THE BOOK: Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West
PUBLISHED IN: 2017
THE AUTHOR: Robert Leonard Reid
THE EDITOR: Oriana Leckert
THE PUBLISHER: Counterpoint Press
SUMMARY: Because It Is So Beautiful is a collection of nineteen essays, fifteen of which have appeared in earlier books of mine, four of which are new. Each essay centers on the majesty and wonder of the American West, and each inquires into the central theme of the collection, namely, the duality of nature. My favorite quick explanation of “the duality of nature” comes from Edward Abbey, the great poet of the Southwest, who was once asked by a tourist if he could identify a certain plant the tourist was admiring. Said Abbey: “Well, people call it creosote. But what it is, no one knows.”
THE BACK STORY: As a man who once earned a degree in mathematics (by the skin of my teeth, I should admit), I for a long time looked at unexplained phenomena as something like genial trout lollygagging in the sun and waiting patiently for some passing logician to throw in a line and haul them out. Today I suspect I was only about half right. Climbing mountains for a quarter century softened me up by introducing me to the melodies and hues of the natural world; opening my heart to the enchantments of the American West finished the job. I do not argue for a rejection of reason in favor of transcendence, rather for an incorporation of both in any effort to understand the world. Surely, scientists should strive to answer every question that presents itself to them. They would be well-advised, too, to read self-help manuals on how to handle disappointment and failure, to prepare themselves for the day when they complete their grand explication of the universe and discover that half of its pages are still blank.
WHY THIS TITLE?: “Because It Is So Beautiful” derives from something Barry Lopez said in a talk he gave many years ago, something that had a profound impact on my understanding of myself as a writer. I tell the story of that event in the first essay in the book.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? I think the ideal reader would be someone who understands that scientists are doing important, crucial work on understanding global warming, resource depletion, the origin of the universe, and a hundred other areas of importance—and who, nevertheless, sense somewhere down deep that science can never explain aesthetics, ethics, values, quality, form, feeling, motives, intensions, soul, consciousness, spirit, and a hundred areas of importance. (I owe the list to the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing).
“Calling Robert Reid an outdoor writer is like calling Thoreau a writer about pond camping … Reid has been writing classic American essays full of Twain-like humor and Emersonian moral force for forty years now. In this collection we find him in his calmly formidable prime.” — Robert Roper, author of Nabokov in America and winner of the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.
“These 19 selected essays by Robert Leonard Reid are stirring, witty, gorgeously written paeans to the wilderness. It’s a wonderful, must-read collection.” — Ron Hansen, National Book Award finalist, author of Mariette in Ecstasy and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
“With lyricism, charm, and trenchant observations, [Reid] inspires readers to meditate on the importance of being alive, of being responsible for the landscapes we inhabit.” — – Sascha Feinstein, author of Misterioso, winner of the Hayden Carruth Award in Poetry
AUTHOR PROFILE: As many who are reading this already know, it’s hard to make a buck as a writer. (An aside: More than half of the books published in the United States last year were written by twenty people—Steel, King, Patterson; you know who they are. The other half were written by the other million or so of us.) I’m a member of the other million or so. Over a 35-year period, I’ve written ten books and published five, published some 100 magazine articles, essays, and short stories, and seen produced four works for the theater. My average annual income from this quite respectable output has been around $1600. (No, I didn’t leave off a zero.) I write because I can’t not write. I write to honor a great man, a painter whom I was fortunate to know many years ago. When I told him I was going to quit teaching high school math and become a writer he sent me a note that said the following: “You may not compromise. You may do nothing less than heroic work. You bear the mantle of Whitman and Dickinson. You sail the great waters with Dante and Milton. You must be the best goddamned writer who ever lived.” Oh, about that annual income: For most of the aforementioned 35 years, I’ve written the stuff I love to write from 5 a.m. to 8 or 9. The rest of the day I’ve earned a living as a freelance mathematics textbook writer.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: No one who reads Because It Is So Beautiful will be surprised to learn that I despair of the assault on America’s wildlands that has begun under the current regime in Washington, and which will continue for at least three more years. I’ll be writing about this issue as well as related issues in my twice-a-month blog, “Four-Fold Visions of the American West.” You’ll find it on my website http://www.robertleonardreid.com/blog. Recent posts address captive breeding of California condors, Bear Ears National Monument, and the death of my 15-year-old golden retriever, Goldie.
[Late May, a campsite in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. The site is bounded on one side by the Kongakut River, now rampaging in spring runoff, and on the others by several smaller streams. My friend Shaun Griffin and I call our habitat “the island.”]
