Lest night I had a vivid dream and when I awoke in the small hours I could remember it clearly. I was a freshman at Cal, on the frosh track team, and things came back as if they had been yesterday. Dennis Ragan was the assistant coach and he was the one on the field, helping broad jumpers with their steps, helping pole vaulters, occasionally talking to those of us who were hurdlers.
The college high hurdles were three inches higher than the high school hurdles, and the adjustment was difficult for me. I had learned to skim over the high school highs with nothing to spare, and now I found myself crashing into that first hurdle. In high school I had run a 14.9 120 high hurdles time (now it’s the 110 meter race), but I had trouble breaking sixteen flat at the college level. I was second on the team. The top hurdler, Mike White, would go on to become the football coach at Cal and later the coach at Illinois, and finally the NFl Oakland Raiders. He was in the fourteen-second bracket, and I struggled. The low hurdles were now 220 yards instead of i80 yards.
Once, Dennis asked me if I wanted to work out with Jack Davis. Davis was the world record holder, on his way home from the Pan American Games, and he stopped in Berkeley to loosen up before continuing his journey to the naval station he was stationed at in Southern California. We ran the two hundred yard straightaways, , jogged the fifty-yard curves, ran another two hundred. By the time his “loosening up” was finished I was exhausted. He thanked me, disappeared, and I went to the training room. Jack Williamson, the trainer took one look at me and said,” So now you know what a world class athlete’s workout is like.” I had run that workout in my dream, and I felt exhausted, lying there in bed.
Brutus Hamilton was the Cal coach. He had been the Olympic coach in 1948, and when I failed freshman Spanish, Hamilton sent for me.
He sat in his Ford Sedan, parked at the edge of the track. I don’t ever remember him getting out to talk with an athlete. I came to the open window and he said, “Hill, you have failed Spanish.”
I didn’t know that Hamilton even knew my name,
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“A university is a place for learning, not for games. Turn in your uniform. When you have a passing grade you can have it back.”
And that was that.
Jim Plessas, the captain of the track team told me that if I had been a world record holder, the result would have been the same. “He has no tolerance for slackers,” Plessas said.
So I went back to Spanish the second semester, memorized the text, passed, and got my uniform back. I ran in the Stanford meet. If I had placed in the top three in ether of the hurdle events, I would have gotten my varsity letter. I remember the team going off to UCLA, and hoping I would be selected.. But Hamilton wasn’t about to take an also-ran on the trip. The team members all got dark blue sport coats, a flight to Los Angeles. I stayed in Berkeley.
I was not about to give up. I ran against Davis at an AAU meet in Stockton, broke before the gun and we were recalled for a second start. The second time I crashed into the first hurdle and did not finish. That was the end for me. And all of this was in that dream last night.
I used this photo in an earlier post. This is the bridge just above Oroville where it crosses the river above the town. We fished tributaries, the Little North Fork, Spanish Creek, Bucks Creek The Middle Fork, Jackass Creek, and others.
They were fishable streams, but now the river was a torrent, an unapproachable rush that was intent on doing damage downstream. It pulsed against the levees, pushed aganst the dirt banks, broke through, filled the streets of Yuba City. It was no longer the placid river that drifted between the two towns, Marysville on the West and Yuba City on the east side of the river. The river flooded out into the valley, filling the fields, filling the streets of those two towns, carrying away cars and buildings and leaving behind destruction.
Jedediah Smith found himself in the Spring flood in 1827, retreated to the Siutter Buttes where he told of a sea of water that stretched from the Sierra foothills across the valley to the Coast Range. He was joined by rattlesnakes, coyotes, bears, mountain lions, deer and countless ground animals. It was, he reported, a remarkable sight.
Almost a century of hydraulic gold mining left hundreds of acres of stones below Oroville, and they were lifted to become the Big Oro Dam, a huge earthen dam that contained the Feather River, and stopped the floods that plagued the valley.
