Eight people, from teenagers to 80-year-olds, sit in a half circle on the floor, inside a sunlit studio on a Chilmark knoll. They scribble quietly in notebooks and tap away on lap-top computers, responding to the day’s writing workshop prompt: “Dinner at our house was….” A half-hour later, the writers take turns critiquing one another. The only rule is that the remarks one writer makes to another must reflect what they like best about the piece. Read more…
Nantucket novelist Nancy Thayer offers an enchanting read with her latest novel, Beachcombers ($25). After losing their mother at a young age, the three Fox sisters—Abbie, Emma, and Lily—went their separate ways. They reunite on their home of Nantucket for a life-changing summer. In a series of mishaps, adventures, and endeavors, the sisters find themselves overcoming their differences and discovering the happiness they had been searching for. Thayer’s emotionally charged writing brings readers to the characters’ world on the island, sprinkling romance, humor, and depth onto each page. Visit www.nancythayer.com for more information.
Thoreau never did much for Don Wilding. After exploring the dunes and coastlines of the Outer Cape with his wife, Nita, the couple picked up two books, including Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod. Wilding was cool to the verbose political tangents that riddled the text. “Remember, Thoreau was getting paid by the word,” Wilding says. “This was a guy who was making pencils for a living, so he needed every cent he could get.” Nita read the other book—The Outermost House by Henry Beston—and told Don he would love it.
“That was an understatement,” he says. “I haven’t put it down ever since.”
Wilding’s passion for the book led the newspaperman to dedicate many of his free moments to the author’s life and career. He founded The Henry Beston Society in 2002. The following year, he published Henry Beston’s Cape Cod, a retrospective of the life of the author and his iconic Eastham escape. Next on the docket: an as-yet-untitled Beston documentary, helmed by Wilding and Chris Seufert of Cape Cod’s Mooncusser Films.
Henry Beston—birth name Henry Beston Sheahan—was a Quincy-based writer and former ambulance driver with the carnage of his experiences in World War I lingering in his memory when he visited Eastham in 1923 on a magazine assignment. He crafted plans for a 20-by-16-foot home on the dunes. Over a series of trips—Beston never actually spent a full year at the house—he chronicled the severe and beautiful weather, the tides’ advance and withdrawal, the wildlife and the landscape. First released in 1928, The Outermost House remains a must-read all these years later.
Beston’s meditation on the natural world of the Outer Cape resonated with Wilding. “Beston basically says it’s okay to go out there and ask questions,” Wilding says. “Not necessarily know all the facts, [but] maybe just ask some questions and wonder about it all. Because the natural world has a lot of unanswered questions.”
The society owes much to Wilding’s friendship with Nan Turner Waldron, the author of Journey to the Outermost House who visited Beston’s beloved Fo’castle numerous times over 17 years, before the Blizzard of ‘78 took it out to sea. Waldron accumulated hundreds of photographs and slides of the home and of Beston—an engineer, she even developed a set of plans suitable to reconstruct the revered shack. After a battle with cancer led to her passing in November 2000, she left her collection to Wilding. “Her work is one of the cornerstones of this organization,” Wilding says. “I don’t know if there’d be a Henry Beston Society if it wasn’t for the work that she did.” Wilding used the material to hold more than 50 lectures through the years.
Those lectures have likely surpassed their need, Wilding says, and a documentary provides a more lasting medium. The central theme of the film is Beston’s role as a “spiritual father” for the Cape’s prominent national park. “My basic message of the film is how The Outermost House was a driving force, a motivating force behind the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore,” Wilding says. There is a rich archive to pull from in addition to Waldron’s collection: Beston’s personal correspondence, photographs, audio interviews with the author, even a recording of the 1964 dedication ceremony of the house at the seashore. There’s still about $50,000 worth of fundraising to complete, a sum Wilding hopes to procure through grants and donations. He hopes to have the film released in the “next year
In December 2003, seven years after reading The Outermost House, Wilding moved to Cape Cod permanently. The Clifton, N.J., native and southeastern Massachusetts transplant had designs on moving to the Cape even
before he knew who Beston was. “But when I read The Outermost House,“ he says, “I realized, that’s why I wanted
to come here.”
