A Million Years with You: A Memoir of Life Observedby Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
One of our greatest literary naturalists, now in her eighth decade, turns her famed observational eye on herself: how is it that an untrained, self-taught observer and writer could see things that anthropologists and zoologists often missed? How can we all unlock the wisdom of the world simply by paying close attention?See more details below
One of our greatest literary naturalists, now in her eighth decade, turns her famed observational eye on herself: how is it that an untrained, self-taught observer and writer could see things that anthropologists and zoologists often missed? How can we all unlock the wisdom of the world simply by paying close attention?
"Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's affirming, finely-observed memoir recounts a life in the process of being fully and unapologetically lived; a gift from someone with an endlessly curious mind and more than eight decades on the planet. But perhaps the greatest gift of A Million Years with You is Marshall Thomas's signal talent: it leaves the reader feeling far less alone in the world, and much more deeply connected to it." — Alexandra Fuller, author of Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness
"It would be a gross understatement to say that A Million Years with You is a stunning book. Thomas is confronted by Idi Amin in Uganda; she digs roots with women gatherers in the Kalahari. In Ibadan, Nigeria, she witnesses tribal violence, religious sacrifice, and resistance to western medicine. She is a keen observer of lions, hyenas, and wild wolves. All this is interwoven with her own personal history to form a memoir of extraordinary power." — Maxine Kumin, author of Where I Live, and former U.S. Poet Laureate
"Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes with all her sense of a lifelong love affair with our planet and its astonishing life. She is a meticulous observer of human diversity and the hidden ways of animals, responding with empathy and reminding us to look with wonder." — Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom
"Fortunately for readers, her keen observation, attentive and inquisitive nature, and thoughtful, unvarnished writing grace numerous books devoted to sharing what she has seen. This time she turns to a fascinating subject: herself." — Concord Monitor
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My parents taught me to enjoy observation. They loved the sky and also the life of our planet. My dad, Laurence Marshall, would go out on the porch to see what the sky was doing, and if something exciting was going on he’d demand that the rest of us to come to see it too. He was clearly the head of our family and also our leader, and we always did what he said. So all of us — me, my brother, John, who was a year younger, our mom, her mother, and Dad’s mother (both of whom lived with us) — would drop what we were doing and obediently troop out to the porch. Sometimes we saw cumulous clouds, sometimes falling stars, sometimes a spectacular sunset, and sometimes northern lights. Dad was a civil engineer with an awesome knowledge of math and physics, and northern lights enthralled him. They came from the sun, he said.
My mom, Lorna Marshall, was a caregiver to all life forms and a known animal lover to the point that she sometimes found cats in boxes on her doorstep, evidently delivered by someone who thought she’d take them in. She took them in. She never killed mice, although her cats did. And she never killed insects, not even flies. Instead, she’d put a glass over them, slide a piece of paper under the glass, and release them outside. To her, animals were on earth to be cared for. Her cats were so healthy that on one occasion a veterinarian did not believe her when she told him her cat was sixteen. The cat was in such good shape that he could only be eight or nine, said the veterinarian. But the vet was mistaken. The cat had been left on her doorstep as an adolescent, and she’d had him for sixteen years, so he was closer to seventeen. Just about everyone who knew my mother wanted to be reincarnated as her cat.
Everyone flourished who was in my mother’s care. Her oldest houseplant was over thirty, and at the time of this writing, a climbing rose she planted is at least seventy-six and was an adult when she got it. My dad lived to ninety-one, his mother lived to a hundred and five, my mother herself lived to a hundred and four, and every dog or cat who came into her life lived well beyond the life expectancy of its species. Wild animals near her also flourished. She put seeds for birds and bread and peanuts for squirrels on the shed roof outside her kitchen window. The squirrels knew her. If she was late with the food, we’d notice a squirrel or two looking in the window to see if she remembered them. Of course she did.
Religion might have had something to do with this, because her mother, our gran, was a Christian Scientist. Our mom was not, due to a catastrophic event when she was six or seven and was listening to Gran and some of Gran’s friends discussing the power of faith. Fascinated, my mom asked if she could fly if she had faith. They said she could fly if she had enough faith. My mom was thrilled. Brimming with faith and prepared for a great experience, she climbed out a window to the roof of their house and jumped off. What happened next erased her religious inclinations permanently, but perhaps an aura still clung, because according to Gran, everything made by God was good. This, of course, included the flies whom my mother set free and the squirrels who looked in our window.
Gran’s sense of global goodness was more extreme and included the famous hurricane of 1938, which she, age sixty-something, and I, age seven, went outside to experience. We were alone in the house at the time so no one was there to stop us. The wind lifted me off the ground and carried me about fifteen feet down a hill, so I got to fly even if my mother didn’t. I found it thrilling, and agreed with my Gran that a hurricane was good.
