Book Excerpts


Excerpts from books I’ve read:

A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean
A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold
My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir
Riding the White Horse Home, by Teresa Jordan
The Meadow, by James Galvin

My First Summer in the Sierra


Return to Book Excerpts

Excerpts from My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir, 1911
(Download as PDF)

p. 22: “ ‘Sheep-men’ call azalea ‘sheep-poison,’ and wonder what the Creator was thinking about when he made it – so desperately does sheep business blind and degrade, though supposed to have a refining influence in the good old days we read of. The California sheep owner is in haste to get rich, and often does, now that pasturage costs nothing, while the climate is so favorable that no winter food supply, shelter-pens, or barns are required. Therefore large flocks may be kept at slight expense, and large profits realized, the money invested doubling, it is claimed, every other year. This quickly acquired wealth usually creates desire for more. Then indeed the wool is drawn close down over the pool fellow’s eyes, dimming or shutting out almost everything worth seeing.

“As for the shepherd, his case is still worse, especially in winter when he lives alone in a cabin. For, though stimulated at times by hopes of one day owning a flock and getting rich like his boss, he at the same time is likely to be degraded by the life he leads, and seldom reaches the dignity or advantage – or disadvantage – of ownership. The degradation in his case has for cause one not far to seek. He is solitary most of the year, and solitude to most people seems hard to bear. He seldom has much good mental work or recreation in the way of books. Coming into his dingy hovel-cabin at night, stupidly weary, he finds nothing to balance and level his life with the universe. No, after his dull drag all day after the sheep, he must get his supper; he is likely to slight this task and try to satisfy his hunger with whatever comes handy. Perhaps no bread is baked; then he just makes a few grimy flapjacks in his unwashed frying-pan, boils a handful of tea, and perhaps fries a few strips of rusty bacon. Usually there are dried peaches or apples in the cabin, but he hates to be bothered with the cooking of them, just swallows the bacon and flapjacks, and depends on the genial stupefaction of tobacco for the rest. Then to bed, often without removing the clothing worn during the day. Of course his health suffers, reacting on his mind; and seeing nobody for weeks or months, he finally becomes semi-insane or wholly so.”

p. 24: “But whatever the blessings of sheep-culture in other times and countries, the California shepherd, as far as I’ve seen or heard, is never quite sane for any considerable time. Of all Nature’s voices baa is about all he hears. Even the howls and ki-yis of coyotes might be blessings if well heard, but he hears them only through a blur of mutton and wool, and they do him no good.”

p. 26 (on poison oak and poison ivy): “Sheep eat it without apparent ill effects; so do horses to some extent, though not fond of it, and to many persons it is harmless. Like most other things not apparently useful to man, it has few friends, and the blind question, “Why was it made?” goes on and on with never a guess that first of all it might have been made for itself.”

p. 35: “Heard a few peals of thunder from the upper Sierra, and saw firm white bossy cumuli rising back of the pines.”

p. 37: “A slight sprinkle of rain – large drops far apart, falling with hearty pat and plash on leaves and stones and into the mouths of the flowers. Cumuli rising to the eastward. How beautiful their pearly bosses! How well they harmonize with the upswelling rocks beneath them. Mountains of the sky, solid-looking, finely sculptured, their richly varied topography wonderfully defined. Never before have I seen clouds so substantial looking in form and texture. Nearly every day toward noon they rise with visible swelling motion as if new worlds were being created. And how fondly they brood and hover over the gardens and forests with their cooling shadows and showers, keeping every petal and leaf in glad health and heart. One may fancy the clouds themselves are plants, springing up in the skyfields at the call of the sun, growing in beauty until they reach their prime, scattering rain and hail like berries and seeds, then wilting and dying.”

p. 39: Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”

p. 41: “Only spread a fern frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out, and freedom and beauty and peace come in. The waving of a pine tree on the top of a mountain, – a magic wand in Nature’s hand, – every devout mountaineer knows its power; but the marvelous beauty value of what the Scotch call a breckan in a still dell, what poet has sung this?”

p. 43 (on lizards): “Gentle saurians, dragons, descendants of an ancient and mighty race, Heaven bless you all and make your virtues known! for few of us know as yet that scales may cover fellow creatures as gentle and lovable as feathers, or hair, or cloth.”

“Mastodons and elephants used to live here no great geological time ago, as shown by their bones, often discovered by miners in washing gold-gravel. And bears of at least two species are here now, besides the California lion or panther, and wild cats, wolves, foxes, snakes, scorpions, wasps, tarantulas; but one is almost tempted at times to regard a small savage black ant as the master existence of this vast mountain world. These fearless, restless, wandering imps, though only about a quarter of an inch long, are fonder of fighting and biting than any beast I know. They attack every living thing around their homes, often without cause as far as I can see. Their bodies are mostly jaws curved like ice-hooks, and to get work for these weapons seems to be their chief aim and pleasure. … I can’t understand the need of their ferocious courage; there seems to be no common sense in it. Sometimes, no doubt, they fight in defense of their homes, but they fight anywhere and always wherever they can find anything to bite. As soon as a vulnerable spot is discovered on man or beast, they stand on their heads and sink their jaws, and though torn limb from limb, they will yet hold on and die biting deeper. When I contemplate this fierce creature so widely distributed and strongly entrenched, I see that much remains to be done ere the world is brought under the rule of universal peace and love.”

p. 50 (on birds): “little mountain troubadours”

p. 56: “Sheep, like people, are ungovernable when hungry. Excepting my guarded lily gardens, almost every leaf that these hoofed locusts can reach within a radius of a mile or two from camp has been devoured.”

p. 57 (on finding a lost group of sheep): “Carlo [the dog] knew what I was about, and eagerly followed the scent until we came up to them, huddled in a timid, silent bunch. They had evidently been here all night and all the forenoon, afraid to go out to feed. Having escaped restraint, they were, like some people we know of, afraid of their freedom, did not know what to do with it, and seemed glad to get back into the old familiar bondage.”

p. 59 (on shadows): “How beautiful a rock is made by leaf shadows! Those of the live oak are particularly clear and distinct, and beyond all art in grace and delicacy, now still as if painted on stone, now gliding softly as if afraid of noise, now dancing, waltzing in swift, merry swirls, or jumping on and off sunny rocks in quick dashes like wave embroidery on seashore cliffs. How true and substantial is this shadow beauty, and with what sublime extravagance is beauty thus multiplied!”

p. 61: “June 23. Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”

p. 73: “Pearl cumuli over the higher mountains – clouds, not with a silver lining, but all silver. The brightest, crispest, rockiest-looking clouds, most varied in features and keenest in outline I ever saw at any time of year in any country.”

p. 78 (on a bread shortage): “Bread without flesh is a good diet, as on many botanical excursions I have proved. Tea also may easily be ignored. Just bread and water and delightful toil is all I need, – not unreasonably much, yet one ought to be trained and tempered to enjoy life in these brave wilds in full independence of any particular kind of nourishment.”

p. 79: “Man seems to be the only animal whose food soils him, making necessary much washing and shield-like bibs and napkins. Moles living in the earth and eating slimy worms are yet as clean as seals or fishes, whose lives are one perpetual wash. And, as we have seen, the squirrels in these resiny woods keep themselves clean in some mysterious way; not a hair is sticky, though they handle the gummy cones, and glide about apparently without care.”

p. 81: “Beans are the main standby, portable, wholesome, and capable of going far, besides being easily cooked, although curiously enough a great deal of mystery is supposed to lie about the bean-pot. No two cooks quite agree on the methods of making beans do their best, and, after petting and coaxing and nursing the savory mess, – well oiled and mellowed with bacon boiled into the heart of it, – the proud cook will ask, after dishing out a quart or two for trial, ‘Well, how do you like my beans?’ as if by no possibility could they be like any other beans cooked in the same way, but must needs possess some special virtue of which he alone is master.”

p. 87 (on Hazel Green): “Here, we are camped for the night, our big fire, heaped high with rosiny logs and branches, is blazing like a sunrise, gladly giving back the light slowly sifted from the sunbeams of centuries of summers; and in the glow of that old sunlight how impressively surrounding objects are brought forward in relief against the outer darkness!”

p. 95: “So extravagant is Nature with her choicest treasures, spending plant beauty as she spends sunshine, pouring it forth into land and sea, garden and desert. And so the beauty of lilies falls on angels and men, bears and squirrels, wolves and sheep, birds and bees, but as far as I have seen, man alone, and the animals he tames, destroy these gardens. Awkward, lumbering bears, the Don tells me, love to wallow in them in hot weather, and deer with their sharp feet cross them again and again, sauntering and feeding, yet never a lily have I seen spoiled by them.”

p. 102: “All the Merced streams are wonderful singers, and Yosemite is the centre where the main tributaries meet. From a point about half a mile from our camp we can see into the lower end of the famous valley, with its wonderful cliffs and groves, a grand page of mountain manuscript that I would gladly give my life to be able to read. How vast it seems, how short human life when we happen to think of it, and how little we may learn, however hard we try! Yet why bewail our poor inevitable ignorance? Some of the external beauty is always in sight, enough to keep every fibre of us tingling, and this we are able to gloriously enjoy though the methods of its creation may lie beyond our ken. Sing on, brave Tamarack Creek, fresh from your snowy fountains, plash and swirl and dance to your fate in the sea; bathing, cheering every living thing along your way.”

p. 105: “The sheep are lying down on a bare rocky spot such as they like, chewing the cud in grassy peace. Cooking is going on, appetites growing keener every day. No lowlander can appreciate the mountain appetite, and the facility with which heavy food called ‘grub’ is disposed of. Eating, walking, resting, seem alike delightful, and one feels inclined to shout lustily on rising in the morning like a crowing cock. Sleep and digestion as clear as the air.”

p. 113 (on crossing a creek with sheep): “Then a dozen or more were shoved off, and the Don, tall like a crane and a good natural wader, jumped in after them, seized a struggling wether, and dragged it to the opposite shore. But no sooner did he let it go than it jumped into the stream and swam back to its frightened companions in the corral, thus manifesting sheep-nature as unchangeable as gravitation. Pan with his pipes would have had no better luck, I fear. We were now pretty well baffled. The silly creatures would suffer any sort of death rather than cross that stream.”