A century ago, the Model T, the Wright brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk, and Marconi’s transatlantic transmissions all marked the arrival of an era enamored with technology and invention. But the nation’s youngest generation was hearing a different sort of message—one delivered during its bedtime stories. A fledgling Cape Cod naturalist was imparting gentle lessons on the beauty of the outdoors and respect for its creatures through his first children’s volume, Old Mother West Wind.
A century before the term “going green” came into fashion, author Thornton Waldo Burgess awakened a respect for the natural world with light-hearted tales derived from his youth in his native Sandwich. Even on the 100th anniversary of the publication of his first book, his words continue to resonate. “Burgess’ storybook animals interacted in their habitat naturally,” says Nancy Titcomb, a founding member of the Thornton Burgess Society. “Those realistic messages about wildlife stay with you. To this day, every blue jay I see is Sammy Jay.”
Burgess, who lived from 1874 to 1965, first became a professional storyteller to keep in touch with his young son. A widower and single father who freelanced advertising slogans and news tidbits, he mailed his young son original nursery stories while away with his grandmother. When a struggling magazine (named Good Housekeeping!) printed several of the endearing tales, publishing house Little, Brown and Co. asked Burgess to collect them into a book. “I sent them the stories—fourteen of them,” said Burgess in his autobiography. “Within a week the unbelievable had happened—I [was] a bona fide author.” Burgess pocketed $210 and his woodland characters made their 1910 debut in Old Mother West Wind. There was Jimmy Skunk, wearing a permanent white stripe of shame for stealing grouse eggs; Spotty Turtle, winning a race by secretly hitching a ride on Reddy Fox’s tail; Johnny Chuck, hiding in his underground house from gun-toting Farmer Brown; and children’s favorite mischief-maker, Peter Rabbit. (Burgess’ son already knew Beatrix Potter’s British Peter Rabbit, so “there was no changing the name.”) A typical tale in the book unfolded like this:
“I’ve just come across the Green Meadows,” said Old Mother West Wind, “and there I saw the Best Thing in the World.”
“The Best Thing in the World,” said Peter Rabbit. “Why, that must be great piles of carrots and cabbage! I’ll go and find it.”
Other animals voice similar sentiments, rushing to be the first to find “the best thing.” Finally Johnny Chuck speaks up: “The Best Thing in the World,” said Johnny Chuck. “Why, I don’t know of anything better than my own little home and the warm sunshine and the beautiful blue sky.”
The success of the book led to two sequels as well as a variety of writerly endeavors that came to define Burgess’s legacy: a daily “Bedtime Stories” column for the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate that lasted for 36 years; a weekly Neighbor Burgess radio show airing nationally from 1924-1934; and an astonishing output of 170 books and 15,000 stories. Even Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt followed Peter Rabbit’s adventures devotedly.
As a decorated conservationist, Burgess rallied thousands across the nation through his Radio Nature League and Green Meadow Club to rescue trees from tent-caterpillar infestation, preserve millions of acres as bird sanctuaries, and nurture programs to protect endangered wildlife. While holding in his hand the final known member of the heath-hen species on Martha’s Vineyard, he allowed a glimpse into his naturalist’s heart: “It was sheer, stark tragedy watching that lone bird displaying all his charms, calling for a mate … while I knew that nowhere in the world was there one for him… Man the destroyer had once again overcome Nature the creator,” Burgess wrote in his autobiograpy.
