Beautiful Underground Scenes In Picture Books

Mole reached down a lantern from a nail on the wall and lit it, and the Rat, looking round him, saw that they were in a sort of fore-court. A garden-seat stood on one side of the door, and on the other a roller; for the Mole, who was a tidy animal when at home, could not stand having hiw ground kicked up by other animals into little runs that ended in earth heaps. On the walls hung wire baskets with ferns in them, alternating with brackets carrying plaster statuary — Garibaldi, and the infant Samuel and Queen Victoria, and other heroes of modern Italy. Down one side of the forecourt ran a skittle-alley, with benches along it and little wooden tables marked with rings that hinted at beer-mugs. In the middle was a small round pond containing goldfish and surrounded by a cockle-shell border. Out of the centre of the pond rose a fanciful erection clothed in more cockle-shells and topped by a large silvered glass ball that reflected everything all wrong and had a very pleasing effect.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. A description of Mole’s underground home. He returns after a long absence, and after a near death experience in the Wild Wood.
Fritz Baumgarten underground mice
Fritz Baumgarten underground mice
Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children's Land), c1920s and 30s underground
Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children’s Land), c1920s and 30s
Yuri Vasnetsov (Russian,1900-1973) - Sweet little sleeping mouse in his underground house
Yuri Vasnetsov (Russian,1900-1973) – Sweet little sleeping mouse in his underground house. Humans evolved from a mouse like creature who survived the dinosaur apocalypse due to its ability to hide out underground. This mouse is all of us.
Clement Hurd, American (1908-1988) for Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, 1942
Clement Hurd, American (1908-1988) for Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, 1942
Fritz Baumgarten postcard
Fritz Baumgarten postcard
Fritz Baumgarten  (1883-1966) Illustration for an Easter book by Erich Heinemann
Fritz Baumgarten (1883-1966) Illustration for an Easter book by Erich Heinemann
Fritz Baumgarten, 1979
Fritz Baumgarten, 1979
Marco Vaccari
Marco Vaccari
stars underground
Anne of Green Gables illustration by Hanuol (Kim Ji Hyuck). “A Night Full of Stars” imagines a land below us equally bright and starlit as the world above.
underground scene
The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Hoarde by Shannon Hale
The Whole World is My Burrow by Albert Ivanov illustrated by G. Zolotovskaya
The Whole World is My Burrow by Albert Ivanov illustrated by G. Zolotovskaya
Richard Scarry, The Golden Book
Richard Scarry, The Golden Book
Harrison Cady (1877-1970)
Harrison Cady (1877-1970)
Ernest Howard Shepard (1879-1976), British illustrator. The Wind in the Willows, 1931
Ernest Howard Shepard (1879-1976), British illustrator. The Wind in the Willows, 1931 edition.
Mabel Lucie Attwell - Peter Pan
Mabel Lucie Attwell – Peter Pan
Gong-Hon-Sheng Lunar-Month (Prints-from-Heilongjiang China) underground
Gong-Hon-Sheng Lunar-Month (Prints-from-Heilongjiang China) underground
Illustration for HEDGEHOG’S HOME, ca.1949.  ~Vilko Gliha Selan
Illustration for HEDGEHOG’S HOME, ca.1949. ~Vilko Gliha Selan

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » landforms

Words to Describe Landscapes, Landforms, Water and Construction

Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935

(Includes bodies of water.) You may be after a full glossary of landforms, in which case the Wikipedia article is comprehensive: Full list of landforms at Wikipedia. This post skews literary.


(colloquial: southwestern United States) The channel of a flat-floored, ephemeral
stream, commonly with very steep to vertical banks cut in unconsolidated material;
sometimes called a wash. It is usually dry but can be transformed into a temporary
watercourse or short-lived torrent after heavy rain within the watershed. Where arroyos
intersect zones of ground-water discharge, they are more properly classed as intermittent
stream channels.

Eyvind Earle (American, 1916–2000) Arroyo c. 1978 Oil on Masonite  91x61cm
Eyvind Earle (American, 1916–2000) Arroyo c. 1978 Oil on Masonite 91x61cm
Ash field

A land area covered by a relatively thick or distinctive, surficial deposit of
volcanic ash (air fall) that can be traced to a specific source and has well defined boundaries. An ash field can be distinguished from adjacent landforms or land areas based on ash thickness, mineral composition, and physical characteristics. Soils within an ash field form solely or predominantly within the ash deposit.


The direction toward which a slope faces with respect to the compass or to the
rays of the Sun; also called slope aspect.


A coral reef appearing in plan view as roughly circular, and surmounted by a chain
of closely spaced, low coral islets that encircle or nearly encircle a shallow lagoon in which
there is no land or islands of non-coral origin; the reef is surrounded by open sea.


The upper or inner, usually dry, zone of the shore or beach, lying between the
high-water line of mean spring tides and the upper limit of shore-zone processes; it is acted
upon by waves or covered by water only during exceptionally severe storms or unusually
high tides. It is essentially horizontal or slopes gently landward, and is divided from the
foreshore by the crest of the most seaward berm.


The hillslope profile position that forms the steepest and generally linear,
middle portion of the slope. In profile, backslopes are commonly bounded by a convex
shoulder above and a concave footslope below. They may or may not include cliff segments
(i.e., free faces). Backslopes are commonly erosional forms produced by mass movement,
colluvial action, and running water. Compare – summit, shoulder, footslope, toeslope.


A flood-plain landform. Extensive, marshy or swampy, depressed areas of
flood plains between natural levees and valley sides or terraces. Compare – valley flat


A landscape that is intricately dissected and characterized by a very fine
drainage network with high drainage densities and short, steep slopes with narrow interfluves. Badlands develop on surfaces with little or no vegetative cover, overlying unconsolidated or poorly cemented materials.


a recessed, coastal body of water that directly connects to a larger main body of water, such as an ocean, a lake, or another bay. A large bay is usually called a gulf, sea, sound, or bight. A fjord is a particularly steep bay shaped by glacial activity. See: At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield.


(Northern English) a stream


Berms are mounded hills of soil that are often constructed to serve a purpose in a landscaped area. They can be used for aesthetics, excess rainwater drainage, separating different areas of the garden, accent walkways, and as foundations for privacy screens.


(Irish) a narrow country road


a pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood


a small stream

The Black Brook c.1908 John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
The Black Brook c.1908 John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Buffalo wallow

A buffalo wallow or bison wallow is a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff. Originally this would have served as a temporary watering hole for wildlife, including the American bison.


Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A burn is a stream. (cf. Robbie Burns)


A butte is formed when a mesa is further eroded until the formation is taller than it is wide. Buttes tend to be isolated from other structures, with steep sides and a flat top. 


The slightly convex or arched shape of a road or other horizontal surface.”A bend where the camber of the road sloped to a ditch.” British: a tilt built into a road at a bend or curve, enabling vehicles to maintain speed.


an artificial waterway constructed to allow the passage of boats or ships inland or to convey water for irrigation.

The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) The House on the Canal
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) The House on the Canal
Louis Aston Knight - Sunny Afternoon on the Canal
Louis Aston Knight – Sunny Afternoon on the Canal

A deep cleft (gorge), between escarpments or cliffs resulting from weathering and the erosive activity of a river over geologic time scales. Typically a canyon has a river flowing through it. See “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The People Across The Canyon” for two short stories in which the canyon comes to the fore.

Hatchet meets Long Way Down in this heartfelt and gripping novel in verse about a young girl’s struggle for survival after a climbing trip with her father goes terribly wrong.

