Yes, every inch of the globe has been seen, mapped, photographed, and measured, but is it known? Robert Leonard Reid doesn’t think so. To draw a circle and calculate its diameter is not to know the circle. In this collection, Reid distinguishes himself from many science-based nature writers, using the natural world as a springboard for speculations and musings on the numinous and the sacred, injustice, homelessness, the treatment of Native Peoples in the United States, and what pushes mountaineers to climb. Ranging in their settings from eastern New Mexico to northern Alaska, Reid’s essays illustrate his belief that the American West is worth celebrating and caring for.
Taking its title from an affecting speech given by renowned writer Barry Lopez, Because It Is So Beautiful is a response to desperate question surrounding America’s wildlands. Lopez’s words resonated with the young mountaineer-musician-mathematician Robert Leonard Reid, who was struggling to understand his relationship to the world, to find his vision as a writer. What he learned on that long-ago evening is knit throughout the nineteen pieces in the collection, which includes essays from Reid’s previous books Arctic Circle, Mountains of the Great Blue Dream, and America, New Mexico; three essays that appear here in print for the first time; as well as revised and expanded versions of essays that appeared in Touchstone, The Progressive, and elsewhere.
BECAUSE IT IS SO BEAUTIFUL
“ These 19 selected essays by Robert Leonard Reid are stirring, witty, gorgeously written paeans to the wilderness. It's a wonderful, must-read collection. "
National Book Award finalist, author of Mariette in Ecstasy, Desperadoes, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
“ Forty years in the making, this astonishing collection could not come at a more urgent time. Its title, Because It Is So Beautiful, alludes to Robert Reid’s unrelenting quest to celebrate our vulnerable, historic wilderness, but it also speaks to his prose, and to himself. With lyricism, charm, and trenchant observations, he inspires readers to meditate on the importance of being alive, of being responsible for the landscapes we inhabit. He remains not merely a first-class writer but an invaluable moral guide. ”
author of Wreckage: My Father’s Legacy of Art & Junk; Ajanta’s Ledge (poetry); and Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz & Literature. Feinstein edits Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz & Literature
" Calling Robert Reid an outdoor writer is like calling Thoreau a writer about pond camping. There is so much more. He writes authoritatively and passionately about the West, especially the wild parts. Wilderness is not better when empty of man, in Reid’s descriptions of it; in fact, you might almost say it fails to exist, without some questing consciousness standing under a nighttime mountain sky, hanging thoughts on the shivering stars. Reid has been writing classic American essays full of Twain-like humor and Emersonian moral force for forty years now. In this collection we find him in his
calmly formidable prime. ”
author of Nabokov in America, a biography; The Savage Professor, a novel; and Fatal Mountaineer, a biography of climber Willi Unsoeld, and winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize
" Imagine a Harvard-educated mathematician. Push that to pi by the 10th power and have him be the author of texts on mathematics: how to teach, understand, and even employ mathematics as a life-enhancing endeavor. Now imagine that same man as a jazz pianist, a noted Nevada lounge entertainer. Again, push it and imagine a composer who can write a cantata based on Erasmus’ Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit, and have that piece performed in a cathedral, its closing scene including trapeze artists, jugglers, dwarves, dancers, homeless people, and a few performers actually resembling yourself. Now lace up a pair of hiking boots and fly with this same nonpareil genius to remote Alaska to locate and follow a herd of caribou to their Arctic calving grounds just to see how it might be. And then imagine sitting on a back porch in Silver City, Nevada, population 60, on a crisp October afternoon and indulging in a beer summit of immaculate conversation during which three hours dissolve into a seeming fifteen minutes. Meet Robert Reid. My friend Bob, who I take great delight in introducing to you. I promise you, this is a man who can enhance, change, and vitalize your life. I also promise you he brings all that together in these pages: you’re going to love this book. ”
Pulitzer Prize nominee for News from Down to the Cafe and Utah's inaugural poet laureate (1997-2002). Lee has received the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award in Poetry and the Western States Book Award in Poetry. In 2001, he was selected as one of two finalists for the position of United States Poet Laureate
“ There are many books about the American West. This one, Robert Leonard Reid’s lustrous, selected essays from the last four decades, is indispensable. The pages embody the beauty they describe. We find here lightning bolts and bear, the balletic caribou, atomic weapons, legendary wolves, mountaintops where light is a territory of spirit, adventures daft and courageous. We find both the grit and sorrow of history and meditations on redemption and the sacred. But best of all, and most of all, we have the company of the writer: his clear, loving, respectful prose, his bemusement and honesty and learning, the finery of his reflections, and the integrity of his journey. ”
author of The Hot Climate of Promises and Grace; six books of sonnets; Granada, a history of Granada; and two novels, The Lost Coast and its sequel The Thirteenth Daughter of the Moon, both published by St. Martin’s Press
“ Robert Leonard Reid has given us an extraordinary anthology of his life’s work.