No longer did the salmon and steelhead go up the Feather. They were stopped at the dam, harvested, stripped of their eggs. and they gathered at the base of the dam, swirling in a puzzlement, before they went up the concrete ladders to tbe end of their journey.
Art and I fished on the West Branch of the Feather, now under four hundred feet of water. We slid down the steep embankment to the edge of the river, watched while fifty pound salmon dug their redds with their tails. We fashioned lures out of church keys from the liquor store, with treble hooks dangling. The highway no longer goes through Oroville. It no longer parallels the river, winding up through Jarboe Gap. It has been widened, there are no longer springs at intervals to stop and water the car and ourselves.
Doug Reed, Art and I stopped at Art’s parents’ place in Yankee Hill on the way down from a weekend of fishing. It was Sunday, and Mrs. Morris had fixed a Sunday dinner.
“Could one of you young men say grace?” she asked.
”I will,” Doug said.
The Morris pair bowed their heads. Doug said, “Lord, over the teeth and past the gums, look out Jesus, here it comes.”
There was a silence.
“Pass the potatoes, please,” Doug said.
The potatoes were passed, followed by the gravy.
It was pure Doug Reed. I managed not to laugh, Later, Doug would be best man at my wedding. I would have been best man at his, but his brother insisted, and Doug came by the house on Regent Street to apologize to me. Doug had been the lifeguard at Oakland camp all four summers that the two of us had worked there, and he met his wife Barbara, who was one of the girls serving tables in the dining hall. We both became teachers. I helped him build his cabin at Lake Tahoe and when he came to our house, my children were fascinated by the stories he told about me.
That weekend at the Morris table was one when it rained incessantly. The two of us pissed off the deck at Family Camp before heading down the canyon, and Doug said, “This will have consequences.”
Sure enough, the Feather River overflowed, inundating the twin cities of Yuba City and Marysville. We beat the flood waters to the Bay Area, and watched on the television as the levees broke and houses were swept away.
“We did that,” Doug told me. “We started it off the deck at Family Camp. But don’t tell anyone.”
Art’s father, Wayne Morris, told us to meet him in Gridley at the boat ramp where we would launch his boat. Wayne was in his late eighties, but it hadn’t slowed him down. He was waiting for us, impatient, backed the trailer down to the water, and waded into the stream to release it. The river was low, an October river, and the salmon were gathering to run up into the higher slopes. The water was the color of cardboard, rain raising the level of the river, making it possible for the salmon to go upstream. It was the time of year when multiple boats would be on the river.
“How will we get back here?” Art said.
“We’re going upstream, and we’ll drift back down,” Wayne said. “The fish are still moving upstream and we’ll be right in the middle of them.”
The fish were salmon, part of the fall run. There were three rugged spin rods and reels in the boat, and Wayne expected to bring home salmon. He didn’t fish for sport. He had spent his life fishing to put food on the table, got his deer every year, put the meat in the freezer, fished for trout and bass in the Feather River, took his boat out onto Lake Oroville , and today would be no different.
There was a cooler with sandwiches and bottles of water in the boat and attached to the transom was the motor, an old Evinrude that Wayne kept finely tuned. We were on the Feather River, and it was wide at Gridley but it would narrow upstream. We motored through the flat water until we came to the first shallow stretch.
