MARCH 7, 2020
This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Catharsis, No.25
The Nature Book is a novel that collages nature descriptions from 300 other novels into a single, seamless text. Each sentence, phrase or clause is borrowed; it includes no original language. This is an excerpt from Part I, “The Four Seasons,” at the end of a long, frigid winter. Annotated text and full source material available here.
There had not been such a winter for years. Every night — bone-cracking cold. Every morning the world flung itself over and the view had changed, appearing a shade lighter, but the country was of a deadly and a deceitful sameness. The same day returned once again — the same waste of snow and rock very lonely and austere.
It snowed every day now, sometimes only brief flurries that powdered the snow crust, sometimes for real. On the coldest days the snowdrifts were deep and the pine needles in the glades were ossified with ice. On the days when the sun shone, it was only an instant. A bright speck. Then it was gone.
One could not imagine that matters could get worse, but they did. In a matter of weeks, in a blizzard, how it snowed so hard. Raged for forty-eight hours. Animals that occupied the land felt the wind of the blizzard increase, and overhead the sky grew dark with snow. The cold increased until it was thirty below zero.
The very next morning when the snow finally ceased falling, quickly the passion went out of the sky. All the world was dark grey. Altogether changed. Although the breeze had now utterly ceased, the temperature had dropped ten degrees and made it memorable. On the north wall of the valley a mile away, seven deer had frozen on a rock.
Now the land itself seemed oppressed and banal in comparison to before. Two or three times before the awful storm was over, the white blur above the mountains caught the full fury of the rushing wind. Permanent ice began to form in the highest mountain valleys. It became only a matter of time until this valley was different, unreal and mocking, until the landscape and snow and ice were forever of the same shapeless pattern. More forlorn they were than stale bones.
A long time passed in such weather. Cold and intangible were all things in earth and heaven. Colder and intangible but more disquieting.
One cold winter morning, the patterns of cloud cover began to change slightly for the better. The wind was still blowing overhead. The snow was falling over the ice and turning to ice. The snow was falling over the ice and hiding the ice. The winter bareness spread drearily over it now, suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.
But just before noon the light changed. The snow had stopped after dumping a fresh eight inches on the old crust. The wind had dropped and it was less cold when, when, all of a sudden, thank the good God, some strange light flared up — died away.
There came a pause, a hiatus to the cold sky. There was the smell of wood even if just for a few minutes. A change of air. Of course, every tree within the valley was destroyed, but their scent, one that mingled sweetness and decay, at once filled one’s nostrils so completely that its very memory lingered for hours afterward.
When the light began to come back to life at once, it was the clump of clouds and vapours that flared in the sky. The sun was an angry little pinhead in the gloom. Though in a matter of minutes the nameless clouds opened and, lo! — all of a sudden, for the change was quick as lightning, the wonderful comparative smallness of the sun shot a broken and discoloured light that partially hung upon the shattered boughs and cast vast clouds and snow and ice and rocks into such vivid relief that for the first few moments the sense of distance and proportion was almost annulled.
The sun stood high in the sky, staring down through the hole in a perforated cloud, waiting for animals and for the wind, for a moment. A few of those sudden shocks of joy that are so physical, so precisely marked, set out across the valley. The eye had an almost boundless range of craggy steeps, grey rock, bright ice, and looking up, the sunlight was a veritable flood, crystal, limpid, sparkling, setting a feeling of gayety in the air, stirring up an effervescence in the blood, a tumult of exuberance in the veins.
The sun, on account of the mist, had a curious sentient, personal look, demanding the masculine pronoun for its adequate expression. His present aspect, coupled with the lack of all human forms in the scene, explained the old-time heliolatries in a moment. One could feel that a saner religion had never prevailed under the sky. The luminary was a golden-haired, beaming, mild-eyed, God-like creature, gazing down in the vigour and intentness of youth upon an earth that was brimming with interest for him.
Eyes opened wide upon the glorious golden shaft of sunlight shining through the great clouds that sailed in masses. Light slanted, falling obliquely. Here it caught on the edge of a cloud and burnt it into a slice of light, a blazing island on which no foot could rest. Then another cloud was caught in the light and another and another, so that the sweep of flat land below the abrupt thrust of the mountains was burnished gold, arrow-struck with fiery feathered darts that shot erratically across the quivering tangle of
This light excited and upset. The valley was now much more pleasant than it had been before. But why? What was all this commotion? With just one glance the sun had stirred up the clouds that had loitered in the heavens. For weeks, — ay, months — winter had piled high drifts in every direction and as far as the horizon. Imagination completed what mere sight could not achieve. But now, with the sun overhead, it was like a pleasant sensation indefinitely prolonged. It was much more like a sensation than like an idea, or an act of remembering.
The sensation of sunlight overwhelmed, was undisturbed but by the wind, which broke at intervals in low and hollow murmurs from among the mountains. It was a strange sensation, and it grew, and grew. Till soon the clouds broke and drifted apart, shining white in a clear blue sky. The valley seemed an enchanted circle of glorious veils of gold and wraiths of white and silver haze and dim, blue, moving shade — beautiful and wild and unreal as a dream.
The valleys and divides lay in such a manner that this valley alone could reflect the great spatial majesty of the sky. Far to the south the mountains drifted in and out of the uncertain light of a moving cloud-cover like ghosts of mountains; there was no direct light whatever to be seen… But this too changed so gradually. Holes in the clouds spread a weird, unearthly light across the valley and a gold-edged rent in the clouds moved out over the flat lands beyond — now, stubbornly, inch by painful inch, it grew. It was the uncertainty and agony of its growth that were significant.
