Photo by Pam Ertel
Robert Leonard Reid
grew up in a small town at the edge of Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. There he fell in love with the natural world—lakes and autumn evenings, wildlife, meandering streams; most of all the night sky. As he recalled in his book Mountains of the Great Blue Dream:
In the months to come I spent countless hours alone in the...darkness behind my house. It is not correct to say “behind my house,” I suppose, for...I was always in another place, propelled there by that timeless affection for the cosmos that inhabits us all, if only we allow ourselves to remember. I came to know the bears, the twins, Andromeda and her silver-blue cloud, the soft light from which had set out two million years before, and now, after surviving many a peril, had drifted to rest in my eyes. The night sky changed from the dimensionless jumble of twinkles I had glanced up at unfeelingly from time to time to a profound wonderment that cast a personal, obsessing spell over me. I began to believe that if I tried hard I might be taken into the confidence of the stars.
In December of his senior year in high school he learned that he had been accepted to Harvard. He decided at once to major in astronomy.
A few days after my arrival in Cambridge I was given the keys to Harvard’s venerable 15-inch refractor, now a bit creaky and dusty, but a century before the largest refractor in the world. I shook my head in disbelief. I had never gazed through a telescope. I’d dreamed of intimacy with Andromeda but had always imagined she was unattainable. Now suddenly I had been handed the keys to her apartment!
Alas, we barely met. The beginning of science meant the end of intimacy. Across imponderable space the light of the silver stars had always traveled straight to my eyes.... Now several obscuring barriers were thrown up at once. There was the telescope, of course; onto that that I snapped a camera and into that I slipped film. For the next six months I sat at the controls of the telescope not gazing at the sky, but photographing it. By the time I saw the stars they were white splotches on a sheet of emulsion. The white splotches, I learned in class, were rotating nuclear reactions converting hydrogen to helium.
That experience—the shift from wonder to number—set in motion a lifelong clash between contrasting perceptions of nature and reality. Bowing at first to number, Reid switched his major to mathematics. In later years he taught high school mathematics and worked as a freelance mathematics textbook writer.
Simultaneously, he set off on an divergent path. In New York City he attended the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied composition with Nicolas Flagello and Ludmila Ulehla. Then, having discovered both the majesty of the American West and the challenges and raptures of mountain climbing, he emigrated to California to become a writer, a piano player, and a composer. He’s lived in the West for forty years--twelve in the Golden State, eight in New Mexico, twenty in what he intends to be his last stop, northwestern Nevada. In his essay collection America, New Mexico, he described his approach to writing about the natural world, one that differs considerably from
science-based natural history writing:
I for a long time looked at unexplained phenomena as something like genial trout lollygagging in the sun and waiting patiently for some passing logician to throw in a line and haul them out. Today I suspect I was only about half right. Climbing mountains for a quarter century softened me up by introducing me to the melodies and hues of the natural world; opening my heart to the enchantments of the American West finished the job. I do not argue for a rejection of reason in favor of transcendence, rather for an incorporation of both in any effort to understand the world. Surely, scientists should strive to answer every question that presents itself to them. They would be well-advised, too, to read self-help manuals on how to handle disappointment and failure, to prepare themselves for the day when they complete their grand explication of the universe and discover that half of its pages are still blank.
Reid is the author of five books, four works for the theater, many songs and some 100 magazine articles, short stories, and essays.
Among the periodicals in which his works have appeared are Harper’s, Sierra, America West, Brilliant Corners, AGNI, Climbing, Car and Driver, California Magazine, Money, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Progressive. He has received two Artist Fellowships in Literary Arts from the Nevada Arts Council and two Literary Artist Grants from the Sierra Art Foundation. In 2018 he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. He is a prolific songwriter and has worked as accompanist for chanteuse June Joplin in the Great American Songbook duo Me and Bobby McGee, and as keyboard player in several northern Nevada bands. His writings have appeared in four anthologies: Reading a Landscape: Writing a World (Harcourt Brace & Company); Literary Nevada: Writings From the Silver State (University of Nevada Press); America: True Stories of Life on the Road (Travelers’ Tales Press); and Wild Nevada: Testimonies on Behalf of the Desert (University of Nevada Press). Reid lives in Carson City, Nevada. He is married to Carol Dimmick Reid, with whom he has a son, Jacob.