“You two take this rope,” he said “Get on the bank and tow the boat up over this shallow stretch. I’ll guide the boat.” He slid over the side, up to his waist in the fast-running water. This is backwards, I thought. The eighty-five year old man will be in the river, and two men in their fifties will be on the bank, pulling the rope. But I knew why. He was nervous that Art and I wouldn’t be able to steer the boat in the river. That we would slip on the rocks, fall, let the boat turn sideways and break loose. He was taking no chances. So Art and I pulled along the shore, climbing over softball-sized rocks, pulling until the boat had reached deeper water. Wayne climbed in. lowered the motor, started it, and kept the boat in the flat water while Art and I waded out to it. We went another half hour to the next rapids. They were not as shallow and Wayne threaded his way past big rocks, boulders that dwarfed the boat, and said, “Time to fish. I’ll keep the boat going, you two cast to that opposite bank,” he said. The river was dark green, almost black, cloudy from recent rains. A few stellar jays hollered at us, and a single egret stood on its stick-like legs at the edge. The current surged softly, and Wayne kept the motor idling, keeping the boat in one place. I released the line and cast toward the line of trees along the bank. Art had the first strike, a five pounder that came to the boat quickly, I netted the fish, Wayne pointed to another cooler under the thwart. “Put it in there,” he said. “There’s ice.”
There would be salmon on the table in the Morris household that week.
I got the second strike, a bigger fish, close to twenty pounds, and it took me several minutes of playing the fish while it ran upstream. Wayne gunned the outboard, following the fish, and eventually it was alongside where Art netted it.
Noon came and we moored the boat under the trees, ate the sandwiches, drank some water. No beer in Wayne Morris’ s boat. There never had been any. If it had been just Art and me, there would have been a six-pack with that ice and those two salmon. The cans would have tasted of the fish, but it would have been good to have a cold beer in the hot noon sun halfway between Gridley and Oroville.
We finished hunch and Wayne let the boat drift down as Art and I cast. But there was nothing
“They’ve moved upstream,” Wayne said. He let the boat drift over the shallow rapids, raising the motor to keep the propeller away from the rocks.
Art and I watched as Wayne maneuvered the boat onto the trailer and brought it out of the river. It was a beat-up aluminum boat, nothing like the sleek boats that were aligned on the ramp. It was a workman’s boat, the boat of a man, who knew the river, knew the progress of the fish and ate salmon from that river in the kitchen of his twenty-wide trailer in Yankee Hill
Wayne Morris had worked in heavy construction all his life, driving tunnels, replacing shoulders where roads had collapsed, building culverts under highways. Art had gone to twenty different elementary schools as his father had moved from job to job. Art told the story of the family living in a tent in Truckee, while Wayne built a culvert for Trout Creek to tunnel under the street. Art fished every day, tying a leader to the end of a willow stick. “When you come back with a limit,’ His father said, ”I will buy you a fishing rod.” The limit was fifteen fish in those days, and if Art came home with fourteen fish his father said, “Close. One more is what it takes.” There were no exceptions in Wayne Morris’s world.
We drove up the Feather River canyon and stopped at the place where Wayne had retired. It was a twenty-wide trailer on solid foundation on a spacious lot where he had a huge garden, tomatoes, squash, peas, beans, watermelons. The lot was fenced with an eight-foot wire enclosure to keep the deer out.
Art and I had followed his father up the canyon, crossed the entrance where the deer and cattle grid lay, and followed him up to the trailer.
The garden lay to our right and there were large holes in it, as if there had been explosions in the garden.
When we got to the garage. Wayne stopped, got out the two coolers and parked them on the ground.
“What’s with those holes in your garden” Art asked.
“Gophers. When you set a trap for a gopher, they push the dirt against the trap, setting it off. I got some old automobile circuits and attached them to the traps. When the gopher pushes dirt against the trap, it trips the circuit and it sets off a blasting cap that I put about a foot and a half behind the trap. That’s it for the little bastard.” That was the only foul word that I ever heard Wayne Morris use. “All that’s left of him are some pieces of fur.” That’s when I noticed the extension cord that was buried in the garden and snaked up to his garage.
Wayne thought that I did women’s work as a teacher.
Art quit his job as director of recreation for the City of San Jose and began work for a construction company as a flagman. He rose to become a developer on his own, making the kind of money that his father admired. He was no longer doing women’s work. But I won’t forget the holes in Wayne’s garden where gophers got blown to bits.
Wayne Morris lived to become one hundred years old.