One year after a random shooting changed their family forever, Nora and her father are exploring a slot canyon deep in the Arizona desert, hoping it will help them find peace. Nora longs for things to go back to normal, like they were when her mother was still alive, while her father keeps them isolated in fear of other people. But when they reach the bottom of the canyon, the unthinkable happens: A flash flood rips across their path, sweeping away Nora’s father and all of their supplies.

Suddenly, Nora finds herself lost and alone in the desert, facing dehydration, venomous scorpions, deadly snakes, and, worst of all, the Beast who has terrorized her dreams for the past year. If Nora is going to save herself and her father, she must conquer her fears, defeat the Beast, and find the courage to live her new life.


Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A cleugh is a gorge which is the shape of the course of a stream.


a vertical, or nearly vertical, rock exposure. Cliffs are formed as erosion landforms by the processes of weathering and erosion. Cliffs are common on coasts, in mountainous areas, escarpments and along rivers. Cliffs are usually formed by rock that is resistant to weathering and erosion. Sedimentary rocks most likely to form cliffs include sandstone, limestone, chalk, and dolomite. Igneous rocks such as granite and basalt also often form cliffs.

LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
John Brett - Carthillon Cliffs
John Brett – Carthillon Cliffs
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 - 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 – 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour

a small group of trees or plants growing closely together

1912 Wittenham Clumps, Paul Nash, UK
1912 Wittenham Clumps, Paul Nash, UK
1912 The Wood on the Hill, Paul Nash, UK
1912 The Wood on the Hill, Paul Nash, UK

the part of the land adjoining or near the sea.

Peder Mørk Mønsted (Danish, 1859 - 1941) Coastal View, 1900
Peder Mørk Mønsted (Danish, 1859 – 1941) Coastal View, 1900

the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks (of hills rather than mountains). A drainage divide.


a row or evenly spaced trees


a city surrounded by many urban areas


uplands; higher ground of a region


a steep and dry gully




narrow earth band on the outer wall of a defensive ditch


a small type of bay or coastal inlet. Coves usually have narrow, restricted entrances, are often circular or oval, and are often situated within a larger bay. Think cove, think ‘sheltered’.

Kobliha František,  Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Kobliha František, Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945

the top of a mountain or hill. Also used as a verb e.g. ‘Crest the rise’. This word is used to mean the hillslope component summit, but geologists don’t approve of that usage. When geologists say ‘crest’ they specifically mean the narrow top of a ridge, hill or mountain.


A wide breach or crack in the bank of a river or canal. A crevasse can naturally occur or it can be created artificially (e.g. in the bank of the lower Mississippi River.) Also refers to a wide, deep break or fissure in the earth that appears after an earthquake. When talking about glaciers, a crevasse is a deep, nearly vertical fissure, crack or break in the mass of land ice.


ridge or fold resembling a crest


In everyday usage cutbank refers to a small cliff on an otherwise flattish surface which will injure you or your horse if you don’t see it, but probably isn’t big enough to kill you outright. Larry McMurtry frequently makes use of this word in his cowboy novels. Geologists don’t use cutbank to mean this. In geology, a cutbank is a slope or wall portion of a cut excavated into unconsolidated material or bedrock, as in a borrow pit.


“up hill and down dale”. A dale is a valley, especially in northern England (e.g. The Yorkshire Dales.) A valley can feel closed in, but a dale is a wide, open area that stretches between hills. (Dale comes from the Old English word for “valley,” dæl.)


Any surficial accumulation of loose material detached from rock masses by
chemical and mechanical means, as by decay and disintegration. It consists of rock clastic
material of any size and sometimes organic matter.


A body of alluvium, nearly flat and fan-shaped, deposited at or near the mouth of a
river or stream where it enters a body of relatively quiet water, usually a sea or lake.

Delta plain

The level or nearly level surface composing the land-ward part of a large
delta; strictly, a flood plain characterized by repeated channel bifurcation and divergence,
multiple distributary channels, and interdistributary flood basins.


Either consolidated or unconsolidated material of any type that has accumulated by natural processes or by human activity.


Any relatively sunken part of the earth’s surface; especially a low-lying area
surrounded by higher ground. A closed depression has no natural outlet for surface drainage (e.g., a sinkhole). An open depression has a natural outlet for surface drainage. You can get closed depressions and open depressions.

Desert pavement

A natural, residual concentration or layer of wind-polished, closely
packed gravel, boulders, and other rock fragments, mantling a desert surface. It is formed
where wind action and sheetwash have removed all smaller particles or where rock fragments have migrated upward through sediments to the surface. It usually protects the underlying, finer-grained material from further deflation.


A collective term for rock and mineral fragments occurring in sediments, that are detached or removed by mechanical means (e.g., disintegration, abrasion) and derived from preexisting rocks and moved from their place of origin.


a small valley, usually among trees. ‘There’s a sort of dell down here in front of us, where the ground seems all hilly and humpy and hummocky.’ (The Wind In The Willows)


A tabular igneous intrusion that cuts across the bedding or foliation of the country rock. Cf. sill.


(literary) a deep wooded valley or dell

1949 The Dingle Winter John Nash
1949 The Dingle Winter John Nash

A geomorphic component (characteristic piece) of flat plains (e.g. lake
plain, low coastal plain, low-relief till plain) consisting of a shallow and typically closed
depression that tends to be an area of focused groundwater recharge but not a permanent
water body and that lies slightly lower and is wetter than the adjacent talf (flat part), and favors the accumulation of fine sediments and organic materials.

Dip slope

A slope of the land surface, roughly determined by and approximately
conforming to the dip of underlying bedded rocks; (i.e., the long, gently inclined surface of a
cuesta). Cf. scarp slope.


a landform created by running water. Smaller than a gully, which is smaller than a ravine.

Jan van Goyen (1596 - 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627
Jan van Goyen (1596 – 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627

(US). a terrain feature formed by two parallel ridges or spurs with low ground in between them. The area of low ground itself is the draw, and it is defined by the spurs surrounding it. Draws are similar to valleys on a smaller scale; however, while valleys are by nature parallel to a ridgeline, a draw is perpendicular to the ridge, and rises with the surrounding ground, disappearing up-slope. A draw is usually etched in a hillside by water flow, is usually dry, but many contain an ephemeral stream or loose rocks from eroded rockfall. A draw may be described as ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’.


‘a railway embankment’ (the little hill which elevates a railway line)


a long, steep slope, especially one at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights. Commonly formed by faulting or fracturing of the earth’s crust. (Compare scarp)


An area of low level ground, especially near water. e.g. “the shingle flats of the lake”


the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow


sheep walked up the lane and into the fold


a low point or opening between hills or mountains or in a ridge or mountain range. It may be called a col, notch, pass, saddle, water gap, or wind gap, and geomorphologically are most often carved by water erosion from a freshet, stream or a river.

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised.

a narrow valley, especially in Scotland or Ireland.


You’ll find this word in work by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Goyal is a spelling variant for goyle, which means a steep, narrow valley cf. ravine, gully.

Riding slowly in this fashion they came at last upon the hounds. These, though known for their valour and their breed, were whimpering in a cluster at the head of a deep dip or goyal, as we call it, upon the moor, some slinking away and some, with starting hackles and staring eyes, gazing down the narrow valley before them.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles

a Scottish word for a tributary; the branch or fork of a stream or river, an arm of the sea.


(British) a country house with farm buildings attached. (Historical) an outlying farm with tithe barns belonging to a monastery or feudal lord

Sidney Richard Percy - Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874
Sidney Richard Percy – Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874

a narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream. ‘…two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch…’ (“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”)


a landform created by running water, eroding sharply into soil, typically on a hillside. Gullies resemble large ditches or small valleys, but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width.

Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children's Stories
Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children’s Stories

(British) an area of open uncultivated land, typically on acid sandy soil, with characteristic vegetation of heather, gorse, and coarse grasses.

On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887
On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887

A hill is a landform that extends above the surrounding terrain. It often has a distinct summit.


Another name for a valley. In literature, functions similarly to words like ‘gap’, symbolically/metaphorically suggesting an absence of something. See: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. A very small dale (a British term) is sometimes called a “hollow,” pronounced “holler” in American rural Appalachia.

Howard W. Thomas 'Nauvoo Hollow', Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938
Howard W. Thomas ‘Nauvoo Hollow’, Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938

Many years ago, in the kingdom of Fenwood Reach, there was a powerful Windwitch who wove the seasons, keeping the land bountiful and the people happy. But then a dark magic drove her from the realm, and the world fell into chaos.

Brida is content in her small village of Oak Hollow. There, she’s plenty occupied trying to convince her fickle magic to actually do what it’s meant to in her work as a hedgewitch’s apprentice—until she accidentally catches the attention of the wicked queen.

On the run from the queen’s huntsman and her all-seeing Crow spies, Brida discovers the truth about her family, her magic, and who she is destined to be—and that she may hold the power to defeating the wicked queen and setting the kingdom right again.


a hump or ridge in an ice field. (US) a piece of forested ground rising above a marsh.


a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land.


An area of land overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, typically in the tropics. See: The Storybook Jungle for visual representations of jungles as they tend to appear in storybooks. Jungles are best suited to tree-dwelling apes, because food is found high off the ground (compared to the savanna).


a prominent round hill.

Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 - 1989)
Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 – 1989).

a stretch of salt water separated from the sea by a low sandbank or coral reef. In mythology and storytelling, lagoons tend to be associated with mermaids.

Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon
Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon

a narrow road, especially in a rural area

John Constable - Fen Lane, East Bergholt
John Constable – Fen Lane, East Bergholt

the sheltered side of something; the side away from the wind.

Lovely Is The Lee by Robert Gibbings

A piece of grassland, especially one used for hay. Also, a piece of low ground near a river.

Flower meadow in a book by Peter Leitheim
Flower meadow in a book by Peter Leitheim

(Chiefly British) an expanse of standing water : lake, pool.

The papers may ask why the mere was not dragged in the first instance, but it is easy to be wise after the event, and in any case the expanse of a reed-filled lake is no easy matter to drag unless you have a clear perception of what you are looking for and where.

“The Problem of Thor Bridge”, Arthur Conan Doyle

The mesa might be the most common geological formation found across the American West. A mesa is a large, isolated, flat-topped hill or mountain, usually with steep slopes. Mesas are formed when the forces of erosion remove the softer sediment from around a harder caprock.

Maynard Dixon (January 24, 1875 – November 11, 1946) was an American artist whose body of work focused on the American West mesa
Maynard Dixon (January 24, 1875 – November 11, 1946) was an American artist whose body of work focused on the American West
Maynard Dixon mesa
Maynard Dixon

A stretch of swampy or boggy ground. From that, a verb: To be stuck in mud, unable to break free. Etymologically related to the old Germanic word for moss.


(Chiefly British) a tract of open uncultivated upland, typically covered with heather. A moor is untilled. Think Wuthering Heights, Hound of the Baskervilles. Mary Lennox’s uncle in The Secret Garden lives in the Yorkshire Moors. The word ‘wutherin’ is used there, too: “Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house”. (Yorkshire dialect.) When trees are cleared from the uplands, heavy rain washes soil off the hills and into the valleys below, leaving a much reduced mineral fertility and turning the uplands into sodden bleak moors that resist the return of woodland. Moors therefore include the feeling of saudade (something missing, something which was once here but is no longer).

after each breakfast she gazed out of the window across to the huge moor, which seemed to spread out on all sides and climb up to the sky

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

In The Hound Of The Baskervilles, the moor is described as the ‘God-forsaken corner of the world’ and is a stand-in for a Hellish place.

behind the peaceful and sunlit countryside there rose ever, dark against the evening sky, the long, gloomy curve of the moor, broken by the jagged and sinister hills

The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle

a heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris. Most commonly, mounds are earthen formations such as hills and mountains, particularly if they appear artificial. A mound may be any rounded area of topographically higher elevation on any surface. Artificial mounds have been created for a variety of reasons throughout history, including ceremonial, burial (tumulus), and commemorative purposes.


A mountain is a large landform that rises above the surrounding land in a limited area, usually in the form of a peak. A mountain is generally considered to be steeper than a hill.

Mountain Pass

mountain pass is a navigable route through a mountain range or over a ridge. Since many of the world’s mountain ranges have presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have played a key role in trade, war, and both human and animal migration throughout history.

Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957
Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957

a rugged and forbidding col (for mountains rather than hills)


a rock formation. Somewhere like New Mexico is well-known for rocky outcrops.

New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976
New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976

a landform surrounded by water on the majority of its border while being connected to a mainland it juts out from. Peninsulas can also be named: a headland, cape, island promontory, bill, point, fork, or spit. A river which courses through a very tight meander is also sometimes said to form a “peninsula” within the loop of water.

Sir David Murray - My Love has Gone a-Sailing 1883
My Love has Gone a-Sailing exhibited 1883 Sir David Murray 1849-1933

In geology and physical geography, a plateau, also called a high plain or a tableland, is an area of a highland consisting of flat terrain, that is raised sharply above the surrounding area on at least one side.


a narrow piece of land jutting out into the sea. A point is generally considered a tapering piece of land projecting into a body of water that is less prominent than a cape.

Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, 'Point Sur' landform
Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, ‘Point Sur’

Scottish word for a slow-moving stream


a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides


the international word for a ‘draw’. 


a geological feature consisting of a chain of mountains or hills that form a continuous elevated crest for some distance. The sides of the ridge slope away from narrow top on either side. Ridges are usually termed hills or mountains as well, depending on size.

Ridge line

The line along the crest formed by the highest points, with the terrain dropping down on either side, is called the ridgeline.


the lowest area between two highlands. 

Sand berm

In coastal systems, a berm is a raised ridge of pebbles or sand found at high tide or storm tide marks on a beach. In snow removal, a berm or windrow refers to the linear accumulation of snow cast aside by a plow.


A wide, open, mostly flat landscape. Of all the geographical arenas, savannas contain the highest amount of protein per square kilometer. We can therefore deduce that this is humans’ natural landscape, where we largely evolved, and where we thrive. (Savannas were where we lived when we became meat eaters.) We find our meat at ground level, unlike in jungles, which are better suited to apes who can swing through the trees. Humans are attracted to the savanna in art, though the ideal ‘savanna’ is undulating, probably because high areas afford us a good vantage point, good for safety and hunting.


a very steep bank or slope; an escarpment. “The north face is a very steep scarp.” “I got to my car, but before I could get in I had to run to the scarp of grass and weed that surrounded the parking lot.” (Louise Erdrich, “The Years Of My Birth”.)


the fringe of land at the edge of a large body of water, such as an ocean, sea, or lake. In physical oceanography, a shore is the wider fringe that is geologically modified by the action of the body of water past and present, while the beach is at the edge of the shore, representing the intertidal zone where there is one. In contrast to a coast, a shore can border any body of water, while the coast must border an ocean; in that sense a coast is a type of shore; however, coast often refers to an area far wider than the shore, often stretching miles into the interior.


A sinkhole, also known as a cenote, sink, sink-hole, swallet, swallow hole, or doline (the different terms for sinkholes are often used interchangeably), is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer.

Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922
Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922

a sliding gate or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate

1920 The Sluice by Paul Nash, UK
1920 The Sluice by Paul Nash, UK

A spire is a rock tower that has a uniform thickness throughout its height and tapers from the ground upward. Buttes, over time, can be eroded into a spire.


A spur is a lateral ridge or tongue of land descending from a hill, mountain or main crest of a ridge.


Scottish word for a pond


a small, narrow river

Myles Birket Foster - Children Paddling In A Stream
Myles Birket Foster – Children Paddling In A Stream

Scottish word for a small stream


A mountain pool that forms in a hollow scooped out by a glacier is called a tarn. Officially, tarns are smaller than lakes. The word tarn comes from the Old Norse tjörn, “small mountain lake with no tributaries.”

Natural Environment - The Mountain - Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967
Natural Environment – The Mountain – Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967

A long, narrow ditch. Also, a long, narrow, deep depression in the ocean bed, typically one running parallel to a plate boundary and marking a subduction zone. Trenches have also often been dug for military defensive purposes, so have associations with war and death. Gullies and ditches are wider than trenches.


(in Ireland) a low-lying area on limestone which becomes flooded in wet weather through the welling up of groundwater from the rock


a low area between hills or mountains typically with a river running through it. In geology, a valley or dale is a depression that is longer than it is wide. The terms U-shaped and V-shaped are descriptive terms of geography to characterize the form of valleys. Most valleys belong to one of these two main types or a mixture of them, at least with respect to the cross section of the slopes or hillsides.


a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.

Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams volcano
Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams
Wind gap

another name for a notch

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » landforms

Header painting: Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935

Little House On The Prairie

Little House On The Prairie cover

Every year my daughter and I watch the 2005 Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We usually watch it in winter, on a day with inclement weather. Now that she’s 12, she’s ready for the books. She picked out Little House On The Prairie in the middle of winter. I’m not surprised; these books are peak hygge. They also appeal to the wish fulifilment fantasy of self-sufficiency. I’ve watched a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers and temporarily experienced the same delusion: that there is such a thing as self-sufficiency among small, tight-knit communties, and that I should probably start collecting canned food.

From Jugend, 1904
From Jugend, 1904
Continue reading “Little House On The Prairie”

Swamps, Quicksand And Sinking In Storytelling

Charles Ernest Butler - Poole Harbour, Dorsetshire 1904

Here’s one little-known aspect of existing as a Gen X the fear of sinking to death in sand. Perhaps you escaped this particular horror if your television exposure was moderated, but I’ve asked around, and I’m not the only child of the 80s to approach wet, sandy areas with extreme caution. Films and cartoons conveyed the idea that sinking into sand, never to be seen again, was an ever present danger.

This is why, when our village was recently required to switch from septic tank to town sewerage, I panicked a little when I realised our plumber had turned our entire back yard into a sinkhole:

Clearly I did get out alive.


Yes, but quicksands not as quick as all that, unless you flail about in a panic, or deliberately try to sink yourself deeper:

I do know sand in general can be dangerous. My high school friend’s older brother suffocated to death under a collapsed sandcastle on Nelson’s Tahunanui Beach in the 1970s at the age of nine. Though nowhere near as common as drownings, children dying in sand still happens. However the popularity of the old quicksand trope suggested quicksand was a disproportionate hazard, when I should have been warned instead about burying myself too deep in sand holes:

It used to be a standard trope in action movies, although you don’t see it much these days: a patch of apparently solid ground in the jungle that, when stepped on, turns out to have the consistency of cold oatmeal. The unlucky victim starts sinking down into the muck; struggling only makes it worse. Unless there’s a vine to grab a hold of, he or she disappears without a trace (except maybe a hat floating sadly on the surface). It was a bad way to go. Quicksand was probably the number-one hazard faced by silver-screen adventurers, followed by decaying rope bridges and giant clams that could hold a diver underwater.

Encyclopedia Britannica

There’s a disturbing misogyny behind many of the live action quicksand scenes of the 20th century. Look up famous quicksand scenes from cinematic history and it readily becomes apparent that a sexually desirable woman flailing about and pleading in quicksand is a common male saviour fantasy, which is one thing, but I suspect it’s also a ‘trapping and dispatching with women’ fantasy.

When it’s two men flailing about in the swamp, it’s likely there’s a comedy vibe to it. Stanley is a revenge film from 1972. It gets 4.2 on IMDb and I doubt anyone would watch it for the serious drama. Quicksand tips a dramatic story into melodrama:

This how-to video makes me feel a lot better about quicksand.

The horror of sinking into some suffocating substance apart from water remains a powerful trope. It is used in the horror film A Quiet Place, but in that film it’s not sand it’s grain in a granary.

According to this guy, who lives in a part of the world with genuine, slightly scary quicksand, it’s probably not going to be the suffocation that kills you. He also makes a good job of describing what it feels like to be stuck in quicksand.

The quicksand trope is used far less commonly these days. You know what basically killed the quicksand trope? The moon landings.

Quicksand is a common and deadly element of swampjungle, and desert terrain. Science Fiction stories written before the Moon landings are also liable to describe thick layers of extremely fine lunar dust on the Moon’s surface that are treated as functionally equivalent to quicksand.

TV Tropes

Strange as it seems now:

Prior to the first Moon landing, scientists had good reason to believe the lunar surface was covered in a fine layer of dust. While this might not sound like a big deal, it presented a host of concerns to the Apollo mission planners. […]

First and foremost, and as proposed by Gold, the lunar dust might swallow astronauts like quicksand. Indeed, without any prior experience of standing on a celestial body aside from Earth, a concern emerged that the soft regolith on the Moon wasn’t compact enough to support the weight of the Lunar Module or astronauts out for a stroll. Nightmarish thoughts of astronauts getting swallowed up into the lunar dust prompted further investigation.

Sketches for A Trip to the Moon 1902. George Meliés 2
Sketches for A Trip to the Moon 1902. George Meliés 2
Man Walks on the Moon matchbook cover 1969, illustrator not credited
Man Walks on the Moon matchbook cover 1969, illustrator not credited


Singing My Sister Down” by Australian writer Margo Lanagan is a horrific example.

“The Scarlet Ibis” is a classic short story by James Hurst about an older brother who is ashamed of his disabled younger brother. One day they are both out in a thunder storm. The older brother runs for shelter, leaving the younger brother behind. The younger brother is struck by lightning (we extrapolate) and dies.

The symbolism and pathetic fallacy of this story is clear. When the big brother teaches the younger brother to walk, they go down to a swamp.

Where there is swamp, there is the possibility of death and danger. But it’s not just about sinking to death. Bogs, swamps and marshes have a murky history. Case in point:

My favourite story concerns the ossuary at St. Paul’s Cathedral—old St. Paul’s, before the Wren cathedral was built. In the middle of the night, this huge group of carts pulled up outside of the cathedral, and they took all the bones in the ossuary, loaded them into the carts, took them down to the local marsh, threw them into the marsh, and threw dung on top of them. It’s this obviation of the dead, because they decided they want to stamp out any Catholic tendency to pray for the dead.

Diane Purkiss, academic and witch expert
From the Childcraft Book series Overheard On A Salt Marsh


The different kinds of wetlands:

  • MARSHES no trees, lots of grass, exist at the edge of lakes and streams
  • SWAMPS murky water, lots of trees, muddy, full of pits and quagmires
  • FENS dominated by grasses, alkaline water
  • BOG accumulates peat (deposits of dead plant material), mosses aplenty

All varieties of wetland are essential to the ecosystem, but symbolically, in stories, they function quite differently. The fen is basically a watery meadow, offering little real danger to humans on fens we can see for miles around we’d see predators approach. As for the swamp, well that’s a different matter. The swamp contains the worst of all worlds the shadowy depths of an ocean combined with the foreboding of the forest. We have no visibility in either direction.

