Charles Frazier's first novel, Cold Mountain, is a Civil War story, but it contains several quite remarkable nature passages. I find the following so sensitive to a kind of insight into natural history that has become rare now that I quote it at some length. I highly recommend this book for general reading as this insightful nature passage is representative of the quality of all of the author's text.
It was an afternoon of bright haze, the sunlight sourceless and uniform. Ruby examined the trees and judged solemnly that the apples were making tolerably well. Then, out of the blue, she looked at Ada and said, Point north. She grinned at the long delay as Ada worked out the cardinal directions from her recollection of where the sun set. Such questions were a recent habit Ruby had developed. She seemed to delight in demonstrating how disoriented Ada was in the world. As they walked by the creek one day she had asked, What's the course of that water? Where does it come from and what does it run into? Another day she had said, Name me four plants on that hillside that in a pinch you could eat. How many days to the next new moon? Name two things blooming now and two things fruiting.
Ada did not yet have those answers, but she could feel them coming, and Ruby was her principal text. During the daily rounds of work, Ada had soon noted that Ruby's lore included many impracticalities beyond the raising of crops. The names of useless beings -- both animal and vegetable -- and the custom of their lives apparently occupied much of Ruby's thinking, for she was constantly pointing out the little creatures that occupy the nooks of the world. Her mind marked every mantis in a stand of ragweed, the corn borers in the little tents they folded out of milkweed leaves, striped and spotted salamanders with their friendly smiling faces under rocks in the creek. Ruby noted little hairy liverish poisonous-looking plants and fungi growing on the damp bark of dying trees, all the larvae and bugs and worms that live alone inside a case of sticks or grit or leaves. Each life with a story behind it. Every little gesture nature made to suggest a mind marking its life as its own caught Ruby's interest.
So as they sat on the blanket, drowsy and full from lunch, Ada told Ruby that she envied her knowledge of how the world runs. Farming, cookery, wild lore. How do you come to know such things? Ada had asked.
Ruby said she had learned what little she knew in the usual way. A lot of it was grandmother knowledge, got from wandering around the settlement talking to any old woman who would talk back, watching them work and asking questions. Some came from helping Sally Swanger, who knew, Ruby claimed, a great many quiet things such as the names of all plants down to the plainest weed. Partly, though, she claimed she had just puzzled out in her own mind how the world's logic works. It was mostly a matter of being attentive.
-- You commence by trying to see what likes what, Ruby said. Which Ada interpreted to mean, Observe and understand the workings of affinity in nature.
Ruby pointed to red splashes of color on the green hillside of the ridge: sumac and dogwood already turning color in advance of other trees. Why would they do that near a month ahead? she said.
-- Chance? Ada said.
Ruby made a little sound like spitting a fleck of dirt or a gnat from the tip of her tongue. Her view was that people like to lay off anything they can't fathom as random. She saw it another way. Both sumac and dogwood were full of ripe berries at that time of year. The thing a person had to ask was, What else is happening that might bear on the subject? One thing was, birds moving. They were passing over all day long and all night too. You didn't have to but look up to know that. Enough to make you dizzy at the numbers of them. Then think about standing on a high place like the jump-off rock and looking down on the trees as the birds see them. Then wonder at how green and alike the trees look. One very much resembling another, whether it offers a meal or not. That's all roving birds see. They don't know these woods. They don't know where a particular food tree might live. Ruby's conclusion was, dogwood and sumac maybe turn red to say eat to hungry stranger birds.
Ada said, You seem to suppose that a dogwood might have a plan in this.
-- Well, maybe they do, Ruby said. She asked whether Ada had ever looked close up at the particular mess of various birds. Their droppings.
-- Hardly, Ada said.
-- Don't act so proud about it, Ruby said. In her view that's where the answer to this issue might lie. Every little dogwood can't grow up right where it falls under the big dogwood. Being rooted, they use the birds to move themselves around to more likely ground. Birds eat berries, and the seeds come through whole and unmarred, ready to grow where dropped, already dressed with manure. It was Ruby's opinion that if a person puzzled all this out over time, she might also find a lesson somewhere in it, for much of creation worked by such method and to such ends.
They sat quietly for a while, and then in the warm still air of the afternoon Ruby lay down and dozed on the quilt. Ada was tired too, but she fought off sleep like a child at bedtime. She rose and walked beyond the orchard to the margin of the woods where the tall autumn flowers -- goldenrod and ironweed and joe-pye weed -- were beginning to bloom yellow and indigo and iron grey. Monarchs and swallowtails worked among the flower heads. Three finches balanced on blackberry canes, the leaves already turning maroon, and then flew away, flaring out low to the ground, their yellow backs flashing between their black wings until they disappeared into a clump of dog hobble and sumac at the transition between field and woods.
Ada stood still and let her eyes go unfocused, and as she did she became aware of the busy movements of myriad tiny creatures vibrating all through the massed flowers, down the stems and clear to the ground. Insects flying, crawling, climbing, eating. Their accumulation of energy was a kind of luminous quiver of life that filled Ada's undirected vision right to the edges.*