Presently the vapours slid aside, a rolling mass of clouds that just kept moving on and on. The cool wind moved over until the sky went clear across the mountains and valleys with wondrous modulations of light and shadow. Just like that, as if nothing had happened all winter long. Every winter every year seemed to dispart, and, through it, to roll clouds of inconceivable splendour; and unveiled a scene which in other circumstances would have been something sad, unutterably dreary.
Never had there been such weather. Every moment of the afternoon was full of new things and every hour the sunshine grew more golden on the ground. And it was still very cold — below freezing — but there was one nice thing. Something special in the wind. The storm was a thing of the past.
As the light grew, sounds joined the parade of perception — sparrows haggling among themselves, a blue jay’s squawk of false excitement, the sharp warning of a cock quail on guard, and the answering whisper of the hen quail somewhere near. All these animals, and others, had felt so doomed up here in the eternal snow, as if there were no beyond. Now suddenly, as by a miracle, they had returned to avail themselves of the height of the ground, in order to examine the glorious, the truly glorious weather.
Other animals had gathered in the northeast corner of the valley and shone warmly in the light or giving off a dull, dry shine: martens, minks, ferrets, otters, weasels, badgers, ermines, foxes, and the small, gray-and-black tabby-striped wildcats. All these animals, and others, had fallen prey to the winter landscape. When they got out for a breath of country air, and Sunshine raced across the slope, it was something shocking.
An animal with four legs — a beast — came trotting up the hill. Into the sun. Unlike the animals who knew only the present, this animal, overseeing its offspring proudly and tenderly, could look up into depths of pearly blue and see the golden world for what it was: Nightmare. Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real all winter long. Curds of bruised clouds hung motionless in the sky — memories of the bitter winter, but memories that the murmur of the mourning wind carried across the treetops to distant east and west. It was hard to tell if this turn in the weather, these blessed calms, would last.
On the other side of the valley, another animal that had lost everything that winter came sludging through the snow. It was the sow bear, the mother, a huge, powerful, heavy thing breathing a stale breath of decayed old deer-hides and skunk cabbages and dead mushrooms.
The mother bear heard something. The sound repeated itself. It came from near at hand, from the thick shadow between the treetrunks on the hill. Then the bear went down on all fours, made for the nearest tree. And waited, because even the bear, all hot cold dark in her fevered confusion, needed to think what was best to be done. The bear made a gurgling sound deep in her throat and bared her long, curved yellowish teeth, so good at ripping and tearing. Suddenly, crash!
Two bear cubs burst from the bush and rushed pell-mell, tumbling head over heels straight for her. One flew flat on its face, bumping its nose and squealing. The other twisted in midair and landed in a heap on the ground, shaking its head in confusion. The bear boys looked at her, jumped forward.
The little cubs piled against their mother, clung to her. For a long time the giant bear sat calmly with them, deciding where to go. The sun moved on in its course. Then, in no hurry, they rose in one piece of dark fur. They moved as if across a swale of moon dust, bulky and wobbling, trapped in the idea of the nature of time.
By the time the sun was sinking, the hard stone of the day was cracked and light poured through its splinters. Red and gold shot through in rapid running arrows, feathered with darkness — right through the mountains, through the valley, and then the sky. Erratically rays of light flashed and wandered through the clouds. In the buttery yellow light.
For a full list of sources, see this PDF. For an abbreviated list, in order of appearance, see below:
Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
The Magus, John Fowles
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
Heart of the Sunset, Rex Beach
The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
The Shining, Stephen King
The Mountain Lion, Jean Stafford
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko
Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
The Cider House Rules, John Irving
The Rules of Attraction, Bret Easton Ellis
The U.P. Trail, Zane Grey
Centennial, James Michener
Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya
Main Street, Sinclair Lewis
Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
Riders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey
The Book of Khalid, Ameen Rihani
The Virginian, Owen Wister
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker
The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
The Desert of Wheat, Zane Grey
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
The Big Sky, A. B. Guthrie
The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne
Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy
McTeague, Frank Norris
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
A Sicilian Romance, Ann Radcliffe
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
The Octopus, Frank Norris
Middlemarch, George Eliot
The Waves, Virginia Woolf
The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner
Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
The Prairie, James Fenimore Cooper
The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel
Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon
Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh
The Song of the Lark, Willa Cather
Dracula, Bram Stoker
The Conquest, Oscar Micheaux
House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday
Big Sur, Jack Kerouac
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy
Hawaii, James Michener
The Round House, Louise Erdrich
St. Irvyne, Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
Watership Down, Richard Adams
2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
Molloy, Samuel Beckett
Plainsong, Kent Haruf
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
The Revolt of the Cockroach People, Oscar Zeta Acosta
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Ice, Anna Kavan
The Sea-Wolf, Jack London
My Ántonia, Willa Cather
The White Peacock, D. H. Lawrence
Anne of the Island, Lucy Maud Montgomery
The Birchbark House, Louise Erdrich
Bear, Marian Engel
White Noise, Don DeLillo
Tom Comitta is a writer and artist living in Los Angeles. He is the author of ◯ (Ugly Duckling Presse), First Thought Worst Thought: Collected Books 2011-2014 (Gauss PDF), and Airport Novella (Troll Thread).
Header Image: Kota Ezawa, Still from “City of Nature” (2010), video, 3’55”. Courtesy of the artist.