But I couldn’t agree about gypsy moth caterpillars. The subject of their value arose during one of their population explosions, when these caterpillars seemed to coat the landscape. We could hear their dung pattering down outside our house and see the wide defoliation caused by their chewing.
My little brother was enthralled by such bounty. He brought handfuls of caterpillars indoors as pets, put them in a box, and gave them leaves to eat. Someone gave him a screen to cover the box, but as often as not he’d forget about the screen, so his caterpillars soon were everywhere — in the dishes on the pantry shelf, in the clothes in our drawers, even in our beds under the covers. They scared me and I complained to Gran. But Gran insisted that even these caterpillars were good, or at least they weren’t bad, because God made them.
Our dad’s mother, Nana, was a born-again fundamentalist, and because few animals are mentioned in the Bible, her religious views did not include them. But she was kind to them. Our cats liked to sit with her while she knitted or sewed and to sleep on her bed while she rested. It was good to see her lying down, covered with an afghan she had knitted, with a cat curled up beside her, purring.
However, Nana did not believe in dinosaurs. This caused profound distress to me and my brother, as we were enthralled by dinosaurs. Our dad read to us about them and gave us small, realistic models of them. We thought we knew the names of all dinosaurs (we knew five or six), and on the floor of my brother’s bedroom we made a diorama for them with handmade trees meant to look like cycads. We made our own model dinosaurs too, using a clay called Plasticine, which we thought was pronounced “Pleistocene.” In our imaginations we would live in the Jurassic age, watching our dinosaurs and escaping from them.
But dinosaurs never existed, said Nana. They’re not in the Bible. “Then the Bible is wrong!” we’d shout. We’d tell her that our dad saw a dinosaur’s footprints in some rocks in South Hadley, Massachusetts. And scientists had found dinosaur bones. If there were no dinosaurs, what made the footprints and bones?
Satan made them, Nana said. He buried the bones and made the footprints to turn scientists away from the word of God. My brother and I would yell that this was NOT TRUE, and Nana would cover her ears and pray for us aloud.
From our mom we learned not to tease animals, from Gran we learned that everything was good, and from Nana we learned that the Bible doesn’t tell the whole story. But it was from our dad that we learned where our food came from, and to know the natural world. He had strong feelings about our leisure time and didn’t want us spending the summers lying on a beach like the families of some of his colleagues. So when my brother was three and I was four, he bought the land in Peterborough, New Hampshire where, at the time of this writing, my husband and I live. Dad eventually owned roughly 2,500 acres of forest and farmland on and around the Wapack Range, most of which he gave to the Department of the Interior as a wildlife sanctuary. But on the road that passed through these acres — a dirt road — were two adjoining abandoned farms, and these Dad kept. Both are on hilltops but sheltered from the wind by higher hills, and both are free of frost much longer than those hills and the valleys. I suspect that before the old-time farmers chose these places, they found out where the deer stayed on cold nights, because deer know all that anyone needs to know about microclimates. To this day, on autumn nights, they sleep in our frost-free field.
My dad renovated one of the farms, then hired a farm manager and began raising Milking Shorthorn cattle. On the other he built a house for us, his family. The place had been known as the Leathers farm, half a mile through the woods from the other one, and had belonged to an elderly man named John Leathers. I believe this man’s father was the John Leathers who — according to a commemorative plaque high on a hill on Grove Street in Peterborough — fought in the Civil War with the Peterborough battalion and died in Andersonville Prison. I think of that young soldier when I see the stone walls in our woods. Once, these walls were property lines and also the borders of pastures. Before enlisting in the Peterborough battalion, the young John Leathers would have helped to build them.
My dad found plenty of stones in our field which he used to build more stone walls, and my brother and I helped him, so we knew how hard it was to do this. Dad also made a pond by building a stone dam so perfect that even in the driest summer the lower spillway kept the stream flowing so the pond didn’t stagnate, and even during the spring torrents the upper spillway contained all the water so it didn’t flood the fields. It took the hurricane of 1938 to send water over the entire dam. How my dad did this I have no idea, as I can’t even imagine what kinds of factors to start calculating. But then, I still count on my fingers, whereas my dad was a civil engineer.