Bogs and swamps seem more ‘sinkier’ than fens and marshes, probably because of the English language collocations such as ‘swamped at work’, bogged down by homework’ etc. I’ve never heard ‘marshed at work'(though someone should make that happen).

The horror comedy Courage The Cowardly Dog features a swamp, of course. The swamp is an indispensable gothic horror setting.

Sidney Richard Percy - On the Mawddach Marshes, North Wales 1877
Sidney Richard Percy – On the Mawddach Marshes, North Wales 1877


When a story is told from the point of view of, say, a frog (who needs it for survival), then swamps can function as utopian landscapes.

We'll put the swamp here frog pioneers
By Gary Larson

The wetlands of The Wind In The Willows are a genuine utopia.

At this point I’d like to mention The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter. Beatrix Potter has the undeserved reputation for writing sweet, utopian stories about animals dressed like people. But that’s not true at all. Jeremy Fisher is the story of a frog, set by some wetlands. These wetlands are no utopia, but a dangerous, deadly place. There is nothing happily ironic about Potter’s wetland environs.


Swamps have a special place in the storytelling tradition of Louisiana.

Stop calling Washington a swamp. It’s offensive to swamps, from NYT

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » landforms

Header painting: Charles Ernest Butler – Poole Harbour, Dorsetshire 1904

The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx

“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx is, as said by Mary Lee Settle “as real as a pickup truck, as ominous as a fairy tale.”

Animals make an appearance in a lot of the story submissions we receive. Bunnies are maimed and killed. Dogs behave mischievously. Alligators threaten to attack. The truth is, many short story writers include animals in their tales, for different reasons. Many times, in our contests for emerging writers, an author will use a mangled or dead animal as a (seemingly) direct symbol for the loss of innocence, a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the end of a relationship. In other cases, the animal is not a direct symbol but merely a story element that interacts in a pleasing way with the rest of the narrative structure. Animals can add a level of tension or mystery to a story, they can drive the plot, or they can simply add texture. Though they can (often) be cute, animals are powerful presences in a story, and it’s interesting to consider the many different ways that they add to tales by contemporary writers.

The Masters Review

Contains spoilers, as usual.

Actually this is a bull near our house in Australia.

“The Half-Skinned Steer” is the first short story in Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain collection published 1999. This particular story was published in The Atlantic in 1997 and the full text can be found in the archives.

Proulx understands story structure inside out and back to front, and approaches with an intent to parody, satirise, subvert or up-end. This story is a parody of your classic home-away-home story which I’ve written about elsewhere, due to my strong interest in children’s literature. (It’s particularly common in picturebooks). In this structure, a character typically a man  leaves home, has an adventure, meets a bunch of opponents along the way, overcomes them, changes internally and either comes home or finds a new one. But in this story, our hero tries to come back home but gets killed just as he’s almost there. The events leading to this death are incremental and each quite minor, but like the film Fargo, in which William H. Macy’s character gets himself into deeper and deeper trouble, Mero’s demise manages to feel inevitable, surprising, tragic and funny all at once. Black comedy at its finest. Though I’d say there’s more black than there is comedy.

Words used to describe Proulx’s short stories

  • truculent aggressively defiant
  • vernacular “some of the horror in the stories is at times mitigated by the pregnancy and playfulness of the vernacular language of the characters and even sometimes of the omniscient narrative voices.” (I can’t remember where I got that quote from, sorry.)
  • elliptic here it is the adjectival form of ‘ellipsis’, this refers specifically to Proulx’s way of rendering dialogue and constructing sentences, by leaving bits out. (Nothing to do with being shaped like an ellipse.)
  • understated
  • deconstructionist a way of constructing story which exposes contradictions and internal oppositions. A story can never be a complete thing in itself it’s made up of parts which cannot be reconciled. There can’t be any neat, tidy ending. Also, there will be no single interpretation takeaway points will depend on the reader.
  • subversive Proulx sets us up to expect one type of ending but we get another entirely, causing us to examine our own view of the world
  • heteroglossic (the coexistence of distinct varieties within a single “language”)
  • sharp-eyed attention to gritty detail
  • stories take an irreverent stance
  • minimalist — Americans use the term ‘minimalism’ whereas English scholars more often use the phrase ‘dirty realism‘ to describe the same thing. Dirty realism is on the realism spectrum (which also includes naturalism, social realism, magical realism, surrealism and metaphysical realism). If you don’t think Annie Proulx’s stories quite fit the term ‘magical realism’, you might use the word ‘minimalism’ or ‘dirty realism’ instead. Dirty realism is a term coined by the Granta magazine guy.
  • lapidary (relating to the engraving, cutting, or polishing of stones and gems here meaning ‘very carefully crafted’)
  • wry in tone
  • caustic, bitter
  • ironic
  • nouvelle-fabliau a phrase coined by René Godenne to describe the defining traits of the early European short story. Proulx’s stories contain real-life anecdotes (she has said as much herself) which makes the stories feel very real.
  • sinister
  • grim, morbid, tragic
  • post-modern
  • neo-regionalist (a late 20th century trend)
  • Gothic backdrop
  • blurred antinomy (between real life and the impossible antinomy refers to ‘a real or apparent mutual incompatibility of two laws.’)
  • plenty of parody, satire (sometimes ‘burlesque‘ is used to mean these things, though most people think of strip shows these days)
  • metafictive (the author makes the reader consciously aware that they are reading a story)


The realistic aspect of Proulx’s stories partly comes from extensive details giving a clear picture of the landscape, the climate, the ranches, houses and trailers, the clothes and food of her Wyoming characters. Their ranching, farming, rodeoing and other daily activities are also accounted for with much detail. Moreover, many of her stories are explicitly anchored in the history of the United States, and abound with references to background historical events and to real places.


Proulx’s overall somber universe abounds in predators, child abuse, rape, incest, zoophilia, and all sorts of imaginable forms of cruelty and deviance, but the monstrosities are sometimes held at a distance in at least some of the stories by their metafictional quality and the dry humor which brings a partial sense of comic relief.

Journal of the Short Story In English

When Close Range was published (the original title of the Brokeback Mountain collection), Proulx explained that the focus of both collections was on rural landscape, low population density and people who feel remote and isolated, cut off from the rest of the world, where accident and suicide rates are high and aggressive behaviour not uncommon.

In Proulx’s short stories, setting is so much a part of the story, the story couldn’t happen anywhere else. “The Half-skinned Steer” spans one man’s lifetime, with fluid time, jumping between the present as an old man and the past as a young one. Proulx even manages to imbue this story with the aura of timelessness by linking current, story events to an earlier era:

The anthropologist moved back and forth scrutinizing the stone gallery of red and black drawings: bison skulls, a line of mountain sheep, warriors carrying lances, a turkey stepping into a snare, a stick man upside-down dead and falling, red-ocher hands, violent figures with rakes on their heads that he said were feather headdresses, a great red bear dancing forward on its hind legs, concentric circles and crosses and latticework. He copied the drawings in his notebook, saying Rubba-dubba a few times.

This is a rural setting in the foothills of the Big Horns (The Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming). The ‘south hinge’, to be more precise. I’m not entirely sure what is meant by ‘hinge’ when it comes to geology but it seems to refer to a bit of land which has been lifted and twisted via earthquake. (If you’re interested in the exact definition of a hinge when it comes to mountains, here’s a diagram and explanation.)