p. 114: “The wool is dry now, and calm, cud-chewing peace has fallen on all the comfortable band, leaving no trace of the watery battle. I have seen fish driven out of the water with less ado than was made in driving these animals into it. Sheep brain must surely be poor stuff. Compare today’s exhibition with the performances of deer swimming quietly across broad and rapid rivers, and from island to island in seas and lakes; or with dogs, or even with the squirrels that, as the story goes, cross the Mississippi River on selected chips, with tails for sails comfortably trimmed to the breeze. A sheep can hardly be called an animal; an entire flock is required to make one foolish individual.”

p. 118 (on the brink of a cliff): “After withdrawing from such places, excited with the view I had got, I would say to myself, ‘Now don’t go out on the verge again.’ But in the face of Yosemite scenery cautious remonstrance is vain; under its spell one’s body seems to go where it likes with a will over which we seem to have scarce any control.”

p. 119: “If I was to get down to the brink at all that rough edge, which might offer slight finger-holds, was the only way. But the slope beside it looked dangerously smooth and steep, and the swift roaring flood beneath, overhead, and beside me was very nerve-trying. I therefore concluded not to venture farther, but did nevertheless.”

p. 126 (on raindrops): “Some go to the high snowy fountains to swell their well-saved stores; some into the lakes, washing the mountain windows, patting their smooth glassy levels, making dimples and bubbles and spray; some into the waterfalls and cascades as if eager to join in their dance and song and beat their foam yet finer; good luck and good work for the happy mountain raindrops, each one of them a high waterfall in itself descending from the cliffs and hollows of the clouds to the cliffs and hollows of the rocks, out of the sky-thunder into the thunder of the falling rivers. Some, falling on meadows and bogs, creep silently out of sight to the grass roots, hiding softly as in a nest, slipping, oozing hither, thither, seeking and finding their appointed work. Some …”

p. 129: “His trousers, in particular, have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica scales and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as the small beetles, moths and mosquitoes, with flower petals, pollen dust and indeed bits of all plants, animals, and minerals of the region adhere to them and are safely imbedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows. His specimens are kept passably fresh, too, by the purity of the air and the resiny bituminous beds into which they are a pressed. Man is a microcosm, at least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.”

p. 131 (on his drawings): “Whether these picture-sheets are to vanish like fallen leaves or go to friends like letters, matters not much; for little can they tell to those who have not themselves seen similar wildness, and like a language have learned it. No pain here, no dull empty hours, no fear of the past, no fear of the future. These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be. Drinking this champagne water is pure pleasure, so is breathing the living air, and every movement of limbs is pleasure, while the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable. One’s body then seems homogeneous throughout, sound as crystal.”

p. 134: “Wrote to my mother and a few friends, mountain hints to each. They seem as near as if within voice-reach or touch. The deeper the solitude the less the sense of loneliness, and the nearer our friends.”

p. 136: “ … I had been told that this sort of bear, the cinnamon, always ran from his bad brother man, never showing fight unless wounded or in defense of young. He made a telling picture standing alert in the sunny forest garden. How well he played his part, harmonizing in bulk and color and shaggy hair with the trunks of the trees and lush vegetation, as natural a feature as any other in the landscape. After examining at leisure, nothing the sharp muzzle thrust inquiringly forward, the long shaggy hair on his broad chest, the stiff,erect ears nearly buried in hair, and the slow, heavy way he moved his head, I thought I should like to see his gait in running, so I made a sudden rush at him, shouting and swinging my hat to frighten him, expecting to see him make haste to get away. But to my dismay he did not run or show any sign of running. On the contrary, he stood his ground ready to fight and defend himself, lowered his head, thrust it forward, and looked sharply and fiercely at me. Then I suddenly began to fear that upon me would fall the work of running; but I was afraid to run, and therefore, like the bear, held my ground. We stood staring at each other in solemn silence within a dozen yards or thereabouts, while I fervently hoped that the power of the human eye over wild beats would prove as great as it is said to be.”

p. 145: “What can poor mortals say about clouds? While a description of their huge glowing domes and ridges, shadowy gulfs and cañons, and feather-edged ravines is being tried, they vanish, leaving no visible ruins. Nevertheless, these fleeing sky mountains are as substantial and significant as the more lasting upheavals of granite beneath them. Both like are built up and die, and in God’s calendar difference of duration is nothing. We can only dream about them in wondering, worshiping admiration, happier than we dare tell even to friends who see farthest in sympathy, glad to know that not a crystal or vapor particle of them, hard or soft, is lost; that they sink and vanish only to rise again and again in higher and higher beauty. As to our own work, duty, influence, etc., concerning which so much fussy pother is made, it will not fail of its due effect, though, like a lichen on a stone, we keep silent.”

p. 174 (on robins): “Oftentimes, as I wander through these solemn woods, awestricken and silent, I hear the reassuring voice of this fellow wanderer ringing out, sweet and clear, ‘Fear not! fear not!’”

p. 176 (on blue grouse): “Able to live on pine and fir buds, they are forever independent in the matter of food, which troubles so many of us and controls our movements. Gladly, if I could, I would live forever on pine buds, however full of turpentine and pitch, for the sake of this grand independence. Just to think of our sufferings last month merely for grist-mill flour. Man seems to have more difficulty in gaining food than any other of the Lord’s creatures. For many in towns it is a consuming, lifelong struggle; for others, the danger of coming to want is so great, the deadly habit of endless hoarding for the future is formed, which smothers all real life, and is continued long after every reasonable need has been over-supplied.”

p. 178: “Sketching all day on the North Dome … I was suddenly, and without warning, possessed with the notion that my friend, Professor J.D. Butler, of the State University of Wisconsin, was below me in the valley, and I jumped up full of the idea of meeting him, with almost as much startling excitement as if he had suddenly touched me to make me look up. Leaving my work without the slightest deliberation, I ran down the western slope of the Dome …

“Had a wonderful day. Found Professor Butler as the compass-needle finds the pole. So last evening’s telepathy, transcendental revelation, or whatever else it may be called, was true; for, strange to say, he had just entered the valley by way of the Coulterville Trail and was coming up the valley past El Capitan when his presence struck me … This seems the one well-defined marvel of my life of the kind called supernatural …”

p. 186: “It seemed strange to sleep in a paltry hotel chamber after the spacious magnificence and luxury of the starry sky and silver fire grove.”

p. 187: “Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.”

p. 190: “It seems strange that visitors to Yosemite should be so little influenced by its novel grandeur, as if their eyes were bandaged and their ears stopped. Most of those I saw yesterday were looking down as if wholly unconscious of anything going on about them, while the sublime rocks were trembling with the tones of the mighty chanting congregation of waters gathered from all the mountains round about, making music that might draw angels out of heaven. Yet respectable-looking, even wise-looking people were fixing bits of worms on bent pieces of wire to catch trout. Sport they called it. Should church-goers try to pass the time fishing in baptismal fonts while dull sermons were being preached, the so-called sport might not be so bad; but to play in the Yosemite temple, seeking pleasure in the pain of fishes struggling for their lives, while God himself is preaching his sublimest water and stone sermons!”

“Now I’m back at the camp-fire, and cannot help thinking about my recognition of my friend’s presence in the valley while he was four or five miles away, and while I had no means of knowing that he was not thousands of miles away. It seems supernatural, but only because it is not understood. Anyhow, it seems silly to make so much of it, while the natural and common is more truly marvelous and mysterious than the so-called supernatural. Inded most of the miracles we hear of are infinitely less wonderful than the commonest of natural phenomena, when fairly seen. Perhaps the invisible rays that struck me while I sat at work on the Dome are something like those which attract and repel people at first sight, concerning which so much nonsense has been written. The worst apparent effect of these mysterious odd things is blindness to all that is divinely common.”

p. 195: “The harm [sheep] do goes to the heart, but glorious hope lifts above all the dust and din and bids me look forward to a good time coming, when money enough will be earned to enable me to go walking where I like in pure wildness, with what I can carry on my back, and when the bread-sack is empty, run down to the nearest point on the breadline for more. Nor will these run-downs be blanks, for, whether up or down, every step and jump on these blessed mountains is full of fine lessons.”

p. 200: “How did the frogs, found in all the bogs and pools and lakes, however high, manage to get up these mountains? Surely not by jumping … Anyhow, they are here and in hearty health and voice. I like their cheery tronk and crink. They take the place of songbirds at a pinch.”

p. 218: “… I at length entered the gate of the pass, and the huge rocks began to close around me in all their mysterious impressiveness. Just then I was startled by a lot of queer, hairy, muffled creatures coming shuffling, shambling, wallowing toward me as if they had no bones in their bodies. Had I discovered them while they were yet a good way off, I should have tried to avoid them. What a picture they made contrasted with the others I had just been admiring. When I came up to them, I found that they were only a band of Indians from Mono on their way to Yosemite for a load of acorns. They were wrapped in blankets made of the skins of sage-rabbits. The dirt on some of the faces seemed almost old enough and thick enough to have a geological significance; some were strangely blurred and divided into sections by seams and wrinkles that looked like cleavage joints, and had a worn abraded look as if they had lain exposed to the weather for ages. I tried to pass them without stopping, but they would n’t let me; forming a dismal circle about me, I was closely besieged while they begged whiskey or tobacco, and it was hard to convince them that I had n’t any. How glad I was to get away from the gray, grim crowd and see them vanish down the trail! Yet it seems sad to feel such desperate repulsion from one’s fellow beings, however degraded. To prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks to that of our own species must surely be unnatural. So with a fresh breeze and a hill or mountain between us I must wish them Godspeed and try to pray and sing with Burns, ‘It’s coming yet, for a’ that, that man to man, the warld o’er, shall brothers be for a’ that.’”

p. 220: “At sundown the somber crags and peaks were inspired with the ineffable beauty of the alpenglow, and a solemn, awful stillness hushed everything in the landscape. … Soon the night-wind began to flow from the snowy peaks overhead, at first only a gentle breathing, then gaining strength, in less than an hour rumbled in massive volume something like a boisterous stream in a boulder-choked channel, roaring and moaning down the cañon as if the work it had to do was tremendously important and fateful; and mingled with these storm tones were those of the waterfalls on the north side of the cañon, now sounding distinctly, now smothered by the heavier cataracts of air, making a glorious psalm of savage wildness. My fire squirmed and struggled as if ill at ease, for though in a sheltered nook, detached masses of icy wind often fell like icebergs on top of it, scattering sparks and coals, so that I had to keep well back to avoid being burned. But the big resiny roots and knots of the dwarf pine could neither be beaten out nor blown away, and the flames, now rushing up in long lances, now flattened and twisted on the rocky ground, roared as if trying to tell the storm stories of the trees they belonged to, as the light given out was telling the story of the sunshine they had gathered in centuries of summers.