When I look at the dam, now enhanced by beavers, I remember my dad and his work ethic. The beavers have it too, and have substantially increased the size of the pond. This was the work ethic that Dad expected from his children. No farm family would dream of driving their kids to soccer practice or to a friend’s house as suburban families do today, and my parents wouldn’t either. If we as children wanted to go somewhere, we walked. But we were expected to help with the farm work, and we liked that, so except for visiting the farm manager’s children, Malan and Betty, whom we loved and who also were expected to work, we worked too. When I was seven, I helped my dad gather rocks for his projects by driving a tractor, inching it slowly forward as he hoisted rocks onto the sledge it was dragging. My brother and I also helped to make hay, clean the stalls, milk the cows, weed the garden, gather the eggs, or do any other chores that came our way, as did all other children on all New Hampshire farms. I can still milk a cow. And better yet, I learned to work hard and also to like it, which was useful in later life.
But Dad wanted us to know about more than farming. He wanted to us to know the natural world. Although we were learning on our own, roaming through the woods with Malan and Betty, our dad wanted us to understand what we were seeing when we explored. He read us books such as the works of Ernest Thompson Seton. But he did more than that. The Wapack Range was to our east, and young as we were, he’d take us there. We’d cross a series of forested ridges, then wide fields of blueberry and juniper bushes, up and up until we reached a summit, which was bare rock. At one time, our dad told us, the whole range except the summits was covered with trees. But the old-time farmers — among them, no doubt, the first John Leathers — cut down the trees to make pastures and marked their boundaries with the stone walls we found all over the mountains. It was these stone walls, still in their straight lines but overgrown with trees, that convinced me that things had been happening before I was born.
Later on, said Dad, the old farms and pastures were abandoned and bushes grew. That explained the blueberries and the juniper. But during our lifetimes if not his, he told us, the forest would grow back and the mountains would be as they were before the old-time farmers cleared them. At the time of this writing, my office window faces those mountains. The bushes are gone, and just as my dad predicted, mixed forest has replaced them.
The juniper is gone, but it lives in my mind because I remember pushing through it. It was hip-deep to Dad but face-level to me, my brother, and the dogs, and as soon as we got into it on our uphill journeys I’d ask every few minutes how far we were from the top. Dad’s usual answer to a question about distance, whether we were on foot or in a car, was that we were halfway there. But one day he turned around, squatted down in front of me, looked me in the eyes, and told me to stop whining.
I was horrified to learn that I’d been whining. And if Dad mentioned it, it must have been pretty bad. Normally he was more than patient with us, waiting while we stopped to eat berries or pick up interesting pinecones or mushrooms or porcupine droppings to take home to our mother and grandmothers. But I knew that Dad wanted us to be strong and tough, to be of woodsman quality. I promised never to whine again, and I’ve tried to keep that promise. I thought he wouldn’t take me with him if I didn’t. And from that day on, I’ve tried to develop endurance. Once in a while, someone tells me that I’m tough. This makes me happy, and I thank my dad for the compliment.
My interest in wildlife was stronger than my little brother’s. He preferred large machines — the first word he ever said was truck. Also he lacked my patience. So on a few rare occasions Dad took me alone with him to try to see wildlife. Once we went to the embankment of a certain wetland and sat there for hours, not moving, not even whispering, just watching. Sometimes we’d hear footsteps rustle the dry leaves on the forest floor behind us, but we didn’t move our heads to see who walked there. On that particular day we saw only a towhee, a ground robin, who with both feet together was taking little hops through the underbrush. I had thought that all birds walked on alternating feet as we do, hence I learned something.
Inconsequential as this may seem, the experience was, for some reason, so important to me that from the corner of my mind’s eye I can still see my dad beside me as we waited there. My mind’s eye also sees the towhee. That was the day I learned how to sit still for hours, waiting. I’ve repeated this experience many times, most memorably some thirty years later when, alone except for a few wolves, I spent a summer watching a wolf den in the middle of Baffin Island. Even now I still watch animals this way. A friend helped me make a platform up in a tree where I can sit and watch what happens in our swamp. Most animals don’t look up, or not often; thus if I keep the most basic rules of observation — to be quiet, patient, and motionless — those who live around our swamp behave as if I weren’t there. I’m grateful to my dad for the ability to watch wild animals, as this has served me very well.
Normally we didn’t see animals in the woods, even though our dad tried to teach us how to walk quietly in dry leaves. But mostly my brother and I would shuffle and talk and otherwise make noise, and usually the dogs were with us. For miles around, the wildlife would hear us. However, even if we seldom saw the animals themselves, we saw things made or used by them, such as nests and holes in trees, or the den of a fox in an embankment by a stream. Dad taught us how to recognize the scats of rabbits, porcupines, and deer, although all these can be pellets with only minor differences in shape. On rare occasions we’d find a small, dog-style scat with hair in it. This, said Dad, was made by the fox.