"The Half-Skinned Steer" is set in this general area of Wyoming. Image is from Google Earth.
“The Half-Skinned Steer” is set in this general area of Wyoming. Image is from Google Earth.
Satellite view of the Bighorn Mountains, where "The Half-Skinned Steer" is set.
Satellite view of the Bighorn Mountains, where “The Half-Skinned Steer” is set.

When you think Bighorn, think:

  • High altitude and snowy
  • Mule deer, elk, moose, black bears and mountain lions, pronghorn, herds of bison
  • Roadless areas
  • Little-known regions
  • Steep canyons
  • Hunters, fishermen and not many other people. But these days you’ll also find hikers, snowmobilers, backpackers and ultra-marathon runners.
  • Semidesert prairie
  • Douglas-fir
  • Colorful rock formations
  • Sacred areas belonging to the Crow Indian Reservation
  • Three main highways going across it, designated as Scenic By-ways
  • Rivers are called the Little Bighorn, Tongue and Powder
  • A big national recreation area in the canyon, including Bighorn Lake (a reservoir dam)
  • After Labor Day (4 September) you can encounter a high country snow storm at any time.

The place isn’t all that far from Yellowstone National Park, if you’ve ever seen a documentary set there.

Proulx describes the Bighorn region like this:

  • “the old man said cows couldn’t be run in such tough country, where they fell off cliffs, disappeared into sinkholes, gave up large numbers of calves to marauding lions; where hay couldn’t grow but leafy spurge and Canada thistle throve, and the wind packed enough sand to scour windshields opaque.”
  • A girl scout was killed by a lion.
  • The ranch was bought by some rich businessman from Australia, who renamed it “Wyoming Down Under” funny because this is such an American story. (I write this from Australia.)
  • The scale of the mountains are described like this: “The country poured open on each side, reduced the Cadillac to a finger snap. Nothing had changed, not a Goddamn thing, the empty pale place and its roaring wind, the distant antelope as tiny as mice, landforms shaped true to the past.”
  • Even the wind is brought to life as some sort of beast: “there was muscle in the wind rocking the heavy car, a great pulsing artery of the jet stream swooping down from the sky to touch the earth. Plumes of smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air, elegant fountains and twisting snow devils, shapes of veiled Arab women and ghost riders dissolving in white fume. The snow snakes writhing across the asphalt straightened into rods.”
  • As Mero’s situation grows more dire, so do descriptions of the landscape: “The cliffs bulged into the sky, lions snarled, the river corkscrewed through a stone hole at a tremendous rate, and boulders cascaded from the heights.”

This story is kind of like an anti-Western (also called neo-Western) in that it’s about disenchantment with the Pioneer Spirit and the American Dream.

Annie Proulx’s sky is as geologically interesting as the ground:

The sky to the west hulked sullen; behind him were smears of tinselly orange shot through with blinding streaks. The thick rim of sun bulged against the horizon.


Mythic Structure

This is basically a road trip, and road trip fiction is generally based upon the Odyssean mythic structure. You’ll also hear this kind of story referred to as a ‘(mythic) quest’. The reader is meant to look at both the outer journey and inner journey in order to garner meaning. Both threads are equally important. Mark Asquith makes note of the significance of Proulx’s point-of-view, which is mostly close third-person:

Mero’s journey is not simply geographical, it is also a psychological exploration of his reasons for leaving his father’s ranch some 60 years earlier. Indeed, for Fratz it is his move East that has allowed him to embrace the introspection and self-awareness that are alien to the anti-psychological stance of the mythic cowboy. Consequently, this is the most introspective of Proulx’s stories. Apart from Louise’s brief telephone call, we hear no other voice but that of Mero, who remains the focalizing agent throughout. This includes the powerful voice of the girlfriend, which is mediated through Mero.

The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories

The Half-Skinned Steer is also sometimes described as a ‘mock-epic’. What even is an epic? These days ‘epic’ seems to refer to anything massive, or in stories, a film which goes on and on and on (it probably has a massive budget). But ‘epic’ properly refers to a story in which the hero is the king and he is the founder of the city. Examples of epics run throughout history. Homer and Virgil in The Aeneid mark the beginnings of Greek nationalism. Then there’s the King Arthur legend where Arthur is the founder of the city of Camelot and the Round Table. That’s an epic. Mero can be considered a king returning to his kingdom, perhaps.

Intertextuality With The Myth Of Oedipus

Speaking of ancient stories:

It is suggested that Mero, sensing his and his brother’s desire for their father’s girlfriend, associates with the steer’s cruel treatment and develops castration anxiety–it is probably no coincidence that the bull from the original Icelandic tale has, in Proulx’s story, been traded for a steer, that is a castrated ox.


I’m no fan of Freud or much of his psychoanalysis but the Urstory of Oedipus can be seen in lots of stories if you’re on the look-out for it.

Folk Tale Origins

A lot of Proulx’s Wyoming stories borrow from tall tales, local legends, folktales, fairy tales and myths, not just this one. The stories include grotesque freaks, monsters, hybrid creatures, devils and demons. Here we have the horror trope of the villain who you just can’t kill, except the steer isn’t a villain. In which case, isn’t it the human who is the villain?

“The Half-Skinned Steer,” which was first published in The Atlantic Monthly, is based on an old Icelandic folktale, “Porgeir’s Bull.”

Annie Proulx, acknowledgements

If you look for that tale on the Internet (in English) you’ll find that most of the top entries are in reference to Proulx’s story rather than the original. Proulx has brought it to our consciousness.

Supernatural bulls have a long tradition though, not just in that Icelandic tale. You’ll even find one in The Epic of Gilgamesh.

In the Icelandic tale, from what I can gather, this wizard called Porgeir skins a calf in such a way that the hide remains attached only at the tail. Ghosts ride the monster’s bloody sled from one end of a river to the other. (I’m not sure what happens after that, or what the point is.)

Story Within A Story

“The Half-Skinned Steer” is a beautifully integrated example of a ‘framing story’. The fancy word for this is mise-en-abîme.

…the embedded narrative structure serves as a way to cast light on the tall-tale aspect of the story which is told by Mero’s father’s girlfriend, allegedly a true story which has happened to one of the locals: certain that he has killed a steer intended for food, the grotesque character named Tin Head.


The story-within-the-story starts with:

The girlfriend started a story, Yeah, there was this guy named Tin Head down around Dubois when my dad was a kid.

Then there is a flash forward, back to the present and we get more of the story starting with:

Well, well, she said, tossing her braids back, every year Tin Head butchers one of his steers, and that’s what they’d eat all winter long, boiled, fried, smoked, fricasseed, burned, and raw.

Except the thing is, we’re not told the story. We’re told Mero’s reaction to it:

Mero had thrashed all that ancient night, dreamed of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cutthroat gasps he didn’t know. The next morning he woke up drenched in stinking sweat, looked at the ceiling, and said aloud, It could go on like this for some time.

Part three comes at the point we rest assured Mero is going to make it back to the ranch:

Winking at Rollo, the girlfriend had said, Yes, she had said, Yes, sir, Tin Head eats half his dinner and then he has to take a little nap.

Part four after he gets lodged on the rocks:

My Lord, she continued, Tin Head is just startled to pieces when he don’t see that steer. He thinks somebody, some neighbor, don’t like him, plenty of them, come and stole it.

This has the effect of bringing the steer into the present landscape. We imagine Mero looking through the snow and actually seeing the steer.

