I have a friend named Fil who won’t stop bringing me books. I’ve told him how badly my reading is backlogged, but still we can’t have dinner or a drink without bringing me a book, or several. There are worse problems to have. He certainly does a fine job of selecting them, there’s no question about that; I just worry about finding time for them all. This one, however, fit perfectly into a hole in my reading at the time it arrived: I was a little behind and needed a quick read to review for you all here when he brought me this small, slim paperback of 119 pages. Perhaps it’s wrong to choose one’s reading based on length! but sometimes it does go that way. So, enter Isabella Bird.
From a brief bio in the opening pages, I learned that she was born in 1831 in England, and was sickly and in poor health for the first 40 years of her life, until she traveled to Hawaii and climbed a volcano. From there, she realized that outdoor activity was much more her style than were British sickrooms, and she embarked on a different lifestyle. Adventures in the Rocky Mountains is a collection of letters (and excerpts from letters) she sent to a sister back home while tramping around the Rockies, then not yet a part of the United States but a frontier dominated by hard drinking, hard living, and men.
Bird’s writing is remarkable for its lovely, evocative descriptions of natural scenery, as well as its equally evocative, but less praising, descriptions of frontier life. She retains some disdain for the uncivilized dress and manners of some of her neighbors, but before we call her prudish we will note that she was “bagging 14ers” in a time and place when women were scarce, and were hardworking frontier wives rather than adventurers. In other words, despite preferring a well-dressed conversationalist as companion to a ragged and “coarse” one, she was a tough cookie. A quotation from one of her letters graces the front cover: “There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman…”
Aside from the descriptions of natural beauty and frontier life, I found a third reason to recommend this book: the character of Mr Nugent or ‘Jim’ (never referred to without the ‘single quotation marks’!), and his dog ‘Ring’ (also always so designated). ‘Mountain Jim’ is a well-known ruffian and desperado with no end of violence and criminality in his past – he confides in Bird at one point such atrocities that she can’t bring herself to relate them. But he is also a perfect gentleman, apparently, in the right mood. He is a “countryman” of Bird’s, a wonderful conversationalist, and quite chivalrous as well as respectful of her abilities to be one of the guys. He is described as charmingly as are the Rocky Mountains. For that matter, the less prominent Evans (another very likeable but also alcoholic and problematic frontiersman) gets a similarly colorful character sketch; and the UNlikeable Lyman as well; so really I should add characterization of people generally to Bird’s list of literary talents.
I am going to stop telling you and show you, through a few choice passages, below.
on a sunset:
The sun was setting fast, and against his golden light green promontories, wooded with stately pines, stood out one beyond another in a medium of dark rich blue, while grey bleached summits, peaked, turreted, and snow-slashed, were piled above them, gleaming with amber light. Darker grew the blue gloom, the dew fell heavily, aromatic odours floated on the air, and still the lofty peaks glowed with living light, till in one second it died off from them, leaving them with the ashy paleness of a dead face. It was dark and cold under the mountain shadows, the frosty chill of the high altitude wrapped me round, the solitude was overwhelming, and I reluctantly turned my horse’s head towards Truckee, often looking back to the ashy summits in their unearthly fascination.
Heavily loaded as all our horses were, ‘Jim’ started over the half-mile of level grass at a hand-gallop, and then throwing his mare on her haunches, pulled up alongside of me, and with a grace of manner which soon made me forget his appearance, entered into a conversation which lasted for more than three hours, in spite of the manifold checks of fording streams, single file, abrupt ascents and descents, and other incidents of mountain travel.
on a sunrise, and the lightening of the world:
There were dark pines against a lemon sky, grey peaks reddening and etherealising, gorges of deep and infinite blue, floods of golden glory pouring through canyons of enormous depth, an atmosphere of absolute purity, an occasional foreground of cottonwood and aspen flaunting in red and gold to intensify the blue gloom of the pines, the trickle and murmur of streams fringed with icicles, the strange sough of gusts moving among the pine tops – sights and sounds not of the lower earth, but of the solitary, beast-haunted, frozen upper altitudes.
on a high mountain lake:
I thought how their clear cold waters, growing turbid in the affluent flats, would heat under the tropic sun, and eventually form part of that great ocean river which renders our far-off islands habitable by impinging on their shores.
on society, even where people are scarce:
…in truth, this blue hollow, lying solitary at the foot of Long’s Peak, is a miniature world of great interest, in which love, jealousy, hatred, envy, pride, unselfishness, greed, selfishness, and self-sacrifice can be studied hourly, and there is always the unpleasantly exciting risk of an open quarrel with the neighbouring desperado, whose “I’ll shoot you!” has more than once been heard in the cabin.
Isabella Bird’s story of travel through Colorado Territory in the 1870′s, told in letters to her sister, spans almost precisely three months in time; but it is a lifetime of beautiful, incisive, gorgeously told observations, and we are lucky to have them today.
Rating: 7 breaths of rarefied air.
As usual, thanks Fil!
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