from The Nature Book
by Tom Comitta
The below text comes from my novel The Nature Book (Coffee House Press, March 2023), a literary supercut of nature descriptions from 300 novels that I collaged into a single narrative. To write this book, I searched for patterns in how authors capture, distort, and anthropomorphize nature and gathered these patterns into a text that lives somewhere between narrative and archive, lyrical excess and data analysis. The novel covers the four seasons, oceans, islands, outer space, prairies, mountains, and deserts.
This excerpt comes from the prairie section and is the part that I usually perform live. I am drawn to these paragraphs not only because they tell a well-contained story, but also because they capture much of how The Nature Book operates: as a highly affected blend of voices oscillating from joyous observation to hopeless desolation.
Used by permission from The Nature Book (Coffee House Press, 2023). Copyright © 2023 by Tom Comitta
There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country. It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back. It seems to rise a little to meet the sun. The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other. In the atmosphere, the same tonic, puissant quality that is in the ground, the same strength and resoluteness that brings good fortune.
Yes, looking at the glowing, beautiful land was a shock to the senses. So beautiful, so perfect, so unsullied. Far across the plains, the horizon was lost in the radiance of the sun hanging above it, and the flood of golden glory which formed a glittering halo around the sun spilled out, like water on the earth.
As soon as the sun got high enough to be warm, the land and the sky seemed too large, and the country seemed endless. It seemed as if the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The grass made all the great prairie the colour of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping . . .
Out across the blowing grass, it was high season for summer flowers. The summer rains had been so many and opportune that all sorts of weeds and herbs and flowers had grown up there: splotches of wild larkspur, pale green-and-white spikes of hoarhound, tangles of foxtail and wild wheat. South of the apricot trees, cornering on the wheat, was alfalfa, where myriads of white and yellow butterflies were always fluttering above the purple blossoms. Farther away, out in a sea of grass, the pink bee-bush stood tall, and the cone-flowers and rose mallow grew everywhere. The flimsy faces of pansies blazed, and the wild prairie roses in the ditches bloomed an innocent pink.
Rabbits were everywhere on the grass, and thousands of prairie chickens. All the wild things on the prairie ran and flew and hopped and crawled. Sometimes there’d be a great gray rabbit, so still in the lights and shadows of a grass clump. His round eyes stared without meaning anything. His nose wiggled, and sunlight was rosy through his long ears, which had delicate veins in them and the softest short fur on their outsides. The rest of his fur was so thick and soft—soft and almost translucent, like a piece of Turkish delight; as if you could suck off his fur like sugar. Then he was gone in a flash, and the place where he had been sitting was hollowed and smooth and still warm from his warm behind.
All the time, of course, horses grazed in the grass. The tiny dickie-birds were everywhere, and their tiny nests were in the tall weeds. On the grass, with the sky above, it was easy. Then, coming over a little rise in the ground, two big hawks were skimming the surface of the prairie, not far away. The birds came flying over, and a rabbit cautiously hopped and looked. Huge rabbits bounded away before them; the tiny dickie-birds fluttered up and settled again. The tawny hawks sailed over, making slow shadows through the grass, past the horses and toward the river. Grass knee high over there.
This river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the land; a broad, muddy river curving down from the north. The river curved east, across the plains, but when the river curved south, there it was—a narrow, straight river, swift but not deep, shallow and warm; the farther north, the colder and swifter the river. Farther south through the open grassland, though running freely, the river was shallow and evidently boggy. Somewhere the river branched, went out into the endless prairie.
The subject of rivers was becoming more pronounced. A flock of cranes came in and disappeared behind the brush along the river. A horse neighed over the trees. One of the huge grey cranes flew low over the rippling grass. He flew on his strong wings, and in the sunshine and wind. Some small birds ran off into the trees. A big rabbit bounded right over the riverbank. The heavy beat of wings dipped off the slope, down into a rocky river.
At the bottom of the shallow draw was mud. Here cranes and other aquatic birds had congregated. Coming along the river, the horses stepped archly among the shadows, that green enclosure where the sunlight flickered so bright through the leaves. The horses stood in the marshy grass and sucked quietly at the water, ignoring the strings of ducks that swam nearby, the cranes standing solemnly in the shadows. The horses raised their dripping mouths from the water one and then the other and blew and leaned and drank again.
