Our book today is a twilight gem (of an entirely different kind from Picture This!): Henry Beetle Hough’s 1980 viaticum, Soundings at Sea Level, which begins as a low-key walk-around in the author’s 82nd and 83rd years of life but quickly expands into so much more than that. Hough is a natural, homespun philosopher in the Thoreau mode, only without Thoreau’s cloying falsity and pretension. Hough was the editor of the Vineyard Gazette for nearly sixty years, and he wrote a small shelf’s worth of inviting and worthy books, including his smilingly chatty Mostly on Martha’s Vineyard and his justly celebrated mediation on getting older, To the Harbor Light. Soundings at Sea Level came after both of those books and is more infused than either of them with an autumnal taking-stock. In his eight decade Hough finds himself the oldest person at any gathering (he has to resist the impulse to tap his glass and make that formal annoucement every time), the last living rememberer of things past:
So came the era of lost things, lost establishments, lost characters: no iceman any more, no milkman, no poolroom, no watering trough, of course – the last one had been planted with geraniums as long ago as the year Betty and I arrived.
(Indeed, at one point in Soundings at Sea Level, he looks up “ice house” in the library’s latest dictionary and finds no entry – a poignant little sign of exile that all elderly know well)
The book has live, active history all through its pages: the so-called Kennedy Bill’s life and tumultuous times are recounted here by a witness at the creation, as is Henry Hough’s native Edgartown’s vociferous fight against the spread of the McDonald’s fast-food chain to the Vineyard (the Vineyard’s only semi-whimsical notions of seceding from the United States are here chronicled as well, and they make all the more fascinating reading the more you realize what a wonderful ambassador Hough is by nature). But the real pith of this book is far removed from politics and news headlines; this is a mostly quiet meditation on village life. Hough lived long enough to walk around the streets of what most of you reading this would consider the ‘normal’ Edgartown and remember a very, very different place – a place with grassy spaces between the houses, for instance, a place that wasn’t constantly being ‘developed’ and inundated with tourists, a quiet place mostly governed by the moods of the harbor, a place where normal, quiet days and nights were not only possible but standard, like the day Hough brings his lawn mower down to the cellar to store it away for another winter and sits for a moment at the bottom of the cellar steps:
An uneventful day was almost over, like so many uneventful days, and years too, and as I sat on the bottom step in this undisturbed silence down under, I felt reconciled to the little account they had been. The flow of years, eddying, catching bits of straw and chaff, trapped now and then in lazy pools, so little concerned with the mainstream and the currents and rapids out beyond, yet closer to the solid ground, closer to the bank.
I remembered a passage from William James: “The only thing we directly encounter, the only experience we concretely have, is our personal life.” It runs as it will, mostly – if we are lucky – in a succession of common and ordinary days.
The book wanders comfortably from topic to topic – old Vineyard anecdotes (some of which, true to form, have appeared in the author’s previous books), the peace of libraries, the state of book-reviewing, the various faces of nature. Graham, Hough’s big, beautiful seven-year-old collie, is a constant from page to page, accompanying the author virtually everywhere, as inseparable in prose as they were in person:
On the morning of my eighty-second birthday Graham and I were up well before five and, breakfast over, embarked on our walk to the Harbor Light. The morning was on the gray side, and Starbuck’s Neck brooded with a chill in the air. The light flashed dutifully and monotonously, without special effect. The Chappaquiddick ferry, making an early passage from the Point, did for a moment evoke a fantasy of voyaging, but not enough to change the direction of my thoughts.
There is no grand theme to Soundings at Sea Level – merely “It’s been a long time, but I’m still here, and no matter the losses or disappointments along the way, I’m very happy to be here.” The book is a wise and slightly grinning celebration of life’s little things – a mood, a kind of celebration that spending any off-season time on the Vineyard invariably produces. As with all of Hough’s books (or like the man himself, a marvellous letter-writer and book-talker, sparkling company, and – no small thing – a truly great dog-person in a world of people who mostly fail at that deceptively complex trust)(so much so that our author himself might be a worthy namesake for a dog, should the opportunity arise), the happy reader doesn’t want to quit his company. He has a writerly knack for making the reader feel at home – after very few pages, the little streets and ponds and meadows of Edgartown take on an old and trusted patina, so that readers from half a world away will feel like they could find their way from the Post Office to the Point, thanks to their gentle guide. And all along the way, the simple details are caught and savored:
As Graham and I walked home through Cottage Street the pretty girl we used to meet walking her yellow Lab puppy came out into her yard, almost to the fence, and said, “Happy birthday, Mr. Hough.” Call this a little thing, but I’ll remember it.