Eight weeks in Iowa City, a summer seminar on Walt Whitman, and I spent time in my dorm room working on my first novel, climbing to the roof to watch the mid-western storms approach, lightning and dark clouds and drenching rain. It was a different world. There, were no mountains on the horizon. It was flat as far as I could see, even when I climbed to the roof of the dorm. I rented an IBM Selectric typewriter, turned over a drawer from the extra chest of drawers and placed it on the other bed in my dorm room. I began the novel, tacking up the pages on the wall, setting myself a goal each day of a certain number of pages so that at the end of my six weeks in Iowa City I would have a finished novel. When I reached the end of Cold Creek Cash Store, I celebrated with a professor from San Bernardino State university with scotch and bagels and cream cheese, something that the dorm dining table didn’t have. Kent was in Iowa City, as I was, on a summer seminar. His was on Herbert Hoover.
When I got back to California, Fred Hill, an agent in San Francisco took the manuscript and within a few weeks it was sold to Ballantine Books as a paperback. There wasn’t much money in it for me, but it launched me as a published novelist.
With the modest advance check, Fred wrote, “When do we see the next one?” And a year later I gave him Lucy Boomer. It was an immediate sale, the editor in New York was enthusiastic about it, and it made the front page of the tabloid The Weekly World News. a silly headline story about a woman who had fucked six presidents.
There was even a photograph of this fictional woman, nothing like the woman I had imagined.
And that began my second career, this time as a writer, The next book went to Hard Case Crime and got an Edgar nomination. Two more books got the same nomination published by a small press that tolerated my short manuscripts . It was a long way from that summer in Iowa City, typing on that typewriter on that overturned drawer, imagining the scenario in the Sierras, patching together images of people I had known, inventing a story much like that of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.
The Lord God Bird and Lucy Boomer both got film options, and Robbie’s Wife appeared in German, French and Polish.
On my desk is a copy of Tom Hall & The Captain of All These Men of Death. It is a fine cover with a photograph of a 1940’s Los Angeles electric streetcar on its way to the Hollywood Bowl. That novel is the one that I feel most proud of. It is, I think, finely written, and deserved a wider audience than it received..
I continue to write. It is the midnight disease. Lately I have turned to building some Adirondack chairs. I have built six of them for my children and the children of friends. My father, who was, among other things, a fine carpenter, would be proud of what I have done. I suspect that the chairs would garner more praise than my books. You can sit in one of those chairs and read a book. I sit in one and watch the sun go off Mt. Tamalpais,. My evening drink sits on the arm of the chair. I watch the folds of the mountain darken and imagine that I am watching the folds in a mountain in the Sierras.
Joe Bacon, the classical guitarist and artist knew Russell Chatham from his days in Bolinas, and followed Chatham’s career as a painter. Joe gave me two Chatham books to read during this pandemic period, and one of them, Silent Season,was new to me. It’s a collection of pieces by writers who also fished, including several by Chatham himself. Chatham produced the book, illustrated it with his sketches of fishermen and fish. What I have discovered as I read the stories is that these are all old guys now. Not as old as I am, and Chatham, himself, is now deed. Throughout these stories by Tom McGuae, Jack Curtis, and others is a theme: as they grow old, they remember earlier times when the fishing was better, there weren’t as many people on the stream, and they could climb onto difficult locations on streams and the coastal waters.
I have found myself doing the same thing. Curtis remembers fishing with his grandfather, and Chatham ends his last piece gazing at a river. I wrote earlier about sitting under a tree on Deer Creek to get out of the rain, and watching the rain dimple the surface of the creek. Chatham and I could have exchanged places.
I met Chatham at an exhibition of Joe’s paintings here in Marin a few months before Chatham died. He was in his usual bib overalls, white-haired, and seemed preoccupied. Later, Joe told me that Chatham was losing it, dementia was taking hold of him, and his disinterest in any sort of conversation was now regular. He was trying to paint again, was staying at the abandoned Marshall_Hotel on the coast.