We may as well get that out of the way. This is no shallow, tin-eared feature boasting “101 Best Places to Eat in New Mexico.” For the most part, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West is travel writing as diffused biography, combining a meditated natural and human history of the United States with heart-stopping descriptions of landscape. Reid shifts between the present and past tense with lyrical diction, chipmunk-like intensity, and unremitting tenderness. He follows classic journalistic style: concrete nouns, active verbs, graceful sentences, solid paragraphs, smooth transitions. Get it right and don’t be boring. Throughout it all, racking up miles of travel and yowzah moments, Reid is good company. He’s the brilliant professor you had in college. When it’s going well, he’s weightless.
The book’s title is misleading. Reid’s American West includes stories from British Columbia, the Arctic, even London. He retells the epic 1912 story of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott; relays the daring first ascent of Hummingbird Ridge on Canada’s Mount Logan; and invites the reader to Barter Island, Alaska, where he chases porcupine caribou and cooks Arctic char that’s “electric silver in hue with tiny pink spots.” Did you know that caribou hoof clicks are produced by ligaments slipping over bones in the feet? Or that Arctic terns spend their lives migrating between the polar ice caps? After 25 years a single tern logs nearly a million miles while “weighing no more than a bran muffin.” Or that in 1869, when the transcontinental railway was completed, bison numbers were estimated at 40 million, and uncountable pelicans rose from rivers “like a clatter of pots and pans”?
So let’s turn the pages. We paperclip along old Route 66, stumbling between cosmologies in New Mexico and Arizona. We visit Trinity Site, where the world’s first nuclear bomb exploded in 1945. We ramble through the Diné and Hopi reservations. We climb Acoma Pueblo, where the first battle over religious freedom in what is now the United States was fought in 1598. A modern-day Saturday night in the alcohol-fueled gutters of Gallup, New Mexico, rings dead-bang true. Reid also rips the bandage off an ancient wound. His retelling of the sad 1860s story of the Long Walk – when more than 9,000 Diné and Mescalero Apaches were forcibly marched to a dusty reservation near Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico – will break your heart. But Reid makes it clear the army never conquered the dignity of those it captured. The entire code of Native American values was denigrated by mediocre men who did not know how to recognize them, just as they did not know how to measure themselves by them.
One of his essays, written in 1981 and updated here, states his belief that extinct California condors are a better alternative than captive condors living outside the wild world. If the last condor dies, Reid writes, “It will be – for us – a tragedy of huge proportions, but it won’t be a tragedy for condors.”
In some of his travels Reid should have talked a little less and listened a little more. Knocked on doors and smelled more armpits. Mark Twain taught us that the funniest joke is to tell the truth. But those are quibbles in contrast to what Reid does well – he tells good stories. And some of his sentences are downright beautiful. He writes: “I believe the future is in free-running rivers and snowy mountains and deserts so wide and graceful they bring tears to your eyes.”
Plenty of hard-working writers have cracked the nuances of the West – Wallace Stegner, Barry Lopez (from whom Reid took the title Because It Is So Beautiful), and Terry Tempest Williams, to name just three. Does Reid have a place on that top-shelf bookcase of Western writers? I’m not sure. But I do know Reid is the Western writer I’d most like to have a beer with.”
Review in Earth Island Journal by the veteran ski journalist and author of 100 Best Ski Resorts of the World
A “loose sally of the mind” is how writer Samuel Johnson described the method behind the personal essay, and Reid displays it brilliantly here. Selections are from his previous works, including Mountains of the Great Blue Dream (1991), America, New Mexico (1998), and Arctic Circle (2010); some previously unpublished pieces are included as well. Blending memoir, travelogue, white-knuckle alpine adventure, and natural history, Reid’s explorations of the American West reveal the “darkness no less than the light.” For example, he writes about homelessness in New Mexico’s Santa Fe military industrial complex; the tracking and killing of Colorado’s last wolf; the migration of the Porcupine caribou herd; and his own climb and spiritual awakening on Mount Tsoodzil in New Mexico. A familiar idea runs throughout: in wilderness is the preservation of the world. The book’s satisfying structure rewards both “dipping in” or reading straight through; there are many gems found within these pages.
Starred review by one of Library Journal’s 2016 “Reviewers of the Year”
A meditation on the North, inspired by the author’s journeys to northern Alaska and Yukon on the trail of the Porcupine caribou herd.
Arctic Circle documents a journey of inquiry and discovery in
the Alaskan and Yukon Arctic. As essayist Robert Leonard Reid confronts a series of gradually deepening crises in his daily life, he seizes upon a metaphor for the wearying pattern of hope alternating with dashed-hope he has come to know: the stirring, harrowing migration of the Porcupine caribou herd to its calving grounds on the Beaufort Sea.