“The stars shone clear in the strip of sky between the huge dark cliffs; and as I lay recalling the lessons of the day, suddenly the full moon looked down over the cañon wall, her face apparently filled with eager concern, which had a startling effect, as if she had left her place in the sky and had come down to gaze on me alone, like a person entering one’s bedroom. It was hard to realize that she was in her place in the sky, and was looking abroad on half the globe, land and sea, mountains, plains, lakes, rivers, oceans, ships, cities with their myriads of inhabitants sleeping and waking, sick and well. No, she seemed to be just on the rim of Bloody Cañon and looking only at me. This was indeed getting near to Nature.”

p. 224 (on wildflowers): “Who could imagine beauty so fine in so savage a place?”

p. 226: “ … most Indians I have seen are not a whit more natural in their lives than we civilized whites. Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them better. The worst thing about them is their uncleanliness. Nothing truly wild is unclean.”

p. 233: “Rose and crimson sunset, and soon after the stars appeared the moon rose in most impressive majesty over the top of Mount Dana. I sauntered up the meadow in the white light. The jet-black tree-shadows were so wonderfully distinct and substantial looking, I often stepped high in crossing them, taking them for black charred logs.”

p. 235: “Clouds about .15, which in Switzerland would be considered extra clear. Probably more free sunshine falls on this majestic range than on any other in the world I’ve ever seen or heard of. It has the brightest weather, brightest glacier-polished ocks, the greatest abundance of irised spray from its glorious waterfalls, the brightest forests of silver firs and silver pines, more starshine, moonshine, and perhaps more crystal-shine than any other mountain chain, and its countless mirror lakes, having more light poured into them, glow and spangle most. And how glorious the shining after the short summer showers and after frosty nights when the morning sunbeams are pouring through the crystals on the grass and pine needles, and how ineffably spiritually fine is the morning-glow on the mountain-tops and the alpenglow of evening. Well may the Sierra be named, not the Snowy Range, but the Range of Light.”

p. 236: “Contemplating the lace-like fabric of streams outspread over the mountains, we are reminded that everything is flowing – going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks both in solution and in the form of mud particles, sand, pebbles, and boulders. Rocks flow from volcanoes like water from springs, and animals flock together and flow in currents modified by stepping, leaping, gliding, flying, swimming, etc. While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood globules in Nature’s warm heart.”

p. 237: “This day just like yesterday. A few clouds motionless and apparently with no work to do beyond looking beautiful. Frost enough for crystal building, – glorious fields of ice-diamonds destined to last but a night. How lavish is Nature building, pulling down, creating, destroying, chasing every material partical from form to form, ever changing, ever beautiful.”

p. 241 (September 1): “But now I’ll have to go, for there is nothing to spare in the way of provisions. I’ll surely be back, however, surely I’ll be back. No other place has ever so overwhelmingly attracted me as this hospitable, Godful wilderness.”

p. 242: “Mammoth Mountain, to the south of Gibbs and Bloody Cañon, striped and spotted with snow-banks and clumps of dwarf pine, was also favored with a glorious crimson cap, in the making of which there was no trace of economy – a huge bossy pile colored with a perfect passion of crimson that seemed important enough to be sent off to burn among the stars in majestic independence. One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature – inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.”

p. 255: “Though the water is now low in the river, the usual difficulty occurred in getting the flock across it. Every sheep seemed to be invincibly determined to die any sort of dry death rather than wet its feet.”

Return to Book Excerpts

A Sand County Almanac


Return to Book Excerpts

Excerpts from A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, 1949
(Download as PDF)

p. xvii: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot. … For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech. These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.”

p. xviii: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.”

p. xix: “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.”

“But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crytal-clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.”

p. 10: “Yet the oak had laid down good wood for [the bootlegger]; his sawdust was as fragrant, as sound, and as pink as our own. An oak is no respecter of persons.”

p. 16: “Our saw now cuts the 1860’s, when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered? They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we yet see, that the same question applies to the man-land community.”

p. 19: “But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”

p. 20: “A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.”

p. 22: “It was found by mathematical analysis that flocks of six or multiples of six were far more frequent than chance alone would dictate. In other words, goose flocks are families, or aggregations of families, and lone geese in spring are probably just what our fond imaginings had first suggested. They are bereaved survivors of the winter’s shooting, searching in vain for their kin. Now I am free to grieve with and for the lone honkers. It is not often the cold-potato mathematics thus confirms the sentimental promptings of the bird-lover.”

p. 24: “It is an irony of history that the great powers should have discovered the unity of nations at Cairo in 1943. The geese of the world have had that notion for a longer time, and each March they stake their lives on its essential truth.”

p. 27: “There are degrees and kinds of solitude. An island in a lake has one kind; but lakes have boats, and there is always the chance that one might land to pay you a visit. A peak in the clouds has another kind; but most peaks have trails, and trails have tourists. I know of no solitude so secure as one guarded by a spring flood; nor do the geese, who have seen more kinds and degrees of aloneness than I have.”

p. 36: “The drama of the [male woodcock’s] sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.”

p. 38: “Hemiphere solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky.”

p. 42: “How like fish we are: ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time! And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook. Even so, I think there is some virtue in eagerness, whether its object prove true or false. How utterly dull would be a wholly prudent man, or trout, or world! … The only prudence in fishermen is that designed to set the stage for taking yet another, and perhaps a longer, chance.”

p. 43: “What was big was not the trout, but the chance. What was full was not my creel, but my memory. Like the white-throats, I had forgotten it would ever again be aught but morning on the Fork.”

p. 50: [The lone cutleaf Silphium] “is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.”

“Thus it comes to pass that farm neighborhoods are good in proportion to the poverty of their floras. My own farm was selected for its lack of goodness and its lack of highway; indeed my whole neighborhood lies in a backwash of the River Progress.”

p.52: “The erasure of a human subspecies is largely painless – to us – if we know little enough about it. A dead Chinaman is of little import to us whose awareness of things Chinese is bounded by an occasional dish of chow mein. We grieve only for what we know. The erasure of Silphium from western Dane County is no cause for grief if one knows it only as a name in a botany book.”

p. 54: “It is a kind providence that has withheld a sense of history from the thousands of species of plants and animals that have exterminated each other to build the present world. The same kind providence now withholds it from us. Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, and few will grieve when the last Silphium follows him to the lush prairies of the never-never land.”

p. 57: “There is a peculiar virtue in the music of elusive birds. Songsters that sing from top-most boughs are easily seen and as easily forgotten; they have the mediocrity of the obvious.”

“The disappointment I feel on these mornings of silence perhaps shows that things hoped for have a higher value than things assured. The hope of hearing quail is worth half a dozen risings-in-the-dark.”

p. 59: “Hunts differ in flavor, but the reasons are subtle. The sweetest hunts are stolen. To steal a hunt, either go far into the wilderness where no one has been, or else find some undiscovered place under everybody’s nose.”

p. 61: “Many thoughts, like flying grouse, leave no trace of their passing, but some leave clues that outlast the decades.”

p. 63: “Early risers feel at ease with each other, perhaps because, unlike those who sleep late, they are given to understatement of their own achievements. Orion, the most widely traveled, says literally nothing…”

p. 65: “Like many another treaty of restraint, the pre-dawn pact lasts only as long as darkness humbles the arrogant. It would seem as if the sun were responsible for the daily retreat of reticence from the world.”

p. 72: “Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying plants.”

p. 74: “The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines. As I said, November is the month for the axe, and, as in other love affairs, there is skill in the exercise of bias.”

p. 76: “To me an ancient cottonwood is the greatest of trees because in his youth he shaded the buffalo and wore a halo of pigeons, and I like the young cottonwood because he may some day become ancient. But the farmer’s wife (and hence the farmer) despises all cottonwoods because in June the female tree clogs the screens with cotton. The modern dogma is comfort at any cost.”

p. 77: “The coon-hunter will not dislike basswood, and I know of quail hunters who bear no grudge against ragweed, despite their annual bout with hayfever. Our biases are indeed a sensitive index to our affections, our tastes, our loyalties, our generosities, and our manner of wasting weekends.”

p. 86: “Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel.”

p. 87: “Why is the shovel regarded as a symbol of drudgery? Perhaps because most shovels are dull.”

p. 107: “Thus always does history, whether of marsh [or] market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value of these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”

p. 108: “Every profession keeps a small herd of epithets, and needs a pasture where they may run at large. Thus economists must find free range somewhere for their pet aspersions, such a submarginality, regression, and institutional rigidity.”

p. 116: “Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeon did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?

“It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.

“Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know that man, while now captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the sole object of its quest, and that his prior assumptions to this effect arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark.”

p. 120: [Two boys in a canoe] “‘What time is it?’ was their first question. They explained that their watches had run down, and for the first time in their lives there was no clock, whistle, or radio to set watches by. For two days they had lived by ‘sun-time,’ and were getting a thrill out of it. … The elemental simplicities of wilderness travel were thrills not only because of their novelty, but because they represented complete freedom to make mistakes. The wilderness gave them their first taste of those rewards and penalties for wise and foolish acts which every woodsman faces daily, but against which civilization has built a thousand buffers.”

p. 124: “Girdling the old oak to squeeze one last crop out of the barnyard has the same finality as burning the furniture to keep warm.”

p. 127: “When I call to mind my earliest impressions, I wonder whether the process ordinarily referred to as growing up is not actually a process of growing down; whether experience, so much touted among adults as the thing children lack, is not actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living.”

p. 130: “Thus by elimination, the county-sized plateau known as ‘on top’ was the exclusive domain of the mounted man … It is difficult for this generation to understand this aristocracy of space based upon transport.”

p. 134: [Lightning] “It must be a poor life that achieves freedom from fear.”

p. 135: “The history of the mountain was written not only in aspen bark, but in its place names. Cow-country place names are lewd, humorous, ironic, or sentimental, but seldom trite. Usually they are subtle enough to draw inquiry from new arrivals, whereby hangs that web of tales which, full spun, constitutes the local folklore.”

p. 138: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

p. 140: “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

p. 157: “Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

p. 163: “Science contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world. Its great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view. This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may. One of the facrts hewn to by science is that every river needs more people, and all people need more inventions, and hence more science; the good life depends on the indefinite extension of this chain of logic. That the good life on any river may likewise depend on the perception of its music, and the preservation of some music to perceive, is a form of doubt not yet entertained by science.”

p. 164: “Just as there is honor among thieves, so there is solidarity and co-operation among plant and animal pests. Where one pest is stopped by natural barriers, another arrives to breach the same wall by a new approach. In the end every region and every resource get their quota of uninvited ecological guests.”

p. 168: “There is, as yet, no sense of pride in the husbandry of wild plants and animals, no sense of shame in the proprietorship of a sick landscape. We tilt windmills in behalf of conservation in convention halls and editorial offices, but on the back forty we disclaim even owning a lance.”

“Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another. … One thing most of us have gone blind to is the quality of marshes.”

p. 177: “There is much confusion between land and country. Land is the place where corn, gullies, and mortgages grow. Country is the personality of land, the collective harmony of its soil, life, and weather. Country knows no mortgages, no alphabetical agencies, no tobacco road; it is calmly aloof to these petty exigencies of its alleged owners. That the previous occupant of my farm was a bootlegger mattered not one whit to its grouse; they sailed as proudly over the thickets as if they were guests of a king.

“Poor land may be rich country, and vice versa. Only economists mistake physical opulence for riches. Country may be rich despite a conspicuous poverty of physical endowment, and its quality may not be apparent at first glance, nor at all times.”

p. 178: [I cannot,] “by logical deducation, prove that a thicket without the potential roar of a quail covey is only a thorny place. Yet every outdoorsman knows that this is true. That wildlife is merely something to shoot at or to look at is the grossest of fallacies. It often represents the difference between rich country and mere land.

“There are woods that are plain to look at, but not to look into. … The taste for country displays the same diversity in aesthetic competence among individuals as the taste for opera, or oils. There are those who are willing to be herded in droves through ‘scenic’ places; who find mountains grand if they be proper mountains with waterfalls, cliffs, and lakes. To such the Kansas plains are tedious …

“In country, as in people, a plain exterior often conceals hidden riches, to perceive which requires much living in and with. …”

p. 181: Ariosto: “How miserable are the idle hours of the ignorant man!”

“The main who cannot enjoy his leisure is ignorant, though his degrees exhaust the alphabet, and the man who does enjoy his leisure is to some extent educated, though he has never seen the inside of a school.”

p. 182: “What is a hobby anyway? … At first blush I am tempted to conclude that a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant. … A hobby is a defiance of the contemporary. It is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked. If this is true, then we may also say that every hobbyist is inherently a radical, and that his tribe is inherently a minority.

“This, however, is serious; becoming serious is a grievous fault in hobbyists. It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek or need rational justification. To wish to do it is reason enough. To find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry – lowers it at once to the ignominious category of an ‘exercise’ undertaken for health, power, or profit. Lifting dumbbells is not a hobby. It is a confession of subservience, not an assertion of liberty.”

p. 186: “A good hobby, in these times, is one that entails either making something or making the tools to make it with, and then using it to accomplish some needless thing. When we have passed out of the present age, a good hobby will be the reverse of all these. I come again to the defiance of the contemporary.

p. 187: “A good hobby must also be a gamble. [bow bursting into splinters] The possible debacle is, in short, an essential element in all hobbies, and stands in bold contradistinction to the humdrum certainty that the endless belt will eventuate in a Ford.”

“Nonconformity is the highest evolutionary attainment of social animals, and will grow no faster than other new functions.”

p. 189: “In our educational system, the biotic continuum is seldom pictured to us as a stream. … To learn the hydrology of the biotic stream we must think at right angles to evolution and examine the collective behavior of biotic materials. This calls for a reversal of specialization; instead of learning more and more about less and less, we must learn more and more about the whole biotic landscape.

“Ecology is a science that attempts this feat of thinking in a plane perpendicular to Darwin.”

“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other.”

p. 190: “The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little is known about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

p. 193: “… stability and diversity were apparently interdependent.”

p. 194: “In our attempts to save the bigger cogs and wheels, we are still pretty naive. A little repentance just before a species goes over the brink is enough to make us feel virtuous. When the species is gone we have a good cry and repeat the performance.”

p. 197: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

p. 199: “As for diversity, what remains of our native fauna and flora remains only because agriculture has not got around to destroying it. The present ideal of agriculture is clean farming; cleaning farming means a food chain aimed solely at economic profit and purged of all non-conforming links, a sort of Pax Germanica of the agricultural world. Diversity, on the other hand, means a food chain aimed to harmonize the wild and the tame in the joint interest of stability, productivity, and beauty.”

p. 201: “Considering the prodigious achievements of the profit motive in wrecking land, one hesitates to reject it as a vehicle for restoring land. I incline to believe we have overestimated the scope of the profit motive. Is it profitable for the individual to build a beautiful home? To give his children a higher education? No, it is seldom profitable, yet we do both. These are, in fact, ethical and aesthetic premises which underlie the economic system. Once accepted, economic forces tend to align the smaller details of social organization into harmony with them.

“No such ethical and aesthetic premise yet exists for the condition of the land these children must live in. Our children are our signature to the roster of history; our land is merely the place our money was made. There is as yet no social stigma in the possession of a gullied farm, a wrecked forest, or a polluted stream, provided the dividends suffice to send the youngsters to college. Whatever ails the land, the government will fix it.

“I think we have here the root of the problem. What conservation education must build is an ethical underpinning for land economics and a universal curiosity to understand the land mechanism. Conservation may then follow.”

p. 203: “What better expresses land than the plants that originally grew on it?”

p. 210: “The problem, then, is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land, among whom education and culture have become almost synonymous with landlessness. This is the problem of ‘consevation education.’”

p. 211: “… there are cultural values in the sports, customs, and experiences that renew contacts with wild things.

“First there is value in any experience that reminds us of our distinctive national origins and evolution, i.e. that stimulates awareness of history. Such awareness is ‘nationalism’ in its best sense. … Second, there is value is any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain, and of the fundamental organization of the biota. Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry. … Third, there is value in any experience that exercises those ethical restraints collectively called ‘sportsmanship.’ Our tools for the pursuit of wildlife improve faster than we do, and sportsmanship is a voluntary limitation in the use of these armaments. It is aimed to augment the role of skill and shrink the role of gadgets in the pursuit of wild things.

“A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. …

“Voluntary adherence to an ethical code elevates the self-respect of the sportsman, but it should not be forgotten that voluntary disregard of the code degenerates and depraves him.”

p. 213: [birth of the ‘go-light’ idea] “The pioneer went light of necessity. He shot with economy and precision because he lacked the transport, the cash, and the weapons requisite for machine-gun tactics. … In their later evolution, however, they became a code of sportsmanship, a self-imposed limitation on sport. On them is based a distinctively American tradition of self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, and marksmanship. These are intangibles, but they are not abstractions.”

p. 215: “Somehow [Theodore Roosevelt and Stewart Edward White] used mechanical aids, in moderation, without being used by them.

“I do not pretend to know what is moderation, or where the line is between legitimate and illegitimate gadgets. It seems clear, though, that the origin of gadgets has much to do with their cultural effects. Homemade aids to sport or outdoor life often enhance, rather than destroy, the man-earth drama; he who kills a trout with his own fly has scored two coups, not one. I use many factory-made gadgets myself. Yet there must be some limit beyond which money-bought aids to sport destroy the cultural value of the sport.”

p. 216: “I have the impression that the American sportsman is puzzled; he doesn’t understand what is happening to him. Bigger and better gadgets are good for industry, so why not for outdoor recreation? It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic; that their value is a contrast-value; that excessive mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the marsh.”

p. 217: “It is not quite accurate to ascribe all the ills of sport to the inventor of physical aids-to-sport. The advertiser invents ideas, and ideas are seldom as honest as physical objects, even though they may be equally useless. One such deserves special mention: the ‘where-to-go’ department. …”

p. 218: “All of these organized promiscuities [telling Tom, Dick, and Harry where the fish are biting, etc.] tend to depersonalize one of the essentially personal elements in outdoor sports. I do not know where the line lies between legitimate and illegitimate practice; I am convinced, though, that ‘where-to-go’ service has broken all bounds of reason.”

p. 221: “… the whole structure of biological education … is aimed to perpetuate the professional monopoly on research.”

p. 222: “To sum up, wildlife once fed us and shaped our culture. It still yields us pleasure for leisure hours, but we try to reap that pleasure by modern machinery and thus destroy part of its value. Reaping it by modern mentality would yield not only pleasure, but wisdom as well.”

p. 232: [defending hunting] “But after all, it is poor business to prove that one good thing is better than another.”

p. 237: “During the three thousand years which have since elapsed [since the days of Odysseus], ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only.”

p. 238: “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.”

“There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.

“The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate …”

p. 240: “A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.

“In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

p. 244: “Is not this formula [of minimal expectations of ‘conservation education’] too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values. In respect of land-use, it urges only enlightened self-intereest. Just how far will such education take us?”

p. 245: “ … the existence of obligations over and above self-interest is taken for granted in such rural community enterprises as the betterment of roads, schools, churches, and baseball teams. … Land-use ethics are still governed wholly by economic self-interest, just as social ethics were a century ago.”

p. 246: “ … we have been too timid, and too anxious for quick success, to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his obligations. Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.”

“In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.”

“One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples.”

p. 247: “We have no land ethic yet, but we have at least drawn nearer the point of admitting that birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economic advantage to us.”

p. 249: “Lack of economic value is sometimes a character not only of a species or groups, but of entire biotic communities: marshes, bogs, dunes, and ‘deserts’ are examples.”

“There is a clear tendency in American conservation to relegate to government all necessary jobs that private landowners fail to perform. … What is the ultimate magnitude of the enterprise? At what point will governmental conservation, like the mastodon, become handicapped by its own dimensions? The answer, if there is any, seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force which assigns more obligation to the private landowner.”