His Montana paintings were filled with sadness, shadows deepening, sometimes snow drifted against snow fences, trees black outlines against a winter sky. Fishermen appeared in some of them, indistinct figures.
My latest piece of writing was about the first fly rod I owned, about Henry Gutte and Spanish Creek below Oakland camp where elephant ears hung over the water, shadowing brown trout that began to feed at dusk. I can no longer go through those railroad tunnels to where those elephant ears probably still hang over the water. Like Chatham’s writer/fishermen friends, I can only remember something that happened sixty-five years ago, a lifetime. Chatham was born in 1939, when I was four years old. Unlike me, he lived a life of excess, in fishing, in food, in his wild friends, his disdain for economic certitude. His grandfather, a painter as well, has a whole room to himself at the de Young fine arts museum in San Francisco.
Forty year ago, I bought Chatham’s book, The Angler’s Coast for my son Geoffrey. Chatham tells of himself as a teenager with his father’s friends on the Gualala River and staying at the old Gualala Hotel before it became a trendy bed and breakfast. I stayed at that Hotel with Art Morris. We took my little boat out onto the river and fished for steelhead for half a day without success. Chatham writes about steelhead on the Gualala, and that’s where he ends his book, gazing at the water.
I got my first trout fishing license in 1953, while I was working at Oakland Feather River Camp in Quincy. In those days there was a picture of a trout on the license, and I have saved every one since then. It cost five bucks. Now it is fifty dollars. I fished Spanish Creek until Henry Gutte, the husband of a camper, took me to the Middle Fork of the Feather. Henry also bought me my first real fly rod, a fibreglas Fenwick rod that cost me twenty dollars. Such a rod now costs two hundred and fifty dollars.
On Spanish Creek I hiked down the road past Kamp Kidd, the children’s camp where I was later the assistant director. I went past the swimming hole, came to where the road ended, climbed up onto the Western Pacific railroad tracks and went further downstream. I had to go through two railroad tunnels, one of them a hundred yards long, with a curve in it that rendered the tunnel in complete blackness. Coming out at the northern end of the second tunnel, Spanish Creek to the left of the railroad embankment flowed through a series of tussocks, elephant ears hanging over the water, harboring big brown trout that began to feed at dusk.
In those days we kept the trout we caught, brought them back to camp where Johnny, the head cook, fried them up for us. Johnny was a chef for Southern Pacific, cooking in the dining cars on the transcontinental trains, but she took the summer off to cook for several hundred campers and could relax in her own little cabin, built especially for the head cook. She was a black woman from Louisiana, was especially generous, and cooked whatever we brought, only asking that she could share in the catch.
She cooked frogs’ legs for me and Charlie Way the camp caretaker after an evening of frog gigglng in Frank Gileppi’s marshy cow pasture, rattlesnake for me and John Peterson who had caught it, and on my days off she let me forage in the walk-in cooler for things for a lunch when I went fishing
I learned by watching, I watched Art Morris and I watched his father, Wayne. I watched Henry Gutte, and watched anyone else I could see on a stream. I developed bad habits with my cast, habits that stayed with me for sixty-five years. Once, trying out a new line at the Chico fly shop, John said to Larry “Jesus, look at him! Look at what he’s doing!””
Larry said, “Pay no attention .He’s done that for sixty years, It’s the way he does it and it works for him.” I had learned to compensate for my poor technique, learning how to bring the fly to the spot where I wanted it. I was unaware that I was the poster boy for everything wrong.
I have a new reel and a new line, and a fibreglas rod that will break down to fit into my carry-on bag. i am waiting for an opportunity to try them out, I think that the lower reaches of Jamison Creek would be perfect. It is open , easily accessible, and harbors little trout that, on occasion, snatch any fly that drops on the water It is a long way from the afternoon when Henry Gutte said to me, “Hill, your rod is a piece of shit! Give me twenty dollars and when I come back up the canyon I will have a decent rod for you.”