The gentle ecologist’s profound love for all things wild can be traced to his bucolic native town of Sandwich, where he was descended from one of the original settlers. He and his mother lived in 10 different houses throughout the town, and in 1891 he was part of a nine-person graduating class at Sandwich High School. After moving off-Cape some years later, he returned often, craving “the flash of sun on distant dunes and the whistling of shore birds … a blessed relief from the turmoil of the outer world.” It is a jarring fact that as a boy Burgess liked to hunt and trap, collecting the town’s irresistible 25-cent bounty for muskrat “tails and noses.” But his eccentric aunt, Arabella Eldred Burgess, offered a counter influence. She lived in the 1756 Deacon Eldred house by Shawme Pond and communed regularly with the woodland animals, often welcoming them into her home. Arabella was reputed to summon fish by patting the water and calling to them. When Burgess, by his own description, “put away the gun for camera and typewriter,” Arabella’s creatures figured large, as did locales in Sandwich that inspired his Old Briar Patch and Smiling Pool, which have now been preserved as conservation land.
It is only fitting that following the environmentalist’s death, Aunt Arabella’s cozy dwelling came to house the Thornton W. Burgess Museum. “The town owned the vacant house and was about to demolish it for a parking lot!” says Titcomb. “The Sandwich Women’s Club worked to refurbish it and facilitate its rental to the newly founded Thornton Burgess Society.”
Today, the sun-dappled parlor of the museum still evokes a 19th-century mood as it displays early editions of Burgess volumes, drawings by his illustrator Harrison Cady, and animal toys depicting his characters. The Burgess Society, which also operates the Green Briar Nature Center and Jam Kitchen, is commemorating the centennial of Old Mother West Wind with a smorgasbord of activities honoring Burgess’ legacy (see sidebar). “He still inspires children to learn and care,” says Education Director Mary Beers. “Peter Cottontail is by far the most popular character. We always have a real live Peter here. Children are in awe when they meet the current one.”
Although newer storybook animals have emerged to help put little ones to sleep at twilight, Burgess’s “friendly neighbors in fur and feathers”—as he affectionately called them—have held their ground. Beers says she has received questions about Burgess from teachers in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Canada. “His writings are not relegated to the stuff of great-grandparent memories, but read by young readers today just as enthusiastically as they were 100 years ago.”
Celebrating Old Mother West Wind at 100 The Thornton W. Burgess Society marks the 100th anniversary of Old Mother West Wind with a full schedule of activities. “In his day, Burgess was one of the most popular people in the country,” says Burgess Society Executive Director Gene Schott. “This year we celebrate the book that launched his career with a wonderful variety of centennial activities:” Visit www.thorntonburgess.org for additional information. Through October: Exhibit on the Life and Times of Thornton Burgess
10-4 (closed Sun.)Thornton Burgess Museum,
4 Water St. (Rte. 130), Sandwich. $2. August-October: The Many Faces of Peter Cottontail (Exhibit)
10-4 (1-4 Sun.); Green Briar Nature Center,
6 Discovery Hill Rd., E. Sandwich
Portraits of Peter by Burgess’ illustrators. $2. Aug. 11: Peter Rabbit’s Animal Day
10 to 2; Thornton Burgess Museum
Live animals, story times, hands-on activities,
and a costumed Peter. Free. Aug. 28: Centennial Gala
Call for details: 508-888-6870 Sept. 11, 12: Bird Carvers Show/Sale
10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Green Briar Nature Center
Demonstrations and sale by 18 local carvers. $5. Oct. 10: My Life As a Crow
6 p.m.; Green Briar Nature Center
With Cape crow expert, June Auger. Aug.-Dec., Last Friday of Every Month:
Burgess’s Book Club for Children
4-5:30 p.m.; Green Briar Nature Center —the new Putnam Education building
Meet the animal featured in the day’s story. Ages 6-12. $2 per month (for snack). Burgess Museum “Cup Plates” Display: Burgess characters appear on these colorful collectibles, patterned after small glass plates used as saucers in colonial times. Crafted by Pairpoint Glassworks, Sagamore. Sold in museum shop at current valuations: $15-$175.
Poet. Screenwriter. Journalist. Blogger. Author. Ultimately, they are all writers. And whatever the niche, the Conference of the Cape Cod Writers Center likely has a class to make their words read better.