“Industrial landowners and users, especially lumbermen and stockmen, are inclined to wail long and loudly about the extension of government ownership and regulation to land, but (with notable exceptions) they show little disposition to develop the only visible alternative: the voluntary practice of conservation on their own lands.”

p. 251: “To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by government.

“An ethical obligation on the part of the prviate owner is the only visible remedy for these situations.”

p. 258: “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

p. 262: “… quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

“It of course goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for land. It always has and it always will. The fallacy the economic determinists have tied around our collective neck, and which we now need to cast off, is the belief that economics determines all land-use. This is simply not true. An innumerable host of actions and attitudes, comprising perhaps the bulk of all land relations, is determined by the land-users’ tastes and predilections, rather than by his purse. The bulk of all land relations hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill, and faith rather than on investments of cash. As a land-user thinketh, so is he.”

p. 263: “By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements.”

p. 264: “For the first time in the history of the human species, two changes are now impending. One is the exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe. The other is the world-wide hybridization of cultures through modern transport and industrialization.”

p. 269: “Of what use are wild areas destitute of their distinctive faunas?”

“Public wilderness areas are, first of all, a means of perpetuating, in sport form, the more virile and primitive skills in pioneering travel and subsistence.”

p. 270: “Wilderness areas are first of all a series of sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing.”

p. 272: “Recreation is valuable in proportion to the intensity of its experiences, and to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life. By these criteria, mechanized outings are at best a milk-and-water affair.

“Mechanized recreation already has seized nine-tenths of the woods and mountains; a decent respect for minorities should dedicate the other tenth to wilderness.”

p. 277: “Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”

p. 278: “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.”

p. 279: “Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility. The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the land assumes that he has already discovered what is important; it is such who prate of empires, political or economic, that will last a thousand years. It is only the scholar who appreciates that all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting-point, to which man returns again and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale of values. It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise.”

p. 280 ff: The “Conservation Esthetic.”

“It began to be noticed that the greater the exodus, the smaller the per-capita ration of peace, solitude, wildlife, and scenery, and the longer the migration to reach them.”

“The automobile has spread this once mild and local predicament to the outermost limits of good roads …”

“But to him who seeks something more [than golf], recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking but never quite finding, a major frustration of mechanized society.”

“Everywhere is the unspecialized motorist whose recreation is mileage, who has run the gamut of the National Parks in one summer, and now is headed for Mexico City and points south.”

“All these things [“game and fish, and the symbols of tokens of achievement such as heads, hides, photographs, and specimens”] rest upon the idea of trophy. The trophy … is a certificate. It attests that its owner has been somewhere and done something – that he has exercised skill, persistence, or discrimination in the age-old feat of overcoming, outwitting, or reducing-to-possession. These connotations which attach to the trophy usually far exceed its physical value.”

“Very intensive management of game or fish lowers the unit value of the trophy by artificializing it.”

[A hatchery trout from an over-fished and degraded stream vs. a wild one from an unmanaged stream] “No one would claim that this trout has the same value as a wholly wild one … Its esthetic connotations are inferior, even though its capture may require skill. … All intergrades of artificiality exist, but as mass-use increases it tends to push the whole gamut of conservation techniques toward the artificial end, and the whole scale of trophy-values downward. … [By killing off “all herons and terns visiting the hatchery where it was raised, and all mergansers and otters inhabiting the stream in which it is released …] Artificialized management has, in effect, bought fishing at the expense of another and perhaps higher recreation; it has paid dividends to one citizen out of capital stock belonging to all.”

“… mass-use tends to dilute the quality of organic trophies like game and fish, and to induce damage to other resources such as non-game animals, natural vegetation, and farm crops.

“The same dilution and damage is not apparent in the yield of ‘indirect’ trophies, such as photographs. Broadly speaking, a piece of scenery snapped by a dozen tourist cameras daily is not physically impaired thereby, nor does it suffer if photographed a hundred times. The camera industry is one of the few innocuous parasites on wild nature.”

“In short, the very scarcity of wild places, reacting with the mores of advertising and promotion, tends to defeat any deliberate effort to prevent their growing still more scarce.”

“Recreation, however, is not the outdoors, but our reaction to it. Daniel Boone’s reaction depended not only on the quality of what he saw, but on the quality of the mental eye with which he saw it. … Perception, in short, cannot be purchased with either learned degrees or dollars; it grows at home as well as abroad, and he who has a little may use it to as good advantage as he who has much. As a search for perception, the recreational stampede is footless and unnecessary.”

“There is, lastly, a fifth component: the sense of husbandry. It is unknown to the outdoorsman who works for conservation with his vote rather than with his hands. It is realized only when some art of management is applied to land by some person of perception. That is to say, its enjoyment is reserved for landholders too poor to buy their sport, and land administrators with a sharp eye and an ecological mind. The tourist who buys access to his scenery misses it altogether; so also the sportsman who hires the state, or some underling, to be his gamekeeper.”

“That a sense of husbandry exercised in the production of crops may be quite as important as the crops themselves is realized to some extent in agriculture, but not in conservation.”

“Scientists have an epigram: ontogeny repeats phylogeny. What they mean is that the development of each individual repeats the evolutionary history of the race. This is true of mental as well as physical things. The trophy-hunter is the caveman reborn. Trophy-hunting is the prerogative of youth, racial or individual, and nothing to apologize for.

“The disquieting thing in the modern picture is the trophy-hunter who never grows up, in whom the capacity for isolation, perception, and husbandry is undeveloped, or perhaps lost. He is the motorized ant who swarms the continents before learning to see his own back yard, who consumes but never creates outdoor satisfactions. For him the recreational engineer dilutes the wilderness and artificializes its trophies in the fond belief that he is rendering a public service.”

“The trophy-recreationist has peculiarities that contribute in subtle ways to his own undoing. To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate. … It would appear, in short, that the rudimentary grades of outdoor recreation consume their resource-base; the higher grades, at least to a degree, create their own satisfactions with little or no attrition of land or life. It is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception that threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process. Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

Return to Book Excerpts

A River Runs Through It


Return to Book Excerpts

Excerpts from A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean, 1976
(Download as PDF)

p. 1:  “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing … [Our father] told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fisherman and that John, the favorite, was a  dry-fly fisherman.”

“But he never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the other forgot, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.’ This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful answer should have, and besides he was anxious to be on the hills where he could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing for the evening sermon.”

p. 2:  ” … Paul and I probably received as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as we did in all other spiritual matters.”

“As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word ‘beautiful.’”

“Always it was to be called a rod. If someone called it a pole, my father looked at him as a sergeant in the United States Marines would look at a recruit who had just called a rifle a gun.”

p. 3:  “Well, until man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always overswings with an ax or golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air … Then, since it is natural for man to try to attain power without recovering grace, he whips the line back and forth making it whistle each way …”

p. 4:  “Power comes not from power everywhere, but from knowing where to put it on … To [Father] all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

p. 5:  “‘Izaak Walton,’ [Father] told us when my brother was thirteen or fourteen, ‘is not a respectable writer. He was an Episcopalian and a bait fisherman.’”

p. 6:  “We had to be very careful in dealing with each other. I often thought of him as a boy, but I never could treat him that way. He was never ‘my kid brother.’ He was a master of an art. He did not want any big brother advice or money or help, and, in the end, I could not help him.

“Since one of the earliest things brothers try to find out is how they differ from each other, one of the things I remember longest about Paul is this business about his liking to bet.”

“Paul … had decided this early he had two major purposes in life:  to fish and not to work, at least not allow work to interfere with fishing. … Early, then, he had come close to realizing life’s purposes, which did not conflict in his mind from those given in answer to the first question in The Westminster Catechism.”

p. 7:  “I was tough by being the product of tough establishments – the United States Forest Service and logging camps. Paul was tough by thinking he was tougher than any establishment.”

p. 8:  “We held in common one major theory about street fighting – if it looks like a fight is coming, get in the first punch.”

” … if boyhood questions aren’t answered before a certain point in time, they can’t ever be raised again.”

p. 10:  “I liked [brother-in-law Neal] even less than Paul did, and it’s no pleasure to see your wife’s face on somebody you don’t like.”

“The editor was one of the last small-town editors in the classic school of personal invective. He started drinking early in the morning so he wouldn’t feel sorry for anyone during the day, and he and my brother admired each other greatly.”

p. 11:  “More than most mothers, Scottish mothers have had to accustom themselves to migration and sin, and to them all sons are prodigal and welcome home.”

“And I knew that, having been given his word, I would never get another kick from him.”

p. 13:  “We regarded [the Big Blackfoot River] as a family river, as a part of us, and I surrender it now only with great reluctance to dude ranches, the unselected inhabitants of Great Falls, and the Moorish invaders from California.”

“He also must have felt honor-bound to tell me that he lived other lives, even if he presented them to me as puzzles in the form of funny stories. Often I did not know what I had been told about him as we crossed the divide between our two worlds.”

p. 16:  A roll cast “is a little like a rattlesnake striking, with a good piece of his tail on the ground as something to strike from. All this is easy for a rattlesnake, but has always been hard for me.”

“Then he acted as if he hadn’t said anything and I acted as if I hadn’t heard it, but as soon as he left, which was immediately, I started retrieving my line on a diagonal, and it helped. The moment I felt I was getting a little more distance I ran for a fresh hole to make a fresh start in life.”

p. 17:  “But I couldn’t shake the conviction that I had seen the black back of a big fish, because, as someone often forced to think, I know that often I would not see a thing unless I thought of it first.”

p. 18:  “One great thing about fly fishing is that after a while nothing exists of the world but thoughts about fly fishing. It is also interesting that thoughts about fishing are often carried on in dialogue form where Hope and Fear – or, many times, two Fears – try to outweigh each other.”

“That’s how you know when you have thought too much – when you become a dialogue between You’ll probably lose and You’re sure to lose.

p. 19:  “I thought all these thoughts and some besides that proved of no value, and then I cast and I caught him.”

p. 20:  “Below him was the multitudinous river, and, where the rock had parted it around him, big-grained vapor rose. The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of his line made momentary loops of gossamer, disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapor that they had to be retained in memory to be visualized as loops. The spray emanating from him was finer-grained still and enclosed him in a halo of himself. The halo of himself was always there and always disappearing, as if he were candlelight flickering about three inches from himself. The images of himself and his line kept disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of the sun.”

p. 21:  “He was thirty-two now, at the height of his power, and he could put all his body and soul into a four-and-a-half-ounce magic totem pole.”

p. 22:  “The canyon was glorified by rhythms and colors.”