I gave Henry a twenty dollar bill, a lot of money for someone who made ninety dollars a month. He came back with that Fenwick rod. From that point on, things changed. I was eighteen. Now I am eighty-five. I have fished in Belize, England, Montana, Colorado, New York, Maine and throughout the Sierras. I have fished in lakes, in the surf, in mountain streams, and have waded toward the breaker line in the Caribbean. I have fished for a rare trout on the shoulder of Mt. Shasta and I have written about it. I have wandered through the sagebrush in the high desert of Nevada in search of exotic trout. I have taught others to fly fish.. Henry Gutte is long gone. But what he did for me on that afternoon in 1953 remains, a life-long legacy. Both of my sons are consummate fly fishers. So is my oldest grandson, Nathaniel. He will go with me to the Amazon next June. We will catch a piranha using that little fiberglass rod that I bought. It’s the grandson of the rod that Henry bought for me.
In 1868 Alfred Russel Wallace described the differences between the ‘savage” people he observed in the Malay Archipelago and the people in London. The people he observed in the villages where he lived were all poor, yet they could buy English cotton cheaper than the English working class. Because the “savages” were poor, the price of cotton was reduced. Otherwise they would not be a market for the English goods.
Wallace wrote that a child of a worker in an English factory shivvered in the winter cold while the child of a “savage” in the tropics, who did not need the covering wore it as a decoration. That child’s parents, unlike the English working people, could afford the cotton.
The system is wrong! Wallace wrote. The difference between the rich and the poor in London is a manifestation of a system that is essentially wrong. The “savages’ without that vast chasm between the rich and the poor lived lives free of criminality. There were no prisons in the Malay villages. Thievery was rare and was dealt with by the whole village, not by a court of law. The prisons in London were overcrowded.
The English system was held up, Wallace maintained, by their armies, their armed fleets, countless useless legislation and an unwillingness to eliminate the separation between the rich and the poor.
Wallace wrote this criticism in 1868. The Americans, he said, had difficulty in abolishing slavery because they could see no easy way of changing their economy.
Wallace lived in a multicultural society in the Malay Archipelago. For 300 years, Europeans (Portuguese, Germans and English) had mixed with countless native tribal people. In his book, Wallace lists examples of words from thirty-nine different languages. As a result, strangers were easily accepted. and Wallace found few examples where he was the victim of prejudicial treatment.
At the conclusion of his book, he wrote that the English system is “a state of social barbarism. We also boast of our love of justice, and that the law protects rich and poor alike. Yet we retain money fines as punishment and make the very first step to obtain justice a matter of expense—in both cases a barbarous injustice or denial of justice to the poor.”
He concludes by writing “as regards true social science we [the English] are still in a state of barbarism.”
Wallace could be describing the world we live in today.
There is a pile of lumber in the back patio, smooth boards that will become Adirondack chairs. I have promised to make two for Sofia and Austin in Portland, two for Geoffrey and Jill in Chico and one for Laurel’s new deck. These are copies of the chairs I made in Eureka, except that they will be forest green instead of white. I made six of those chairs in the basement shop I had in Eureka.That was the first and only shop I have ever had, a floor of concrete poured by Dave Lubiszewski, Graham and Geoffrey and a real workbench. A set of steps went up the north wall into the garden. I gave two of those chairs to Laurel and Dave, two to Graham and Krysta, kept two for ourselves. I was proud of those chairs, sat in them in the broad green lawn in Eureka, while I sipped my afternoon drink. The lumber at that time cost half as much.