The river is very shallow at that time of year, and the bottom was half exposed and braided like water. There were sandbars right across, the bigger ones small jungles of weedy vegetation weedily in bloom, with butterflies and dragonflies attending on them like spirits. And the sun was shining as well as it could onto that shadowy river, a good part of the shine being caught in the trees. And the cicadas were chanting, and the willows were straggling their tresses in the water, and the cottonwood and the ash were making that summer hush, that susurrus.
Upstream the wooded shore was unvarying in its features. The same greenness throughout, the same dogwood bushes, all overgrown with wild grapevines. The roots of trees brown and bark smelling, cold. Down a hill toward the wide spot in the river, a great chunk of the shore had been bitten out by some spring freshet, and the scar was masked by elder bushes, growing down to the water in flowery terraces. There was no sound but the high, singsong buzz of wild bees and the sunny gurgle of the water underneath. Over the edge of the bank the little stream made the noise; it flowed along perfectly clear over the sand and gravel, cut off from the muddy main current by a long sandbar.
The scene was rural and picturesque, very peaceful. The water was the color of clay and roily. The sandbar below was thickly grown with sedge and willow, and the bluffs on the far side were stained and cavepocked and traversed by a constant myriad of swallows. Beyond that, the river was uneventful. Now and then a rabbit. Or geese or mergansers that would beat away over the water. Down river was the same, the sky was the same, the same thicket. The horses drank, squirrels chattering in the trees. But when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves, something spooked the horses. The horses were stepping forward and back, snorting up the crumbling side of a clay bank.
They had left the windings of the river. They came up out of the river breaks and climbed into a meadow where the grass was tall, looking off at the gentle, humplike rises to the north.
The sun fell like a warm hand. To the west a mile away ran a rolling country covered with grass and wild daisies. And beyond that a small band of antelope grazing on the rolling prairie. Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but shaggy grasses and flowers waving in the wind. Far overhead, a few white puffs of cloud sailed in the thin blue air.
Between that earth and that sky, yes, the breeze was freshening, the winds and the meadow larks and the shadows fleeing always over the hilltops. The wind, running over the flower heads, peeped in at the little brown buds and bounded off again gladly, through the grass, past the horses, over the hills, and far away— the wind often blows from one week’s end to another across that high, active, resolute stretch of country.
In the dunelike hills of grass, the horses were grazing. Two horses were standing up top of one of the bluffs. Twelve young colts were galloping in a drove. Several horses could be seen snaking through the grasslands across the plain to the south. They were beautiful little horses. They were not really ponies, they were western mustangs—strong as mules and gentle as kittens. They had large, soft, gentle eyes, and long manes and tails, and slender legs and feet much smaller and quicker than the feet of horses in the Big Woods.
One horse was the elected leader of vast herds of wild horses, the White Steed of the Prairies, a magnificent milk-white charger, large-eyed, small-headed, bluff-chested. The flashing cascade of his mane, the curving comet of his tail, invested him with housings more resplendent than gold and silver. A most imperial and archangelical apparition, the stallion would come prancing and pounding the ground and arching its neck with the dignity of a thousand monarchs.
Whether marching amid his aides and marshals in the van of countless cohorts that endlessly streamed over the plains, or whether with his circumambient subjects browsing all around at the horizon, the White Steed gallopingly reviewed them with warm nostrils reddening through his cool milkiness. And that day, as the herd wound through these great stretches, the stallion went forward, shaking its white fetlocks and looking up at the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky.
The herd, working slowly and quietly, followed him out across the prairie to the west, through never-ending miles of grain and grass and bright-flowered pastures, trotting and walking and trotting again. Sometimes, when the wind was coming in off the grassy plains, the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the ground resounded under their hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.
For a long time they went on, across the prairie. The sky got bigger and the country emptier. There was nothing to see but grass and sky. Sometimes a big jack rabbit bounded in big bounds over the blowing grass and the prairie hens came walking. It seemed as if the grass were about to run over them. The grass had, indeed, grown back over everything, hiding even small trees.
The day had become hot. The temperature had risen since early morning, and it was past noon when waves of heat shimmered over the grass. As the herd and the stallion went forward, there was the smell of hot dirt and dry hills, wild azalea and the sweet cloy of lupin and horse sweat.
The country had begun to flatten out, brown in the distance, the prairie grass waving in the breeze. Two miles away, across the green and brown and yellow, on dry land, the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke, and dust rose over the relatively flat blanket of grass. The hot sun blazed and the hot winds blew, and the horses kept moving westward.