“She was one of America’s mothers who never dream of using profanity themselves but enjoy their husbands’, and later come to need it, like cigar smoke.”

p. 23:  “‘Besides [Paul is] behind in the big stud poker game at Hot Springs. It’s not healthy to be behind in the big game at Hot Springs. … At Hot Springs they don’t play any child games like fist fighting.’”

p. 24:  “I was confused from trying to rise suddenly from molecules of sleep to an understanding of what I did not want to understand.”

p. 25:  “When her black hair glistened, she was one of my favorite women.”

p 26:  “She was one of the most beautiful dancers I have ever seen. … It is a strange and wonderful and somewhat embarrassing feeling to hold someone in your arms who is trying to detach you from the earth and you aren’t good enough to follow her.”

p. 28:  “Seeing that I was relying on women to explain to myself what I didn’t understand about men …”

“Both [of the uncles] were charming, but you didn’t quite know what if anything you knew when you had finished talking to them.”

“Sunrise is the time to feel that you will be able to find out how to help somebody close to you who you think needs help even if he doesn’t think so. At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear.”

“Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as ‘our brother’s keepers,’ possessed of one of the oldest and possibly one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting of instincts. It will not let us go.”

p. 30:  “My wife was barren of double-talk …”

The Great Northern mascot mountain goat was “the only goat that ever saw the bottom of his world constantly occupied by a bottle of bar whiskey labeled ‘3-7-77′ …”

p. 31:  “They couldn’t get [the sheepherder’s] underwear off – it had been on him so long his hair had grown through it. Finally, they had to pluck him like a chicken, and when his underwear finally came off, pieces of skin came with it.”

p. 32:  “There was something deep in Neal that compelled him to lie to experts, even though they knew best that he was lying. He was one of those who need to be caught telling a lie while he is telling it.”

p. 33:  “I was already wise to the fact that Neal’s opening ploy with women was to ignore them, and indeed was beginning to recognize what a good opening it is.”

p. 34:  “Although the Scots invented whiskey, they try not to acknowledge the existence of hangovers, especially within the family circle.”

p. 36:  “One thing about a ranch road – there is less and less of it the closer it gets to the cows.”

p. 37:  “Something within fishermen tries to make fishing into a world perfect and apart – I don’t know what it is or where, because sometimes it is in my arms and sometimes in my throat and sometimes nowhere in particular except somewhere deep. Many of us probably would be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.

“The hardest thing usually to leave behind, as was the case now, can loosely be called the conscience.”

p. 39:  Eastern Brook Trout “are beautiful to see – black backs, yellow and orange spots on their sides, red bellies ending in under-fins fringed with white. They are compositions in colors, and were often painted on platters. But they are only fairly good fighters and they feel like eels because their scales are so small. Besides, their name is against them in western Montana where the word ‘brook’ is not a socially acceptable substitute for ‘creek.’”

p. 40:  “The Elkhorn looks just like what it is – a crack in the earth to mark where the Rocky Mountains end and the Great Plains begin. The giant mountains are black-backed with nearly the last of mountain pines. Their eastern sides turn brown and yellow as the tall prairie grasses begin, but there are occasional black spots where the pines scatter themselves out to get a last look back. The mythological Brown Trout and the canyon harmonized in my thoughts. The trout that might be real and close at hand was massive, black on the back, yellow and brown on the sides, had black spots and a final fringe of white. The Elkhorn and the Brown Trout are also alike in being beautiful by being partly ugly.”

p. 42:  “… it is not fly fishing if you are not looking for answers to questions.”

p. 43:  “The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiul, even if it is only a floating ash.”

p. 44:  “Poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.”

p. 45:  “That’s one trouble with hanging around a master – you pick up some of his stuff, like how to cast into a bush, but you use it just when the master is doing the opposite.”

p. 46:  “To women who do not fish, men who come home without their limit are failures in life.”

p. 47:  “The storm came on a wild horse and rode over us.”

p. 49:  “The light first picked up [Neal’s] brow, which was serene but pale, as mine would have been if my mother had spent her life in making me sandwiches and protecting me from reality.”

p. 53:  “Sometimes a thing in front of you is so big you don’t know whether to comprehend it by first getting a dim sense of the whole and then fitting in the pieces or by adding up the pieces until something calls out what it is.”

p. 54: ” … I felt about why women are such a bunch of suckers and how they all want to help some bastard like [Neal] – and not me.”

p. 55:  “If you have never seen a bear go over the mountain, you have never seen the job reduced to its essentials. Of course, deer are faster, but not going straight uphill. Not even elk have the power in their hindquarters. Deer and elk zigzag and switchback and stop and pose while really catching their breath. The bear leaves the earth like a bolt of lightning retrieving itself and making its thunder backwards.”

p. 56:  “What a beautiful world it was once. At least a river of it was … What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.”

p. 58:  “In the middle of a heat spell death comes to running water at high noon.”

“There was nothing in the shade but shadows.”

“To one familiar with a subject, there is no trouble to find reasons for the opposite side.”

“The brain gives up a lot less easily than the body, so fly fishermen have developed what they call the ‘curiosity theory,’ which is about what it says it is. It is the theory that fish, like men, will sometimes strike at things just to find out what they are and not because they look good to eat.”

p. 59:  “While this [bobcat] was wet, it was a skinny, meek little thing, but after it got dry and fluffy again and felt sure that it was a cat once more, it turned around, took a look at me, and hissed.”

p. 61:  “Still, I was grateful to get the horse collar [big fat zero] off my neck.”

“I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.”

p. 62:  ” … part of the way to come to know a thing is through its death.”

p. 63:  “It was here, while waiting for my brother, that I started this story, although, of course, at the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books. But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water. And I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness.

“The fisherman even has a phrase to describe what he does when he studies the patterns of a river. He says he is ‘reading the water,’ and perhaps to tell his stories he has to do much the same thing. Then one of his biggest problems is to guess where and at what time of day life lies ready to be taken as a joke. And to guess whether it is going to be a little or a big joke.

“For all of us, though, it is much easier to read the waters of tragedy.”

p. 67:  “You have never really seen an ass until you have seen two sunburned asses on a sandbar in the middle of a river. Nearly all the rest of the body seems to have evaporated. The body is a large red ass about to blister, with hair on one end of it for a head and feet attached to the other end for legs. By tonight, it will run a fever.

“That’s the way it looked then, but, when I view it now through the sentimentality of memory, it belongs to a pastoral world where you could take off your clothes, screw a dame in the middle of the river, then roll over on your belly and go to sleep for a couple of hours.”

p. 74:  “The women I was brought up with never stood around trying on different life styles when there was something to be done, especially something medical.”

p. 75:  “I had long ago learned, sometimes to my sorrow, that Scottish piety is accompanied by a complete foreknowledge of sin. That’s what we mean by original sin – we don’t have to do it to know about it.”

p. 76:  “A man is at a disadvantage talking to a woman as tall as he is, and I had tried long and hard to overcome this handicap.”

p. 77:  Then Jessie added, “Tell me, why is it that people who want help do better without it – at least, no worse. Actually, that’s what it is, no worse. They take all the help they can get, and are just the same as they always have been.”

p. 78:  “Actually, I was feeling lordly with love and several times broke into laughter that I can’t explain otherwise …”

“Mother was excited when we got to Missoula. She tried to wring her hands in her apron, hug Paul, and laugh, all at the same time.”

p. 79:  “Somewhere along the line she had forgotten that it was I who liked chokecherry jelly, a gentle confusion that none of her men minded.”

p. 81:  “Help,” [Father] said, “is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. So it is,” he said, using an old homilectic transition, “that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, ‘Sorry, we are just out of that part.’”

p. 82:  “Usually, I get up early t observe the commandment observed by only some of us – to arise early to see as muchof the Lord’s daylight as is given to us.”

Mother “knew nothing about fishing or fishing tackle, but she knew how to find things, even when she did not know what they looked like.”

p. 84:  “The flat ended suddenly and the river was down a steep bank, blinking silver through the trees and then turning to blue by comparing itself to a red and green cliff.”

p. 85:  “Big clumsy flies bumped into my face, swarmed on my neck and wiggled in my underwear. Blundering and soft-bellied, they had been born before they had brains. They had spent a year under water on legs, had crawled out on a rock, had become flies and copulated with the ninth and tenth segments of their abdomens, and then had died as the first light wind blew them into the water where the fish circled excitedly. They were a fish’s dream come true – stupid, succulent, and exhausted from copulation. Still, it would be hard to know what gigantic portion of human life is spent in this same ratio of years under water on legs to one premature, exhausted moment on wings.”

p. 88:  “So, on this wonderful afternoon when all things came together it took me one cast, one fish, and some reluctantly accepted advice to attain perfection. I did not miss another.”

p. 90:  “It seems somehow natural to start thinking about character when you get ahead of somebody, especially about the character of the one who is behind.”

p. 92:  “All there is to thinking,” [Paul] said, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

p. 94:  “They made ten, and the last three were the finest fish I ever caught. They weren’t the biggest or most spectacular fish I ever caught, but they were three fish I caught because my brother waded across the river to give me the fly that would catch them and because they were the last fish I ever caught fishing with him.”

p. 95:  “The voices of the subterranean river in the shadows were different from the voices of the sunlit river ahead. In the shadows against the cliff the river was deep and engaged in profundities, circling back on itself now and then to say things over to be sure it had understood itself. But the river ahead came out into the sunny world like a chatterbox, doing its best to be friendly. It bowed to one shore and then to the other so nothing would feel neglected.”

p. 100:  “It never occurred to either of us to hurry to the shore in case he needed help with a rod in his right hand and a basket loaded with fish on his left shoulder. In our family it was no great thing for a fisherman to swim a river with matches in his hair.”

p. 101:  “At the end of this day, then, I remember him both as a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter.”

p. 102:  “In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us.”

Mother “was never to ask me a question about the man she loved most and understood least. Perhaps she knew enough to know that for her it was enough to have loved him. He was probably the only man in the world who had held her in his arms and leaned back and laughed.”

p. 103:  “Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting.”