The caribou’s journey, a 2,700-mile ordeal of extreme weather, hungry predators, and treacherous terrain, is the longest migration of any land animal on earth. Recalling a long-ago vow he made to a visionary Alaskan named Fred Meader, whose inspired life and tragic death in Alaska’s Brooks Range transformed Reid’s understanding of the North, Reid leaves his home in Nevada and heads for Alaska. In a rarely visited valley in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge he locates a portion of the Porcupine herd and observes its passage toward the spot that the Inuit call ivvavik, "a place for giving birth to and raising young." In northern Yukon, days before the annual migration is to begin, he follows a native game-finder into the Ogilvie Mountains in search of caribou on their winter range.
In the book’s final pages, he makes his way to the site of Fred Meader’s homestead in the Brooks Range and there encounters Meader’s daughter, carrying on her father’s work a quarter-century after his death. Each chapter of Reid’s journey touches on the cycle of birth and rebirth--the notion that beyond trial, tribulation, and even death lies the promise of a new beginning.
“ A meditative, affecting, and funny tale of adventure and revelation...As Reid recounts his Arctic sojourns with awe, lyricism, and bemusement, he subtly interlaces inner and outer worlds and traces the circles of struggle and understanding, life and death. Spectacular descriptions, charming wit, and forthright reflections on what makes a place sacred become striking testimony to the importance of the Arctic wild
and the need to preserve it. ”
“ Part memoir, part spiritual quest, and part adventure story, with a healthy dose of natural history. Reid...is an able narrator, prone to waxing philosophic about the nature of the Arctic—and indeed, the nature of life itself. He eschews dry scientific explanations in favor of poetic and playful descriptions. Observing the perpetual summer daylight and the frisky antics of nesting Arctic terns, he asks readers to behold “daying of the night” and the “screw of the tern.”...Ultimately, this is a story of circles, and Reid's first-hand description shows how the Arctic and its caribou manifest the cycles of peace and hardship, winter and summer. ”
“ Mountaineer and writer Robert Leonard Reid had a dream, but for 25 years life kept getting in the way. He wanted to see the caribou on their 2,700 mile annual migration across the Arctic. Wrapped in mystery, it is the longest migration of any land animal on Earth. Reid finally made the trip on the eve of his 60th birthday. Arctic Circle: Birth and Rebirth in the Land of the Caribou is his melancholy, witty, scientific, and spiritual account of the trip. Though Reid was late in following his dream, the timing of his book celebrating the majestic beauty of a place oil companies are eyeing for drilling is impeccable. ”
THE BOSTON GLOBE
" Reid’s book is not exactly a chronicle; it’s a poem, an ode to wild Alaska. It’s not only about nature, but also about human interaction with it, and specifically about the reactions of one human, himself, to it. Initially I was impatient with Reid’s prologue, his meandering and his failure to get on with it. But this book is not about plot or narrative tension; it’s about being there. And Reid has a talent for taking us there. "
THE INTERNET REVIEW OF BOOKS
MOUNTAINS OF THE GREAT BLUE DREAM
An essay collection exploring the philosophical and spiritual sides of mountain climbing, Robert Leonard Reid’s avocation for twenty-five years
Whether we gaze at them from afar or attempt their summits, mountains have a powerful hold on our collective imagination. In twenty-five years of mountaineering, Robert Leonard Reid has made many discoveries--about climbing, yes, but also about nature and about humanity. He shares his discoveries in seven compelling essays that explore the universal allure of mountains and how they have shaped his life.
Moments of high drama abound here. Reid provides firsthand stories of freak accidents, lost friends, and joyfully accomplished climbs. His intimate relationship with the wilderness infuses these pieces with rare passion and understanding as he relates a harrowing winter ascent of Mount Shasta, a whimsical jaunt in the Catskills with high school students from the Bronx, and the final days of the last wild wolf in Colorado.
But Reid gives equal weight to more interior adventures. With the intensity of a climber searching for an elusive handhold, he explores the thrill of risking death, speculates on the nature of reality, and meditates on the deafening silence of extinct species. He moves from a description of a near-mystical experience to a vivid account of a treacherous climb as naturally as a thin wisp of cloud evolves into a thunderhead.
In the spirit of Peter Matthiessen and Barry Lopez, and with undeniable pleasure and hard-won knowledge, Reid reveals the heart of the mountains he has encountered. Climbers, hikers, environmentalists, and poets alike will delight in the exuberance, grace, and power of this book.
