the old Cod,” writes Channing, “could not believe that Thoreau was not a peddler; but said, after explanation failed, ‘Well, it makes no odds what it is you carry, so long as you carry truth along with you.’ ” Those were the Cape’s dark ages, after the sea-captains and before the Kennedys. Thoreau could have his riot of sardonic, good-natured quizzicality without hurting anyone’s feelings…very much. He would certainly rather have been taken for a peddler, at any rate, than for one of those writing fellows from Boston. Camouflage was easy and the result often hilarious.
But Hay is no more a tourist than he is, by Cape standards, a native. Like the European black stork that came ashore at Eastham in 1962, Mr. Hay was blown up to Brewster by the winds of World War II, during which he had been poetry editor for Yank. But unlike the stork, and attracted by the presence of such other exotic fowl as Conrad Aiken, he dug in and started a family, giving his whole time to poetry and natural science; alternately at first, but with a gradual fusion of sight and insight that has ripened into the extraordinary beauties of his last two books. His poetic naturalism or “natural poetry” (a logical sequel to natural theology) may keep him an amateur in the eyes of the specialists, but amateurism of this sort, always hard to maintain, has become a fighting creed with Hay. The poetic speech that was largely choked up with self-consciousness in his first book of poems (A Private History, 1947) is slowly, painstakingly, pragmatically released in an ever widening circle of expeditions from the precarious center at Dry Hill, the house built on sand. As he becomes surer in his mastery of the Cape’s endless and subtle movement—its exhilarating brilliancies, ferocious storms, aphrodisiac nights, shifting outlines, and migrant populations of men and animals—he becomes increasingly a citizen of the common poetic world of the twentieth century. His sense of impermanence brings to light an increasing repertory of the sonorous Latinate words expressing harmonies towards which all the life sciences have been moving. He comes to use these words with great skill, with an Augustan relish for their weights and quantities. Half the drama of his writing is born of an educated resistance to drama of the easier and more obvious sort. Children, his own and others, refresh his sight. He becomes a teacher and lecturer, founds the Brewster Museum of Natural History, works in summer at the job of explicating stuffed chipmunks to trippers from the city. He loses his interest in graveyards and old family records and goes in for science until he reaches that still point of the turning world where everything is a vivid balance of energies. “When a gull is standing around on the beach looking as if it were doing nothing, and we ask why, imagining the same specific purposes we think we ourselves pursue, we might be disappointed. As likely as not, the gull is doing just that, nothing, and will fly off at some stimulus—hunger, another gull, a plane, a man, or a shadow.” Awful, hard-won thought, in a writer whose ostensible mission is to lure us away from TV to the frost-bitten beaches! No sermon today in yon gull, dear reader; like you he is doing nothing. There is a deeper pathos here, I should think, than in all the flutes and symphonies of Mr. Beston’s innumerable mothers.
The Great Beach has a plot, in other words, every filament of which is drawn into the passage I quoted above. Its rhythm is a withdrawal and return, between house and beach, school and study, the minutest particulars accurately named and the grand harmonic ideas of natural science. The Cape will probably never have a better celebrant than Hay, and it will probably never again serve as such a perfect metaphor for our present exquisite tension between the guaranteed traditional warmths of the hearth and the cold outer reaches of science. Already, in Hay, the two have begun to merge in a Platonic symbiosis. The process must continue, with what loss to poetry one can only conjecture.
January 23, 1964