“No,” I replied, “but you can love completely without complete understanding.”

“How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?”

p. 104:  “Then he asked, ‘After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it? Only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.’”

“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.”

“Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythym and the hope that a fish will rise.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

“I am haunted by waters.”

Riding the White Horse Home


Return to Book Excerpts

Excerpts from Riding the White Horse Home, by Teresa Jordan, 1993
(Download as PDF)

p.12:  “If I had only been to the Point one time, I would never forget it. Such expansiveness shapes the synapses in irreversible ways.”

p. 14:  Baker Brownell, The Human Community:  “Our little century of escape is about over.”

p. 16:  Lewis Hyde, The Gift:  “The spirit of a community or collective can be wiped out, tradition can be destroyed. We tend to think of genocide as the physical destruction of a race or group, but the term may be aptly expanded to include the obliteration of the genius of a group, the killing of its creative spirit.”

p. 21:  “My grandfather disliked children and cats. He was a grand old ranchman who pulled his boots on first and his britches after, who never went outside without a hat. He chain-smoked Camels, pinched between thumb and middle finger or dangling from the corner of his mouth. Sunny – even my brother and I called him by his nickname – would never have held a smoke ‘like a goddamned dilettante,’ between two outstretched fingers, and he flicked the butts a good ten yards after stubbing them out.”

p. 26:  “As one historian has suggested, history is what we remember; personal history, I suspect, is what we want to believe.”

p. 31:  “Owen Wister described his character Lin McLean as ‘not only a good man, but a man …’ … A miner in Butte, Montana, once described another worker similarly:  ‘He was a big man, more powerful than he himself really knew. He could do things.’

Not only a good man, but a man. He could do things. These simple words capture much of what I respect most about my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and the other men who surrounded my upbringing. They could do things. Any one of them could feed four hundred cattle, day after day, alone in a Wyoming winter, build a house from stone they had quarried themselves, or line out a dozen miles of irrigation ditch at a 1 percent grade with only a thirty-six-inch measure and a hundred-yard length of chain.”

p. 32:  “The history of the West is the story of cooperation, not isolation. As the Western historian Bernard De Voto has quipped, the only true rugged individualists were usually found dangling from a rope held by a group of cooperating citizens.

“As important to my grandfather as his reputation as a good cattleman was his name as a good neighbor. Still, he was shaped by a primitivist urge, by a belief that his father had done it all alone and so should he. He was quick to offer help, uneasy when he needed it in return. By some twist of logic, community was commendable, but should flow only one way.”

“There are a few rules to ranching that mustn’t be broken. One is that you rise at five-thirty each morning… A second rule is that ranchers don’t take vacations.”

p. 34:  “I have a rancher friend, a man, who suggests that the West can be understood as the history of fathers fighting sons.”

p. 35:  Along with these physical skills, I learned early what most women raised on ranches know:  that it’s easier to be a rancher’s daughter than a rancher’s son. Pushed off into the eddies of family history, we don’t have to strong-arm the rapids.”

p. 37:  Alexis de Tocqueville:  “[Americans] owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

p. 37:  “When we see ourselves or our kin measuring up short of the legends that shape us, disappointments turn into blame – of a government that interferes, of a wife who would make us move, of a son who isn’t ‘rugged’ enough, of a father who chooses not to ranch forever. Unable to accept our own shortcomings or forgive those of our kin, we orphan ourselves within the solitude of our own hearts.”

p. 44:  “There are memories in kneading – and in smoking and drinking – as there are in anything repetitive.”

p. 65:  “… a ranch is closer to the preindustrial model in which home, family, and work are inseparable.”

p. 71:  “Don’t we all believe, at some level, that our elders know something they will someday reveal? And how many of us go to our graves without ever knowing what it was, without ever passing it on to our own children?”

p. 78:  “I’d like to think that my shame was a product purely of adolescence and my own insecurity, but there was something deep and cultural to it, a subtle but pervasive contempt not only for the rural but for anything small or local. … Our success seemed tied to how completely we severed the ties with home. … With maturity, most of us have come to profess a certain fondness for Cheyenne, but the shame – or, more accurately, the assumption of our carefully educated superiority – is still there in subtle ways.”

p. 80:  “That child in me that yearned to venture forth into the brilliant and mysterious world has always been rewarded. But the child that wanted to come home makes me feel ashamed.”

“Thomas Jefferson thought of education as a gift. A person would leave home to become educated and then return with the gift of that learning. The new knowledge would benefit the community and the student would continue to receive from that community the deeper, older education of place. It was an exchange that went both ways. A classically educated person would learn from the great literature of the world and also from the land.

“But we tend to think of education more as a commodity, as something that we buy and pay for and consequently own, something that does not carry obligation but rather releases us from it. We tend, too, to value a person not for what she knows through experience in the world or through self-directed study, but for what she has learned in the sanctified halls of learning, her professional credentials.”

p. 81:  David Lebedoff, 1978 Esquire article, “The Dangerous Arrogance of the New Elite”

p. 82:  “Coyote, that old trickster, is the master of disguises, the emperor of irony, ‘the great culture bringer who can also make mischief beyond belief.’”

p. 84:  “Does it always make sense to kill snakes? No. Will I kill another snake? Not thoughtlessly. But can I go home again with a different attitude about killing snakes? Ahh, that’s the problem.”

p. 92:  “[My neighbors] are like family to me, a connection not by progeny but by proximity, as close a tie out here in this vast arid land as genetics.”

p. 93:  “At eighty-six, Merrill is thin and wiry and leather-skinned … He also says he’d like to jack up his head and run a new body under it.”

p. 108:  “We mid-wife these calves into existence, we care for them, sometimes we even risk our lives for them, and they are ultimately slated for slaughter. In this fact lies the essential irony of our work.”

p. 112:  “In my life in the city, I work long days. I break up the hours at my desk or in the classroom with long hikes in the woods near my home, with bicycling, with gardening. Physical activity keeps me grounded in my body; time outdoors keeps me aware of the seasons. And yet here, in the country, is the real work, the interweave of man and animal, weather and land, that is as old as appetite. Here, physical exertion matters. It keeps me aware of what it means to be alive, and what it costs.”

p. 117:  “And like other occupations that depend on the body yet place it constantly in peril, cattle ranching breeds an attitude toward danger of both reverence and disdain.”

p. 120:  “You did what you had to and went on. Accommodation, not much talked about, was key. … A cowhand’s walk, shaped by years of damage and recovery, is a study in accommodation. The body cants forward from the waist, the lower back fuses, the hips stiffen, the walk becomes awkward, the head seems to settle into the shoulders. ‘It’s a kink in the neck,’ one old-timer told me, trying to describe his own gait, ‘and a limp in every limb.’”

p. 121:  “The psychology of accommodation is letting things go. … The ability to mine calamity for punch lines may be the most important accommodation of all.”

p. 124:  “Ranchers walk up to most bones. They look physical danger right in the eye and don’t blink. But there are other bones that scare them. For my family, the pile we shied away from was grief. Everything in my background prepared me to deal with physical pain. Nothing prepared me for emotional loss.”

p. 166:  “Every ranch wears a patina of stories about the men and women who once worked there.”

p. 168:  “[The cook] was still pretty tight when my father drove her to town and she cussed him the whole way. ‘You’re so dumb,’ she yelled at one point, ‘you couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the directions were writ on the heel.’”

p. 171:  J. Dobie’s measure of a man:  “The best you can say is he’s good to his horse and the worst you can say is he ain’t.”

p. 174:  “‘A baler’s like a woman,’ he once told me, ‘awful touchy. Treat her gentle, though, and everything is sweet.’”

p. 176:  Men on skid row, filled with men like Kelley:  “He was flawed, but he had dignity, he had skills and artistry, he paid his own way. There was a place for him in the country; there is no place for him now.”

p. 187:  Carolyn Heilbrun: “And courtship itself is, as often as not, an illusion:  that is, the woman must entrap the man to ensure herself a center for her life. The rest is aging and regret.”

“My grandmother did not put her husband at the center of her life; she never put anyone at the center of her life except herself. She was criticized for this; she was also dreadfully unhappy and she made everyone around her unhappy as well.”

p. 190:  “I always had the feeling that Effie was angry at the world for not making her happy; I was angry at Effie for not making herself happy. I realize now that she didn’t have the slightest idea what she wanted. Nothing she had seen or heard told her that her happiness was her own responsibility or that, if the conventional life did not satisfy her, she should search for one that did. No wonder she was crotchety.”

p. 191:  John Briggs, Fire in the Crucible:  “Most often, however, the prodigy’s special spark is ‘lost’ because it finds no tinder …”

“My grandmother was not a prodigy, but coincidence is necessary for more modest talents as well. Whatever embers she possessed fell in a desert where they did not extinguish so much as smolder until they marked her and everything she touched.”

p. 195:  “Lives don’t serve as models, Heilbrun reminded us, only stories do.”

p. 203:  “It was too much to offer, too much to ask for, too much to accept – in short, the custom of the country.”

p. 204:  “Perhaps the greatest gift of ceremony is its potential to gather together all the parts of a life.”

The Meadow


Return to Book Excerpts

Excerpts from The Meadow, by James Galvin, 1992
(Download as PDF)

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sund
in an hour before the sun’s going down

whose secret we see in a children’s game
or ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

–Robert Duncan

p. 3: “The real world goes like this: The Neversummer Mountains like a jumble of broken glass. Snowfields weep slowly down. Chambers Lake, ringed by trees, gratefully catches the drip in its tin cup, and gives the mountains their own reflection in return. This is the real world, indifferent, unburdened.”

p. 4: “Only one of them succeeded in making a life here, for almost fifty years. He weathered. Before a backdrop of natural beauty, he lived a life from which everything was taken but a place. He lived so close to the real world it almost let him in.”

p. 11: “He never quit from last star to first, proving that the price of independence is slavery.”

p. 13: “Lyle admires coyotes for more or less the same reasons others hate them. To begin with, the average coyote is smarter than the average human. That is why it’s so difficult to trap them, and why they haven’t gone the way of wolves. Then there’s their toughness and uncompromising independence: if by some lapse in attention one is caught in a trap, off comes the offending limb and he’s on his way.