It was from tracks in fresh snow that we learned the most. Sooner or later, every creature who lived in the woods would leave a set of tracks, and we could see what they’d been doing, where they’d been eating, and in the case of deer where they’d been yarding. One winter day, in the snow by our frozen swamp, we came upon fresh cat tracks that looked as big as dinner plates. Now what was that? Bobcats and lynxes had been exterminated by the old-time farmers and had yet to return to our forests. Anyway, the tracks were too big for a bobcat or a lynx. We wondered if it was a cougar, although cougars too had been exterminated. But at the time something that people were calling a “black panther” had been seen in our region, assumed to have escaped from a zoo.
As it happens, the eastern cougar who once inhabited New Hampshire is said to have had a black or melanistic phase, just like certain leopards and jaguars. The local weekly newspaper, the Peterborough Transcript, carried a sportsman’s column written by the game warden, who reported sightings of the “black panther” whenever these occurred. Back then, I preferred that an adult read aloud to me, but I could also read on my own, and the one thing I never failed to read was the sportsman’s column, in hopes of finding a report of the panther. One day a few months after we had seen the tracks, I read that this panther had been sighted in a town on the far side of the Wapack Range. Then I felt sure the tracks were made by the panther.
That was in 1938 or 1939, but I never forgot it. More recently I was looking out a window at that same swamp when a cougar came out of the woods. As it happened, I had spent the day writing about cougars I’d seen during a little cougar study I’d made in Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, so I thought I was hallucinating. But just to be sure I went outside with Pearl, my dog. She saw it too. She considered it her duty to keep the wildlife in the woods, and ordinarily she would run at any wild animal, barking. But this time she wisely decided to pass, and she just stood rigidly beside me staring at it. Then I knew I wasn’t hallucinating, and the sight of those tracks came back to me. My mind’s eye still sees them. In fact, I’m not sure I would have been as fascinated as I am by the sight of any tracks if I hadn’t seen them.
The most important lesson, according to Dad, was not about tracks. It was about managing ourselves in the woods. There was only one thing to fear, he said, and it wasn’t wild animals, not even the panther. The thing to fear was getting lost. To help prevent that, he taught us how to find the North Star. The North Pole was on the axis of the world, he said, and the North Star stayed right over it. But the North Star wasn’t there in the daytime. How then to find direction? Moss supposedly grows on the north sides of trees, but it can grow on the other sides too and thus can be confusing. Instead, he showed us how to use a watch as a compass. Point the hour hand at the sun, he said. If your watch is set on standard time, halfway between there and twelve is south.
But when we were children we didn’t have watches, so Dad gave us another helpful tool in finding direction — our shadows. During the middle of the day they were behind us if we were going south, to our left if we were going east, and so on. At the two ends of the day the sun itself would show us east or west and we wouldn’t need the shadows. To this day when trying to find direction I still use the sun, not a compass. A compass can give a false reading, but the sun is unlikely to malfunction. And if it does, getting lost will be the least of my problems.
Yet finding south only helps if you’re trying to find something long, like a river or a road. South isn’t much help in finding an exact place, like your house. Sometimes our dad would let us try to find the way home, and often enough we couldn’t. This shows that people can get lost, he said. Maybe they’re in thick woods and can’t see the sky. Or maybe the sky is cloudy. And people who are lost tend to walk in big circles, he told us. Thus if we thought we were lost we should just sit down and not wander around so that someone — most likely him — could find us.
He taught us never to go into the woods without string, a knife, and matches. He showed us how to make a fire even in blizzards or rainstorms using only things we would find in the woods, such as dead twigs and birch bark, which burns pretty well even when damp. He also insisted that we use only one match to light the fire, and not just a wooden, strike-anywhere match, but also a little cardboard book match. He made us try again and again until both of us could do it every time. Thus if we were lost in winter, we could keep ourselves from freezing. He read us the cautionary story by Jack London, “To Build a Fire,” in which a man trying to survive a bitter winter night finally manages to build a fire but builds it under an evergreen tree. The fire warms the snow on the branches. The snow falls on the fire and puts it out. And the man didn’t have another match. Even now, I would never make a fire directly under an evergreen tree, and I still need only one match.
The woods were the main part of my early education. I’d say I learned more from the woods than I learned in school, certainly for the first few years. I still find spelling and math elusive, while the things I learned in the woods stay with me.
That education took place in New Hampshire, but unfortunately we didn’t live there year-round. My dad was the CEO of Raytheon, an electronics company which he had founded in 1922, four years before he married my mother and nine years before I was born. So we had to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be near his factory. We were in New Hampshire every weekend, during all school vacations, and all summer, but the rest of the time we were stuck in the city. Thus it was animals in Cambridge who first opened for me a very important window of the natural world.
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