Note that the story-within-the-story is not a complete story. When Rollo responds with, “That’s it?” in a ‘greedy, hot way’, he’s noticed that there has been no big struggle between the steer and Tin Head, no indication of a new situation. That’s what the ‘wrapper’ story is for the main story, of Mero’s demise, will give us the conclusion the father’s girl-friend’s story doesn’t.

Shaggy Dog Tales

There’s a category of tall stories which have abrupt endings. The teller takes delight in building up, building up, then leaving the listener (reader) hanging. They’re known as ‘Shaggy Dog Stories’. While the girlfriend’s story isn’t exactly that, she seems to take great delight in grossing Mero out, and this is the entire point of the story.

I’ve seen it in children’s stories, too. Here’s an example from Polish-German storyteller Janosch:

by 20th C Polish-German author illustrator Janosch A shaggy dog tale by 20th C Polish-German author illustrator Janosch. Annie Proulx's story-within-a-story "The Half-Skinned Steer" has a few things in common with the shaggy dog tale as a form.
A shaggy dog tale by 20th C Polish-German author illustrator Janosch. Annie Proulx’s story-within-a-story “The Half-Skinned Steer” has a few things in common with the shaggy dog tale as a form.

In traditional (Australian) tall stories, the fun comes from getting the listener to believe in ridiculous stories. In these stories with the abrupt endings the ‘fun’ comes from leading someone to believe that one outcome is coming up but defying expectations at the last minute.

Anything can end abruptly, whether it’s a scene or a sentence, but the ending of a story is the most significant ‘outcome’ and so has the most impact when it’s cut off.



Mero wound up sixty years later as an octogenarian vegetarian widower pumping an Exercycle in the living room of a colonial house in Woolfoot, Massachusetts.

83-year-old Mero Corn is a reluctant, tragic hero. He thinks his life is about over when he gets a call from Wyoming, where he grew up, to say come back and maybe run the emu farm also your younger brother has died. He’s scared of flying so drives his Cadillac from Massachussets. (I don’t think Woolfoot is a real place but the name of it suggests another rural setting, somehow.)

We can see from the description of Mero that he is careful about his health. He is the prepared type. That’s what makes this story all the more tragic and ironic. How does a man get stuck in his situation?

Note that the elderly Mero is vegetarian. I didn’t notice the significance of this first mention the first time I read it, but as soon as you go back you realise the exact moment he stopped eating meat, and it wasn’t anything as melodramatic as hearing the story about the half-skinned steer and then swearing off it for life. That moment happened later, recalled in this memory:

He crossed the state line, hit Cheyenne for the second time in sixty years. He saw neon, traffic, and concrete, but he knew the place, a railroad town that had been up and down. That other time he had been painfully hungry, had gone into the restaurant in the Union Pacific station although he was not used to restaurants, and had ordered a steak. When the woman brought it and he cut into the meat, the blood spread across the white plate and he couldn’t help it, he saw the beast, mouth agape in mute bawling, saw the comic aspects of his revulsion as well, a cattleman gone wrong.

Mark Asquith describes Mero’s psychological shortcomings in more words than Annie Proulx ever uses, which is testament to the compression that can be achieved by a masterful short story writer:

Mero Corn is a victim of his own delusions. When we meet him at the beginning of the story he is a confident easterner: a vegetarian who keeps fit on an Exercycle and makes his money from boilers, air duct cleaning and smart investments. When he gets the call summoning him to his brother’s funeral, he resolves to drive; despite his age, the distance, and the winter season, he believes that Wyoming holds no surprises for a man brought up in the West but grown successful in the East. His Cadillac, which e replaces at whim (‘he could do that if he liked, by cars like packs of cigarettes’ is a symbol of his success, but it is, as he will find to his cost, useless in Wyoming’s harsh landscape. His confidence is also signalled by his belief that the map of Wyoming that he carries in his head still matches the actual geography. As he crosses the state line he exultantly observes: ‘Nothing had changed, not a goddamn thing, the empty pale place and its roaring wind, the distant antelope as tiny as mice, landforms shaped true to the past.’ It is a landscape of the imagination rather than reality: the wildlife seems to have emerged from a child’s toy box while the ‘landforms shaped true to the past’ evoke a nostalgic link to glacial carving and careful agricultural husbandry rather than mineral extraction. Because everything has changed: ranches that were once flourishing like the deserted Farrier place have fallen apart, and the ranch to which he is returning has become an Australian themed ranch “Down Under Wyoming.”

The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories

But the entire story is from Mero’s point of view, we are encouraged to identify with Mero, and so if this story is saying anything at all about humankind that means Annie Proulx is saying something about people in general. What is she saying?

Through the introduction of this comical ranch, Proulx is making a serious point concerning the degree to which all landscapes are a product of cultural expectation. Just as Mero’s construction of the landscape is predicated on a combination of boy hood memory and the myth of the West, our own conception of the authentic West is built on a belief in the ‘naturalness’ of the cattle ranch. Through her introduction of an exotic species, Proulx is remind us, as Milane Duncan Frantz has observed, that cattle are just as artificial as emus in the West; the absurdity of the latter simply fits outside our imaginative geography. Furthermore, Proulx is also using the emu to interrogate the nation of ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ when attached to certain animal breeds, and by extension the whole landscape. This confusion proves fatal to Rollo, who is clawed to death by an emu because he fails to recognize the wild creature beneath the absurd animal of his own advertising. His gory death not only summons his brother, but foreshadows Mero’s own tragedy. This comes when his carefully constructed memory of the West (a domesticated vision transformed into postcard kitsch) comes into contact with the storm-ridden reality.

The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories

Then there is Mero’s problem with women:

Although he congratulations himself on his sexual prowess…his departure was hastened by sexual confusion heightened by the girlfriend’s story. It is a bewilderment that can be traced back to his early childhood where it emerges from a confused understanding of his landscape. When a visiting anthropologist shows him some Native American stone carvings of female genitalia, he mistakes them for horseshoes. As a result of his embarrassment, not only does Mero subsequently confuse the homophones ‘cymbal’ and ‘symbol’ (leading to some strange connection between sex and marching bands), but also from this point on ‘no fleshy examples ever conquered his belief in the subterranean stony structure of female genitalia.’ Thus, from his earliest age, sex is associated with both horses and the cold, dark and mysterious.

Later, taking his cue from the ranch around him, this confused belief develops into the idea that the sexualised woman is animalistic, exemplified by his father’s girlfriend, who he continually associates with a horse: ‘If you admired horses you’d go with her for her arched neck and horsey buttocks, so high and haunch you’d want to clap her on the rear’. She exists only in Mero’s memory, and remains anonymous because she only gains significance in relation to the father and is only understood by patriarchal definitions of what is wild and erotic. After she tells the story of ‘The Half-Skinned Steer’ he dreams ‘of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cut-throat gasps he didn’t know’. Sex, horses and cattle slaughter now become inextricably intertwined in his imagination and as he begins to suspect a growing relationship between her and Rollo, he increasingly identifies himself with the steer. The full significance of Proulx’s transformation of the bull of the original Icelandic tale to a steer (a castrated bull) becomes a symbol of Mero’s castration complex.

The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories

In short, this man was really mucked up when that anthropologist took him into the cave and showed him the etchings of the vulvas.


Mero is happy enough on his treadmill in Massachussets but after the phone call (The Call To Adventure) he wants to travel back to the ranch where he grew up, attend his brother’s funeral and perhaps find something to do with the rest of his years.

Maybe, he thought, things hadn’t finished turning out.

Proulx has an innovative way of describing this Call To Adventure:

He would see his brother dropped in a red Wyoming hole. That event could jerk him back; the dazzled rope of lightning against the cloud is not the downward bolt but the compelled upstroke through the heated ether.