For nearly five decades, the oldest writers group on Cape Cod has quietly held its flagship conference every August at the Craigville Conference Center in Centerville, drawing an array of distinguished instructors and speakers—Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, and a host of others have lent their talents to the proceedings—and thousands of scribes eager to polish their craft. This August, the 48th annual conference carries the theme “Books, Bytes, and Beach,” an allusion to the intersection of print and digital publishing. Technology has made it easier than ever for writers to get their words to an audience via blogging and self-publishing, for example. “But on the road to traditional publishing,” says Nancy Rubin Stuart, director of the conference, “the bar is probably higher today than it ever was.”
Getting a story into print is very different than it was in the summer of 1963, when a group of wordsmiths called the Twelve O’Clock Scholars organized a writers workshop. Under the direction of Marion Vuilleumier, a long-time Cape wordsmith, the workshop turned into an annual conference that grew alongside its year-round counterpart, the Cape Cod Writers Center. Today, the center hosts a variety of writers groups and events for its more than 300 members, like Breakfast with the Authors, an ongoing series of talks and book signings from a range of writers. President Kevin Symmons says the constituency ranges from novices who have finished a draft of their first chapter to veterans who have published their seventh book, many of whom need support and guidance after realizing the revelation he made early in his own literary efforts. “Writing is probably the most frustrating and at the same time the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Symmons says.
The crux of the conference remains nuts-and-bolts instruction in the evolving craft of arranging words. Rubin Stuart, who among other achievements has authored six nonfiction books like the award-winning The Muse of the Revolution and served as a contributor to The New York Times, taught two classes at the 2009 conference before signing on as director. The Sandwich resident describes a friendly classroom full of published and aspiring writers alike, an atmosphere brimming with enthusiasm and empty of competition. “The goal is to prepare [the writers] for publication,” she says.
The range of classes is as varied as the goals of the body of registrants. Multi-day classes in nonfiction, humor, commercial fiction, and graphic novels exist alongside one-off courses in travel writing, blogging, digital publishing, and instruction in marketing and business matters. The Young Writers Workshop for burgeoning high-school writers, keynote speeches from the likes of WBZ radio personality Jordan Rich and historical fiction novelist William Martin, and manuscript evaluation sessions fill out a slate of happenings that, quite frankly, is too large to fit on this page. There is no guarantee of success in the fine print on the registration form, but there are success stories. Shutter Island and Mystic River author Dennis Lahane and distinguished Cape Cod writer Anne LeClaire—who teaches this year’s “From Memories to Memoirs” course—both attended the conference earlier in their careers. It’s also where Sally Gunning, author of The Widow’s War, found her agent.
What constitutes “publishing” might be markedly different. E-books, self-publishing, on-demand publishing, and countless other methods are all viable in the 21st century. “It’s our mission to apprise and keep our members’ skills up to date with the changing environment,” Rubin Stuart says.
One thing that has not changed is the appeal of the Cape’s sea-sprayed environment to budding authors. In some ways, this backdrop to the conference is just as crucial as the expert instruction. “It becomes a marvelous source of inspiration for people . . .” Rubin Stuart says. “Art and literature and writing and oceans have always gone together. It’s a natural fit.”
48th Annual Conference of the Cape Cod Writers Center
August 15-20, 2010
Craigville Conference Center, Centerville
For more information and to register,
visit www.capecodwriterscenter.com or call (508) 420-0200.
Settle down with The Captain’s Widow of Sandwich: Self-Invention and the Life of Hannah Rebecca Burgess, 1834-1917 ($45) and acquaint yourself with some captivating local history. Author Megan Taylor Shockley delves into the true story of the spouse of a Sandwich sea captain. Digging into primary sources, Shockley masterfully crafts a portrait of the widow, unearthing her resourceful character’s fascinating story. As a woman who commandeered her dying husband’s ship single-handedly and refused several second marriage proposals after his death, Burgess defied the traditional gender roles of her day. Despite this, she seemingly lived quite comfortably within the social constructs of the Victorian era. The biography opens a window into the complexity of the Victorian Age and the drama of Cape Cod’s famous seafaring past. For more details, visit nyupress.org.