Above the Kongakut, gulls endlessly patrolled the air space, cool and cocky as top guns. Never were more than two or three of the birds to be seen, but rarely was there a time when, glancing toward the bare hillside on the far side of the river, I didn’t have my view momentarily tweaked by the sight of one of them slipping diagonally across my field of vision.
Gulls I knew, but most of the birds that inhabited the island were new to me. Northern Alaska is the Grand Central Station of the bird world. Millions of birds representing some seventy species visit each summer from around the globe—semipalmated sandpipers from Brazil, bluethroats from India, smews from Russia, northern wheatears from Egypt, wandering tattlers from New Zealand, loons and pipits from the American Midwest. Birds like Alaska.
Because the island is a spell north of tree line, the birds that summer there must build their nests on the ground. Tramping about, I had to watch my step for fear of accidentally crushing a clutch of eggs beneath my boots. Several times I unintentionally walked too close to a nest. Suddenly I was aware of a screeching sound, then a pesky dive-bomber-of-a-thing strafing my head and making repeated runs at my nose and ears. Not ten yards from the campsite, a semipalmated plover contrived for herself a nest of pebbles and dead grasses. In it she deposited four lovely brown-speckled eggs. So successfully were she and her digs camouflaged that several days passed before I stumbled onto the nest.
It was a valiant life she led. Rain, snow, foxes, photographers: they meant nothing to her. Because her headquarters were so close to our camp, it was inevitable that several times a day one of us would pass nearby. Each time, she put up a terrible fuss and rose fiercely to defend her nest. Pulling herself up as tall as she could (not very tall, as it happened; maybe six inches), rocking back and forth from one foot to the other, she dared the intruder to take another step. Such courage! A human being must look like a battleship to a plover. She held her ground successfully, and the last time I saw her she was still at her post, her eggs and her resolve unbroken.
Except for a few year-round residents—ptarmigan, ravens, snowy owls—the birds on the island had traveled great distances to get there, none more so than the Arctic terns. Shaun and I found a pair of them nesting not five minutes from our campsite. The two had appropriated a snarl of sticks and twigs that looked as though it had probably begun life as part of a very disorderly shrub upriver, then got swept away, finally running aground on a spit of sand and gravel at the island’s edge. The nest reminded me of Le Corbusier’s famous church of Notre-Dame-du-Haut in France; it had the
same curvy boat shape sweeping up to a peak at one end, the same sense of the calm and the primitive teetering on the edge of chaos.
In such a place the terns settled down to a short but event-filled residency. She was a beautiful thing, and both of them knew it. The male worked his tail feathers off for her. Not yet having laid her eggs, she spent most of her time perched very still and regally on the steeple of the church, pretending not to know her mate. Terns are of the same lineage as gulls but generally smaller — perhaps a foot in length. The Arctic model wears a trendy black beret down to its eyes; below, the head is white. The bill is a nasty-looking red dagger as long as the bird’s head. The breast, back, and wings are mostly gray. The tail is long and narrow; in flight it opens into a two-pronged fork.
What a fuss the female’s partner made, and what he wouldn’t do for her! Hour after hour he took to the air in search of insects, small fish, snacks and desserts of every description. North and south he prowled, east and west, long angel wings carving marvelous love letters in the sky. Spotting a delicious minnow in the river below he would hover for a few seconds, reading his instruments, furiously beating off gravity with his wings. Then he would fold them and drop like a flaming arrow to the water.
He rarely came up empty. Obviously pleased with himself, trophy dangling from his bill like a hipster’s cigarette, he rose into the air. He always took the long way home—three or four extended swings across the river, swooping down at the right moment on each pass so that his mate would see him cutting his fancy route. She, of course, feigned indifference—but was anyone fooled? Hardly! On his arrival home she shivered like a bumblebee. But the drama was not yet over: now he would hover above his darling, his back arched, his wings pumping, and she would look straight up and crank open her bill, and he would look straight down and take aim, and then—bingo! —he would poke his catch into her mouth, as though it were his tongue and they had just discovered French kissing.
Sometimes the lady’s beauty and the male’s excitement and their pleasure in each other overcame them, and he would mount her and flutter above her, and she would flutter below, both of them quite flushed with passion. As far as I could tell, this orgy of spooning and feeding and fluttering and carrying on continued twenty-four hours a day. They were quite a pair; they knew how to enjoy life.
What they had done to reach their cozy love nest by the river defies reason, common sense, and quite possibly the Second Law of
Thermodynamics. The annual migration of the Arctic tern is one of nature’s great stupefactions. The birds summer in the Arctic. They winter a world away, in the pack ice off Antarctica. Twice a year they fly from one end of the earth to the other, some eleven thousand miles in each direction; with added mileage for normal deviations from a straight line, each bird logs close to twenty-five thousand miles annually. That is a distance equal to the circumference of the earth. Arctic terns have been found wearing leg bands placed twenty-five years before. A twenty-five-year-old tern must have seen some two-thirds of a million miles pass beneath its wings—to the moon and back and then some. All this by a creature weighing no more than a bran muffin.