I still sit in an Adirodack chair at dusk with a drink to watch the sun go off the mountain.Th chair I sit in is a copy of a rotten chair I found under Dora William’s cabin at Dillon Beach. The original sat on Dora’s deck overlooking the beach, the entrance to Tomales Bay and the Pacific. How long ago might that have been? More than three-quarters of a century. I brought the hulk of that old chair home, made a pattern and made several chairs. It is a folding Adirondack chair, an oddity that is special
You can balance your drink on the arm of an Adirondack chair, lay back and drop off to sleep.
It is three thousand miles from its original home in the Adirondack mountains.. I will stand at my chop saw and cut the pieces: the legs, slats for the seats, pieces for the back. I will use the jig saw to cut the curves on the arms and back, drill the holes for the bolts that hold the chair together and I will paint the chair and it will be complete. At my age that is something to be cherished
I have finished Alfred Russel Wallace’s journal. A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro. He climbs a river beyond the Amazon and Rio Negro that no European has ever ventured near, going up a narrow stream that is punctuated by dozens of waterfalls and rapids. At times he and his Indian companions pull the big canoe up a twenty foot roaring gorge, but he manages to get to a point where he says, no other European has set foot He is suffering from what he calls ague, but is no doubt malaria, he is often barely able to climb into the boat but he presses on. His trip home to England at the end of that year is fraught with disaster. The ship catches fire and the thousands of insects that he has collected, hundreds of exotic bird skins, dozens of live parrots and monkeys perish in the flames. He loses his notes, his records of his years of research in the Amazon and Rio Negro forests. But he and his shipmates are rescued and he turns to the future. No point it plunging into the past, he says. And he goes off to the Malay archipelago where his research leads him to a theory of the evolution of mankind. Darwin beats him to the punch, publishing his work before Wallace can do so but Wallace is generous, supports Darwin. Six years after he returns to England with a brilliant collection of bird skins and insects (now at the British museum), he writes of his research and travels in Asia, and dedicates the book , The Malay Archipelago, to the genius of Charles Darwin. Wallace was a remarkable man. He travels from island to island, keeping detailed notes of customs and languages. He lists thousands of words in dozens of natïve languages, brings home the skins of the bird of paradise and insects that are unknown to European etymologists. His travails are numerous. For a while his body is covered with an eruption of boils and he notes that there is no position that he can lie in that does not cause him pain. He studies the orang-utan, and makes sketches of this curious beast. One of his sketches shows an orang-utn attacking some natives armed with lances. It is a frightening scene. He brings home a collection of thousands of insects and butterflies, and his notes describe the geography of the earthquake-prone archipelago. He describes foods that are exotic to his countrymen in England. Always he is patient, always he takes time to chronicle every detail of his journeys. His writing is clear and easily understandable to the non-naturalist. He is an ordinary man with a genius for cataloging the natural world. He has an enormous capacity to deal with difficulty, brushing off events that would be, to others, life threatening, and a reason to halt. But Wallace surges on,
Wallace wrote that when he arrived at the mouth of he Amazon, “everything here had the charm of perfect novelty.”
It was more than novelty that he found in both of the worlds in which he traveled, observing, writing, through blazing sun and monsoons, through debilitating disease and the treachery of others, surviving attacks of hordes of biting ants and mosqitoes. At one point he describes biting ants that carry off his insect specimens before his eyes, infest his hair and clothes and his bed, ants that inhabit every bush, every part of his house every part of his body. Yet, he soldiers on, snatching his insects from the ants. clearing out the eggs laid by blow flies on his bird skins. He ended his life in his house in Dorset.
I Iived in Dorset for a year, It is a part of England that seems to have been forgotten, farms with laborers who are doing the jobs that their great-grand fathers did. I taught children who had never been more than six miles from where they were born. Here was this neighbor who had traveled hundreds of thousands of miles in the wilds of the rivers of South America and the islands of Malaysia. The “perfect novelty “ that Wallace found at the mouth of the Amazon turned out to be only a faint taste of what was to come.
What he eventually found was not novel. It was as far from Dorset as one could find. It was a world that might as well have been in outer space.