" An insightful, strong, often lyrical meditation on great mountains. "
author of The Snow Leopard
" Wonderfully fluent, even visionary in his prose, [Reid] guides us down many trails that don't exist on maps....Reid is both lyrical and intense in his descriptions, and a marvelous explorer in the realm of skewed thought and far-reaching connections....From a moving essay on the last wolf trapped in Colorado, to an explanation of sound, to a dizzying and horrifying short-order history of our quickly ravaged continent and a thoughtful religious debate, [he] has assembled a book that is wide-ranging yet concise and joyously coherent. ”
" [Takes] natural history writing to new heights...A virtuoso examination of the psychic bond between man and mountains. "
SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER
“ A rhapsodic (and irresistible) eloquence. ”
" In all of mountaineering literature, I don't think anyone has written so perceptively about the role death plays in climbing. "
co-author of Addicted to Danger and, with three others, first American to ascend K2
“ Robert Leonard Reid, a well-known writer on alpinism, delights in the satori-inducing dangers of mountaineering. ‘Once on vertical rock in desert country,’ he writes in Mountains of the Great Blue Dream, ‘I reached for a crack, inserted my fingers, stepped up, and stared into the steely eyes of a rattlesnake coiled two feet from my hand.’ And that's just a start, for this fine collection of essays recounts many other death-defying adventures endured in nights spent pinned to rock walls in howling winds, days battling ice storms and uncooperative ropes. But this is not just a book of macho accomplishment on the high peaks: Reid writes affectionately of the mountain landscapes among which he has walked and climbed, lending his book a rare and welcome poetry. ”
“ Draws us further into the spiritual dimension and focuses on the insights to be gained in the mountain environment which transcend the merely athletic and recreational. For, when austerity and endurance are a necessary part of the endeavor, and death is omnipresent, the conditions are there in which mysticism can flourish...[Reid] is bracing...when carrying out a hatchet job on the American myth of the macho pioneer and backwoodsman, and both respectful and poetic in his treatment of a climb on the sacred Navajo mountain Tsoodzil...[He] reminds us that any attempt to change attitudes towards a more egalitarian way of living in nature must always save a place for the elegiac. ”
The Times Literary Supplement
A mean-streets look at a host of afflictions plaguing New Mexicans and, by extension, all Americans--homelessness, gangs, guns, racism, censorship, militarism
New Mexico is a land with two faces. It is a land of enchantment, legendary for its natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. But it is also a land of paradox. In America, New Mexico, Robert Leonard Reid explores deep inside New Mexico’s landscape to find the real New Mexico within.
Having traveled and hiked countless miles throughout the state, Reid knows New Mexico’s breathtaking landscape intimately. But he knows the human landscape as well: its artists and poets, medicine men and businessmen, preachers and politicians, Hispanics and Anglos. He knows that amid the glittering mansions of Santa Fe there are homeless shelters, that the Indians of myth and legend combat alcoholism and poverty, and that toxic waste lurks beneath a land of almost surreal beauty.
America, New Mexico, is a book about land, sky, and hope by a writer whose passion and inspiring prose invite us to see the promise and possibilities of reconnecting with the natural world. It is unflinching in its depiction of the adversities facing New Mexicans and indeed all Americans. But above all, it searches behind and beyond these troubling issues to find, standing staunchly against them, a quiet and unshakable confidence rooted in New Mexico’s natural world. For anyone who has ever been moved by the incomparable beauty of New Mexico, for anyone concerned with the landscape in which all Americans live, America, New Mexico is an unforgettable book.
“ A revelatory journey by a brilliant writer through the New Mexico that tourists have never seen. "
MacArthur Fellow, Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction, and author of Beyond Blade Runner
“ Had I read America, New Mexico before making my own remarks on nuclear weapons, I think I would have been content merely to quote Reid at extended length. [His] writing is extraordinarily fine. ”
Lewis H. Lapham
Lapham’s Quarterly and former editor of Harper’s
“ From deserts to mountains, the freedom of prairie expanses to dodging traffic on Central Boulevard in Albuquerque, Reid leaves the reader appreciating his accuracy and forthrightness. . . . Don't let this one get away. It delivers enthralling reading. ”
“ Not your average New Mexico travel book. Reid uses the eight years he spent working and traveling the literal and figurative back roads of New Mexico as a prism to examine what he sees as wrong and right with America. Ranging through New Mexican space and time, Reid comments on both contemporary and historical events, including the U.S. Army's action during the Civil War, forcing thousands of Native Americans (mainly Navajos) to march from their native lands to a bleak settlement at Fort Sumner for ‘civilizing.’ The text is full of people and places, both expected (Georgia O'Keeffe, Mabel Dodge, D. H. Lawrence, around Taos; J. Robert Oppenheimer at Almagordo and Los Alamos) and unexpected (Saint Francis, as much at home in nineteenth-century Santa Fe as thirteenth-century Assisi). Reid includes some great descriptions of natural scenery and quotes everyone from G. K. Chesterton to Pablo Picasso. ”