How to understand such a journey? It seems to me that the migration of the Arctic tern is most usefully viewed not as a record-setting flight, or an oddity of nature, or one stage in the life cycle of an interesting bird, but rather as a work of epic poetry—The Odyssey of migrations. Understanding the journey—no, not understanding it: glimpsing it, tentatively, distantly, imperfectly—requires not a map or an odometer but an imagination, the more fanciful the better. After all, beyond mileages and flight times—beyond what one might learn in Guinness World Records 2016—we know nothing. We have no photographs of Arctic terns in clouds. We do not know if they sing while they fly, or if they chant tern-ish chants. We do not know if they fly in a vee or in a straight line, or in long-swoops left and right, or in roller-coaster curves up and down. We do not know if they travel with other birds who happen to be going their way—sandpipers, say, or cranes—and we do not know how far they fly each day, and we do not know how they apportion their time. Do they fly for a few hours, then stop somewhere to feed for a while, like most birds? Or do they fly for days before taking a breather? We do not know.
Imagine them over the coast of British Columbia. Do they fly in tens or twenties or hundreds, or do they fly alone, each bird miles from its neighbors? How high do they fly? Small birds sometimes fly as low as two hundred feet on their migration paths; we could see them if we looked up, which we don’t. Big birds fly higher, a mile or two or three.
A mountain climber in Nepal did look up and was amazed to see a goose flying over Mount Everest. That’s up there. Arctic terns are medium-size birds, so you would expect them to fly one or two miles up. But they fly so much farther than other birds—maybe they fly higher too! Maybe they fly
in the stratosphere, at the altitude of test pilots and ozone holes. I know, there’s not enough oxygen up there to keep a bird alive. But this isn’t just a bird, it’s an Arctic tern! Maybe they store oxygen in the hollow quills of their tail feathers, and sip it when they get thirsty. There are big advantages to flying in the stratosphere. It’s less crowded up there than it is down below with the riffraff. Plus, you can see Antarctica sooner. Imagine them over Peru. Peru! A storm front is ahead. Do they see it? Do they care? Perhaps they’ll fly above it. Perhaps they’ll fly through it. What’s it like in a storm cloud? Is it cold? Is it eerily silent? Is it dark and scary? Do Arctic terns worry about falling behind schedule when they’re flying through storm clouds? No one knows.
Imagine them over Patagonia. What do they do to pass the hours? Film director Stanley Kubrick once speculated that dolphins spend their free time solving complex mathematical theorems. Do Arctic terns play games or write poetry or find new solutions to the longitude problem? They would be good at that. In any case, no one knows.
Bulletin! We know this: Arctic terns love the sun. Arctic terns know the sun better than any creature on earth. The birds summer in the Arctic, where the sun is above the horizon twenty-four hours a day. They winter in the Antarctic, where the sun is above the horizon twenty-four hours a day. Late in the summer, as the long days begin to move south from the Arctic, Arctic terns move with them, following the light. Late in the winter, as the long days begin to move north from the Antarctic, Arctic terns move with them, following the light. As bats and worms spend their lives in darkness, Arctic terns spend their lives in light. They go where the light goes. Does this explain their inexplicable journey—that they love the light? No one knows.
Years ago, when I first imagined that I might someday like to write a book, I came up with a vegetable-stew-of-an-idea for a novel that involved Arctic terns, the legendary blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson, and the notion that Earth is a spaceship forever crisscrossing the cosmos, calling at various interesting destinations as it goes. As I saw it, Arctic terns would symbolize the indomitable spirit, Robert Johnson would symbolize art, and Starship Earth would symbolize the hope for eternal life. It all made sense until you tried to write a novel about it. Mine, if I had ever written it, which I didn’t, would have been all symbols. It represented everything: struggle, hope, art, life, death (what else is there?)— and so it represented pretty much nothing.
What I had was more a novel idea than an idea for a novel. It happened
that, at the time, I was interested in Arctic terns, I was interested in Robert Johnson, and I was interested in space travel; so I tossed the three willy-nilly into my stew and figured that that was how you outlined a book. But when I tried to turn my outline into pages and chapters, I had no idea what to do. I had no characters and no plot. I couldn’t find a single connection among my themes. My novel collapsed under its own weightlessness.