Edging further into the distance, scattering stones and snorting, they watched as the beauty of the prairies, the abundance of high grass, grew bleaker, no longer as luxuriant as it had been. Overhead the sky was that indescribable blue, bright and shadowless, hard as enamel. All about stretched drying fields of pale-gold colour, bare on the high places, the long plain shimmering with mirages.
The prairie had changed. The wind wailed in the tan grass, and it whispered sadly across the curly, short buffalo grass. There the wind had been blowing for days and days and had made the short grass very brittle, and the surface below as hot as in a desert.
For many miles around, the vicinage presented a single determinate fact: the grass grew weakly and sickly from the surface. And the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement.
An hour or perhaps two hours passed. Water was scarce and the terrific sun beat fiercely. The horses trod and broke the dirt. They were on a plain of grass so huge that it was hard to imagine there was a world beyond it. The herd, themselves, were like a dot, surrounded by endless grass, no trees or bushes. And distance, toward the horizon, was tan to invisibility.
Looking out at the country to the west, the yellowing, dusty, afternoon light put a golden color on the land. There was a brightness, a beauty. You might get the idea that there was some sort of vitality about the place. But it was parched and sun-stricken. It was hard to imagine the grass had ever been green. Everywhere little grasshoppers would fly up by score, making that snap they do, like striking a match. In the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, sow bugs like little armadillos plodding restlessly on many tender feet. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons.
As the horses passed, there were also birds and other animals, the larger ones, roaming from east to west and north to south. A flight of swallows swooped overhead toward some waterhole. A land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass. Occasionally, black crows flew overhead, cawing their rough, sharp caws. Once, far in the distance, there was nothing in the empty prairie except a darkish strip that looked like the shadow of a cloud. Turned out to be two buffalo, standing on the prairie as if they were lost.
But the buffalo cloud wasn’t much different than other animals that are commonly found in the vicinity of this prairie; the sun was so hot, the space was so empty, that it was hard to imagine that wild animals lived without being afraid. This was midsummer. The wind was hot. As if it came out of an oven. Twelve o’clock noon. 106°. Three o’clock. 107°. The parched fields frowned. From time to time there were sudden explosions of southeast wind, and the devil’s breath charred the sparse grass and blew the fields away. Even the weeds were faded and dry. The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded of many things: stimulating extremes of climate, burning summers when the plants strove against the sun, the color and smell of strong weeds under the great bowl of the sky.
And yet there, the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched all around them, to the very edge of the world. The sun had baked the land into a dry and dusty mass, with little cracks running through it. The sun had burned the tops of the grass blades until they were the same color to be seen everywhere. In all directions. And they went on, grazing the dry grass in a Prairie of desperate Immensity . . .
Now the passage of time becomes incomprehensible. Between the arrival of the hot day and now, the heat had not lessened, time slowly revolving. Crimson and gold horses trotted along, crossing the plain in heat and a sense of loneliness far more intense than anywhere else in the world.
The plain now was empty; not a creature moved on it beside the horses. There was such a sound of wind rattling that dry grass, but the noises of hot grass—of crickets, the hum of flies—were a tone that was close to silence. Whenever the sound of the wind died away, it was like the air itself had caved in. Nothing moved. Not a leaf. No birds sang. No sound. But everywhere the sky and earth were listening, and everything was so still that nature’s repetition overtook the empty land without hope of anything, simply going on because there was nothing but anonymous stretches of prairie. There was just the stillness and the silence and the sound of the horses breathing and the sound of their hooves clopping.
And on across the lonely fields, through the tough prairie grass, the horses trod. In a perfect circle, the sky curved down to the level land, and they loped along in the circle’s exact middle. An hour passed, and then another, and they couldn’t get out of the middle of that circle. The horses began to strain and rear, but there was nothing to do but plod on. There was no water. Nothing new to look at. There was no sound, not any. There was only the enormous, empty prairie. And on the whole enormous prairie there were no signs of biological life-forms except the hawks and buzzards circling in the blue sky. There wasn’t so much as a grasshopper on the plains. A few of the horses tried to stop and graze, but there was nothing left to graze on. No grass. There was only the enormous, empty prairie. There was the feeling of a weight of light—pressing the rough country. Three or four miles away the sun shone in much the same fashion. And miles farther the same thing. The wind blew through, the smell of burned dust was in the air, and the air was dry so that the light air about told that the world ended here, only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over, making slow shadows on the dirt.