“As the price of defiance they have to work harder than most animals just to stay alive. They live mostly on mice and insects. When they are lucky or clever enough to come up with something bigger they are overcome with joy and love for one another. They rhapsodize. They harmonize their loneliness and sorrow and they don’t care who likes it.”

p. 15: “Ray says, ‘You can admire a coyote – he’s an outlaw, but it’s damned hard to admire a sheep.’”

p. 18: “Somehow that coyote had figured out how to make a living in his diminished condition. Both wounds were old. His coat was healthy, not starved-looking or mangy. Apparently he was perfectly hapy to go on suffering if that’s what life was for, though he probably didn’t mind being shot by Oscar that much either.”

p. 19: “Lyle wsa born in a house made of dirt. Kind of like a grave with a roof on it.”

“… the first Europeans who saw it called a desert. It was the kind of place where you’d think only the poorest and most desperate sonofabitch with an overactive imagination and a zealous trust in benevolent powers of a higher nature would even sit down to rest, let alone live, back then, before irrigation turned it green. You’d have to be adaptable as an Eskimo or dumb as a snake to want to call it home.”

p. 22: “This is a horse that wouldn’t break into a trot if you dipped his tail in coal oil and lit it.”

p. 24: “When we think of our lives as what we have done, memory becomes a museum with one long shelf on which we arrange a bric-a-brac of deeds, each to his own liking. Lyle doesn’t think of his life as what he has done, or what was done to him. He has no use for blame.”

p. 27: “The illusion of land ownership creates a cheap workforce in the fields: people who often pay more than they are paid to work, as we say, like slaves. But, oh, they are rich in illusions of independence, and they are also very proud, which is not an illusion.”

p. 34: “… the blizzard’s white is traded for equal depth of blackness. Night without the sky. App is no longer sure where they are, but figures they have to keep going. At a certain point you keep going to see what happens next.”

p. 39: “…Ray loved his father with a distillate of admiration and trust so pure it would shrivel the Devil if you sprinkled it on him.”

p. 62: “… Shirley, Frank’s wife, started gathering her strength as if it were a crop of hay she needed to see her through a winter that was going to last the rest of her life. Frank had a kind of cancer that no one gets over …”

p. 75: “Lyle stubs his smoke and says [to a coyote], ‘Better keep moving’, you little bastard. It’s cold and your ass is soaked. You fell through the ice and got drenched just to catch some goddamn disgusting muskrat that you are going to eat raw while you shiver yourself dry, and you think that’s something to be proud of. Well here’s to you, you puffed up little bastard. You can have it. You’re a fool to survive if that’s all your life is for. But I’ll say one thing for you. You’re tougher than a pine knot, by God. There’s no denying you are on tough little hombre.”

p. 77: “Soon the trout began to trail back, lazily toying with the currents the way hawks and ravens play with updrafts and breezes.”

p. 80: “… and plaid winter caps called Scotch caps of every description and hue, some of them blinding, as though somebody killed a mess of ugly couches and made hats out of them.”

“I hear the drone of the cows and calves moaning for each other, and the low chiaroscuro tones of Frank and Clay talking in the next room.”

p. 84: “It had been a summery October and the first snow had fainted away so fast it was like the perfume of a passing girl.”

p. 85: “Things seemed to have a way of going haywire, as if there were some other kind of gravity in the world that pulled things in the wrong direction …”

p. 88: Ray: “When I get down to hell I’ve got a few questions for that Devil, real sticklers, like how come they let people into this world when it would have been perfect without them. I mean if you imagine the natural world without the human race, you are thinking of something perfect, perfectly balanced, that just keeps going. Only thing as messes it up is the people. Especially when they try to manage things.”

p. 90: “Those jackasses actually believe it when the realtors tell them they’ll be able to get in here all winter and the creeks run high all summer and that the price of land will rise forever. They are going to build ugly things down there where we’ve been looking at nothing so long we’re addicted to it. We won’t be able to see the mountains for the junk they are going to strew down there.”

p. 95: “the business slowly died … because Ray couldn’t bring himself to charge any more than slightly less than what would have been fair, especially to anyone he know, and he knew everyone in town.”

p. 101: Watching Bert land an airplane: “I could see his jaw muscles bunching, and his knuckles were white as sugar cubes when he clattered past me at eye level.”

p. 102: Ray, turning down a chance to fly over the countryside: “Bert, I’ve spent my whole life on this mountain, and I just don’t think I can stand to see it look small.”

p. 103: “One of the things modern medicine has managed to do besides turning hospitals into churches and doctors into priests, is to infect the culture with the foreknowledge of distantly imminent death, something human beings don’t really have it in them to cope with. What I mean is, we are supposed to live knowing we are going to die; we are not supposed to live knowing when.”

p. 105: “Frank said, ‘Boys, to me, seafood is a cow standing in the stock pond.’”

p. 106: “‘I thought Ray didn’t want a funeral service.’ Bert said, ‘He didn’t, but Ray’s dead.’ I said, ‘How can Margie do this?’ Bert said, ‘She ain’t dead.’”

p. 128: “He never quite prospered but he made it to comfortable.”

p. 129: “You can tell a lot about someone by how they make things, but you can’t tell everything by it.”

“Pat lived where I live now. He made this house. He preferred the company of stars. I try to imagine his solitude. I try to imagine his loneliness, his endurance. I finger the leather binding on an old pair of snowshoes.”

p. 131: “In defense of whatever happens next, the navy of flat-bottomed popcorn clouds steams over like they are floating down a river we’re under.”

p. 148: “Virga is when rain falls and fails to reach the earth, beautiful and useless as the vista it elaborates. Most angels aren’t allowed to touch the ground.”

p. 149: “No, you have to do it that way because that’s how the old-timers done it. The biggest log goes on last.”

p. 159: “Except in the rare instance of an App Worster, who preferred the absence of people to the people themselves, whenever you see someone living that far from human society, human scrutiny, chances are they are not so much hiding as hiding out. Chances are they are temporary. The best thing for App to do was to save his money, since he’d have to buy the place now, if not from the homesteaders then from the bank. That was number one. Number two was to find a wife, since a man who likes solitude doesn’t necessarily like loneliness, and the help would be a plus.”

“There was a girl in Laramie who gave App that same tuning fork feeling in his chest whenever he saw her …”

p. 167: “… and were greeted warmly and without prejudice by the old ‘hermit’ who lived in the emerald valley and whose eyes were the color of the farthest peaks you could see from the ridge top.”

p. 168: “The Watchtower started coming in the mail and the Witnesses sent him a rescue team of three pretty women; the oldest forty and the youngest fourteen. They brought him sweet rolls and they giggled a lot and they sure hoped he’d drive down country one day before it was too late and have his soul saved by Revered So and So. When they left, Lyle said, ‘What a waste of perfectly all right womanflesh.’”

p. 169: “He smiled wide, showing them the gold linings in his teeth. He said, ‘That water is so cold, Preachers, it’d make your old balls draw up to where you’d never find ‘em again.’ And he just kept smiling as they swept up their pamphlets, bobbed a hurried thanks for coffee, and fled.”

p. 181: “Lyle came out of his seat as if he’d been catapulted. He said, ‘That sure puts rabbits in your feet, don’t it?’ and he took my sister by the hand and they clogged around the room a couple of times together. When the song was over she gave him a big hug and he sat down in his chair with an expression like he’d been shot between the eyes.”

p. 193: “The first of June came and the fence just lay there like a strafed parade.”

“Lyle lit into Bill with volume and purpose, chewed him up one side and down the other, calling him a lazy, good-for-nothing stump not worth the powder to blow it to hell sitting there in his goddamned string tie and town duds, letting another man do his work for him.”

p. 202: “Scraps of cloth, tongues of worn-out work boots, bits of wire, buttons, bent nails, recipes, magazine articles, gunnysacks – Lyle never threw out anything that might someday have a use. He didn’t have it in him. It was partly the result of being raised in poverty (‘You never outgrow the way you grew up,’ he said), but I know Lyle thought of his own being the same way (like one of those boot tongues or scraps of wire). He thought, someday, probably after he died, his own purpose might finally be revealed to him.”

p. 203: Lyle: “Did you know that the first line in Hamlet is the same, outside of not being in Spanish, as Billy the Kid’s last words? Well, it is.”

p. 214: “In 1949 Lyle’s brother, Bob, had a hard time with horses. Mowing hay they spooked at a jackrabbit and took out about a hundred feet of fence. Bob was pretty thoroughly sanded down, not hurt bad anyplace, but hurt not bad everyplace. That same fall he and Lyle were skidding out sawlogs when the horses bolted and dragged Bob by the reins on a whirlwind tour of the forest floor. He broke a rib. That’s why Lyle went to tractors, though anytime you are around turning gears and sickle bars you have to count your fingers pretty regularly. You have to Pay Attention. I don’t have enough fingers to count the fellows I know who have lost some of theirs, mostly either from farm machinery or roping. Almost anything Lyle did was hazardous, and after his brothers were gone he mostly worked alone: felling trees with chainsaws; balancing on the top log of a barn; hewing with an axe so sharp that a couple of fingers or toes wouldn’t even slow it down; or just out fencing – old wire can snap under the stretcher and come at you like a snake, or lay open the side of your face like a stiletto.”

p. 215: “Lyle learned to pay attention, to think things through and not get ahead of himself, not to lapse into inattention ever. After a while he couldn’t not pay attention, shaking a stranger’s hand, tasting Mrs. So and So’s pickles, setting fenceposts. It endowed all his actions with precision. It gave him total recall. It obliterated time.”

p. 224: “If Lyle’s mood was good, Ed’d sit and visit. If not, he’s just leave. No sense in getting chewed on by some pissed hermit. Those of us who’d known Lyle longer knew he didn’t have moods, he had weather. Not some inner weather that could have been a mood – Lyle had the weather. Inside him he had going on exactly what was going on in the sky, or some combination of recent weather and what was likely to develop.”

“That high in the mountains a man lives less on the land than in the sky. After forty years the weather had all the bearing. It’s like the drive train in a car, going through the differential and turning the wheels. Oh, I know everyone’s moods are affected by weather, but with no one around to put him in a mood, and his own actions honed down to rightness, Lyle just had straight weather inside and out.”

p. 225: “We say the meadow is in the clouds when really clouds are in the meadow. We say steam rises out of the creek like it’s turning its soul loose turning inside out and it is.”

Return to Book Excerpts