I hadn’t thought about the book for years. One day as I watched my beautiful, giddy terns whooping it up beside the Kongakut, I suddenly recalled my masterpiece in all its weirdness. It occurred to me that the reason the project had foundered wasn’t the lack of a plot or of characters or of connections among its themes; it was that I had chosen the wrong form for my material. What I’d dreamed up wasn’t a novel at all. It was a song. What’s more, someone else had dreamed it up before me. His name was Robert Johnson, and the song was “Honeymoon Blues.” It was about spirit, art, and the hope for eternal life. Johnson wrote it during the 1930s. He recorded it in 1937, six years before I was born.
Robert Johnson spent the bulk of his brief and mostly unlucky life (he died at the age of twenty-seven, probably a murder victim) in the Deep South, a long way from the island. Nevertheless, on the evidence of “Honeymoon Blues,” it’s clear that he would have recognized the place at once if he had suddenly been transported there. He would have seen that the Kongakut is just a big old guitar strumming a heartfelt blues down the rocks and gravel bars of the valley, and that sometimes the song is fast and wild, and sometimes it’s slow and peaceful. He would have known that the island is the words of the song, and that some of them are joyful, and some of them are sad. He would have understood that the theme of the song —and the theme of the novel I never wrote—is simple human yearning, for a good and a happy and a useful life that will never end.
I could probably have figured out most of that if I had been in some other wild and musical place. But I needed to be on the island, situated among its multitudinous vagaries and curiosities, to discover something I had never known before. And that was that no one is willing to go farther or to search harder for a good and a happy and a useful life than the little birds with the black berets and the forked tails. Robert Johnson was no ornithologist but he came to that same conclusion, and decades before I did. Even more amazing, he knew the name of one of the birds. She was the one who spent her days perched on the steeple of the cathedral at the edge of the river,
pretending to be bored. Her name was Betty Mae, and he wrote his song for her.
“Honeymoon Blues” by Robert Johnson
Betty Mae, Betty Mae, you shall be my wife someday.
Betty Mae, Betty Mae, you shall be my wife someday.
I wants a little sweet girl, that will do anything that I say.
Betty Mae, you is my heartstring, you is my destiny.
Betty Mae, you is my heartstring, you is my destiny.
And you rolls across my mind, baby, each and every day.
Li’l girl, li’l girl, my life seem so misery.
Hmm hmm, little girl, my life seem so misery.
Baby, I guess it must be love, now, hoo mm, Lord that’s takin’ effect on me.
Some day I will return, with the marriage license in my hand.
Some day I will return, hoohoo, with a marriage license in my hand.
I’m gon’ take you for a honeymoon–
in some long, long distant land….
This was the island. It was a peaceful, earnest place where life unfolded effortlessly and seamlessly, where you could drop in at an arbitrary moment and get swept up in the flow and the feel of the place, as though you were part of the plan, even if you didn’t understand a word of it, even if you didn’t know that there was a plan. Where you felt a kind of deliverance from everything that had come before your arrival, and where mysteriously you could find the patience to await whatever was to come next. Each moment was the same as the last; both had a familiar shape and sound and taste. But each was different, too, for it always brought something new—a breeze, a crocus wakening on a logjam, the plaintive cry of a curlew, blue clouds crowding over bare brown hills. Lichen and wolf, plover and ground squirrel: each was inventing a life, each was going about a business I couldn’t fathom but which I understood to be quite important. The island was a diligent, deadly serious place, but one without airs.
If there was a purpose here it was new life—new buds, new eggs, new creatures large and small; and, to my mind at least, new beginnings. One particularly exuberant morning, watching the grand preparations for the
next generation of every kind, I realized that I was witnessing nothing less than the first day of creation. The Sioux believe that all animals came from the same valley. Now I knew that they were right, and the valley was here. The world was being born before my eyes.
And such a nursery the parents had contrived! Icy mountains to grace the walls, lullabies of wings and waters, spinning mobiles of gulls and dragonflies, cuddly blankets of phlox petals and willow buds. Twenty-five years earlier, an Alaskan homesteader had told me this was going to happen: “In spring, when you first hear the water trickling and the birds singing … there’s power in that that’s greater than anything I know. It teaches you something. You know that you’re not alone, that you’re a valued part of something that’s bigger than anything you could ever understand.”
And, millennia before that, that old backcountry traveler Isaiah: “Let the wilderness and the dry land be glad, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom… let it rejoice and sing for joy….”
WHERE TO BUY IT: Sundance Books, Indie-Bound, Powell’s, Amazon, Barnes & Nobel
PRICE: $26 list but with big discounts at several of the above retailers.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: I’m newly on Facebook and haven’t a clue about what I’m doing. More comprehensible (to me) is email. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org. A free book to the first person to decipher “birdortree.”