How to write riveting scenery description — shown below by Elizabeth Berg, in an excerpt from her book, Escaping into the Open.
The summer when I was nine years old, we lived beside a huge gully. I used to go there nearly every day. Agates and wildflowers were plentiful and free for the taking — you were limited only by the size of your hands and pockets. Near the center of the gully was a secluded embankment covered by blades of grass the length and texture of girls’ hair. Willow trees surrounded it, and the sunlight coming through their leaves created a lacy pattern of shadow that I always wished I could pick up and lay over my head like a mantilla. Day after day, I lay on that small hill and watched the shifting patterns of clouds and listened to the birds. I could not identify the birds themselves, but I did recognize their calls. Sometimes I made my own sounds to call back; whenever I did, there would follow a moment of abrupt silence during which I assumed the birds tried to identify me, then gave up and went back to business. I found this satisfying; it made us even. — Page 1, Escaping into the Open by Elizabeth Berg
Your turn: Write a description of a place where you find satisfaction.
There is something special about 9,500 feet. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the backbone of California, that altitude is known as treeline. Here granite rules over the sparse fingers of pioneer conifers, trees stunted by malnutrition and abuse. The majestic peaks jut skyward thousands of feet higher, draped year-round in snow that, even in August, continued to transform glacial cirques into ice blue lakes.
When backpacking, treeline was where we always headed, often following the John Muir Trail until our need for exploration and solitude drove us cross-country above the woodland frontier. Here, boulder hopping was faster than climbing over avalanche fallen pines. And every once in a while we were lucky enough to find a ridge of glaciated granite, sanded down long ago by a passing ice age, open and flat enough for us to gambol at the top of the world.
By late afternoon of our second day out we would search for a lake with just enough trees to shelter our tents and harbor a hammock. The trees not only saved my sunburned skin from further exposure to the harsh unfiltered summer sunlight, but also broke the wind that whistled down the mountains not long after the granite blazed red with the setting sun, and warm rising breezes lost ground to heavy sheets of cold that slipped off the mountain’s ice fields.
It was here, in that magic country where the rules had not changed for tens of thousands of years, that I would close myself in my tent, make a pillow of my clothes, and wiggle my bare body down into a cold mummy sleeping bag. By the time I pulled the tie-strings tight, leaving only a small breathing hole, the bag was already warmed to body temperature, which would have been too hot had the outside temperature not dropped below freezing.
I would awaken to the birth of granite boulders, heard but never seen tumbling down the cliffs, released after a final birthing contraction had given way to the warming expansion of the early morning sun.
Today was a layover day which meant sleeping in until the sun rose high enough to turn the frozen frost of my breath on the tent ceiling into droplets of water that darkened the green nylon cover of my bag. The true measure of the night’s cold was the thickness of the ice in my plastic canteen as I took a ritual re-hydrating drink of water. Breakfast was cold, too, for in this ecology wood was so scarce that to burn even the fallen limbs meant certain death for the struggling trees, 90% of their nutrients coming from consumption of the decayed remains of their own detritus.
As the other members of my party set off in search of lake trout or mountain peak, I clambered into my hammock to rest my knees and watch the wind chase the hillside grasses and dance with the meadow flowers. The gusts whispered to me as they passed through the needles, rocking me to sleep with their sway of the trees.
mcullen Post author
Wow,Jim, your excellent descriptive writing is making me reach for my down jacket! I love the images you describe, making them vivid and evoking a time of settling in and contemplating and being in the moment. Great sensory detail.
James’s essay brings the Sierras alive with analogous human terms like “backbone” and “giving birth”. The images communicate the newness (in geological time) of this part of California. Very sensory— with sight,smell and especially the touch of the warmth of your skin in your mummy bag. Being naked in the cocoon of the bag is another great image of being vulnerable yet at one with nature.
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