Natural opponent: The hostile weather the snow, the bush which blocked the entrance, the rocky terrain which demobilised his Cadillac.

The Circumstances: Daniel Handler makes overt use of this in A Series of Unfortunate Events, which could describe many stories of this type. When the original Cadillac breaks down this is fatal, since all the survival equipment has been left inside it.

Self as opponent: The memory of the steer, or maybe the steer itself depending on your reading of the story. The memory of the half-skinned steer plagues him the closer he gets to his home ranch and when calamity befalls him, Mero almost feels he’s paying penance by succumbing to the cold.

Human opponent: The old man’s girlfriend is both the love opponent (he can’t have her, doesn’t really want her), and also managed to really disturb him by telling him the story in the first place. She is portrayed as a bit of a witch, though the truth is she’s just a very good storyteller:

It was her voice that drew you in, that low, twangy voice, wouldn’t matter if she was saying the alphabet, what you heard was the rustle of hay. She could make you smell the smoke from an imagined fire.

Louise, Tick’s wife isn’t exactly helpful (though Tick is even less so, refusing to make the call his own damn self). She tries to be helpful by offering to pick him up from the airport but when it comes to guiding him to the ranch by vehicle she’s set him up for failure. Louise is a completely unwitting opponent.


Things go wrong and plans change. We’re on Mero’s side because he is cool-headed. He’s a good travel companion in that respect.

When he meets with a car accident he simply buys a new Cadillac.

When he can’t find the entrance to the ranch he simply drives slowly until he finds an entrance.

When he gets lodged upon rocks he simply uses the last half-tank of petrol to keep warm.

He will knock on the door of an old neighbour in the morning. This plan has a strong emotional impact on me, reminding me of the sadness of getting very old, realising that most people you’ve known are dead:

I’ll be cold but I won’t freeze to death. It played like a joke the way he imagined it, with Bob Banner opening the door and saying, Why, it’s Mero, come on in and have some java and a hot biscuit, before he remembered that Bob Banner would have to be 120 years old to fill that role.


And so on, until he’s got nothing left.


In a short story it’s often the reader who has the revelation, about the character and ultimately about ourselves or about the human condition. If Mero has a revelation it’s that he’s not worthy of living after failing to kill that steer mercifully way back when.

Mero, the seer rather than the steer, eventually becomes aware, “in the howling, wintry light,” of the everlasting power the symbol of the half-skinned steer has held upon him, and what it stands for, despite his vain attempt to run away from his buried, unconscious psyche.


The reader is reminded that nature will win out in the end.


When the point-of-view pans out we know to approach the scene as detectives who have arrived after the scene of a tragedy:

On the main road his tire tracks showed as a faint pattern in the pearly apricot light from the risen moon, winking behind roiling clouds of snow.

He’s not dead yet, though. The tangles of willow are described as ‘bunched like dead hair’ rather than telling us Mero has died, she gives us all the hints in the world via death imagery in the landscape.

We may extrapolate that Tick and his partner won’t stay at the ranch either, and the land will return to its natural state, having shrugged off its human inhabitants.

Or perhaps you didn’t read it like this at all? Perhaps Mero gets to the funeral after all. As Nancy Kress points out, short stories don’t have to show us any new situation. (She calls this a denouement):

In a short story there may or may not be a denouement. In some stories—especially those that are very short—the climactic moment, in which the protagonist undergoes a change, may also be the last moment of the story. What happens to her after that is left to the reader’s imagination. In other stories, the denouement may consist of a sentence, a paragraph, or a brief scene clarifying what happens to the character after she changes.

Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends


This paragraph demonstrates two notable techniques:

He said he would be at the funeral. No point talking about flights and meeting him at the airport. He intended to drive. Of course he knew how far it was. He had a damn fine car, never had an accident in his life, knock on wood

First we have the one-sided conversation. There’s no need to write out the whole thing we know what the other party has said: “Are you sure you’re going to drive? We can meet you at the airport. Do you know how far it is?”

We also have foreshadowing of bad stuff to come with the ‘knock on wood’. Readers familiar with the author will already be expecting something terrible, but no writer can rely on just that. In real life jinxes aren’t a thing, but that isn’t true in fiction. ‘Never had an accident in his life’ means he’s going to have an accident, probably.

Even the Cadillac is described as if it’s an animal dripping blood:

he watched his crumpled car, pouring dark fluids onto the highway

The next night he personifies the old ranch house in his dream:

Below the disintegrating floors he saw galvanized tubs filled with dark, coagulated fluid.

Adjectives In “The Half-Skinned Steer”

…figuring he must be dotting around on a cane, too, drooling the tiny days away she was probably touching her own faded hair. He flexed his muscular arms, bent his knees, thought he could dodge an emu. He would see his brother dropped in a red Wyoming hole.

Plenty of people in writing groups will try and persuade you that adjectives are evil and should be slashed left, right and centre, but I am pro-adjective and I like it when excellent writers back me up on this point by using them well. First point: You can only get away with adjectives when the verbs are also strong. Second point: At least some of your adjectives have to be surprising and just plain ‘apt’. ‘Tiny days’ describes perfectly the way the old man’s life had shrunk in old age, but in a wonderfully succinct way. ‘Muscular’ arms isn’t clever as such just descriptive, and that’s fine too. A ‘red Wyoming hole’ describes the colour of the dirt, I guess. For Americans I bet the colour red is reminiscent of other things too, like conservative politics. (It’s opposite here, Down Under blue is conservative, red is more liberal.)

Later in the story, after his car accident, Mero drinks ‘a cup of yellow coffee’. Although it’s such a simple adjective, it made me stop and wonder how on earth coffee could be yellow. (Paleo-recipes with turmeric aside.) I figure it must be how he’s seeing the world now increasingly as an old man. Because of the Kodak corporation and their defective film, we as readers have been associating the colour yellow with age since the 1970s. (Though I’m sure it’s not just down to Kodak white linens and papers also yellow with age.)

Magical Realism in “The Half-Skinned Steer”

Most people studying the work of Annie Proulx focus on the following areas:

  1. naturalism (extreme realism which emphasises the role of family background, social conditions and environment in shaping human character)
  2. postmodernism (characterized by reliance on narrative techniques such as fragmentation, paradox, and the unreliable narrator)
  3. neo-regionalism (regionalism sets up a conflict between city and rural areas; neo-regionalism expands right out and is a response to globalisation.)

But I believe this story is a very good example of magical realism.

Here’s one definition of the technique:

Magical realism is a technique in which a plausible narrative enters the realm of fantasy without establishing a clearly defined line between the possible and impossible.

I think of magical realism as like (very) low fantasy but without a portal. Plain old fantasy not only makes use of some sort of portal, but generally lingers in that space for a while to allow the reader sufficient time to mentally leap from reality to unreality.

But is that what this story is? You might read the vengeful steer as purely hallucinatory, in which case is it magical realism at all? When trying to work out if it’s an hallucination, take a close look at the degree of ‘internal focalisation’. How far back does the point-of-view ‘camera’ pull away? The more omniscient the narrator, the less we should regard something in the text as if it’s an hallucination. Another possibility: We’re already had hints of dementia. Mero couldn’t remember where he was going when the pimply cop pulled him over. Could it be that?

If you look up ‘magical realism’ you won’t find Annie Proulx listed as one of the big shakers in this area, but like New Zealand’s Keri Hulme, she probably actually is.

Annie Proulx certainly makes use of some other magical symbols in her hyper-realist stories. Here we have reference to a full-moon, commonly used to indicate some sort of magic:

He was half an hour past Kearney, Nebraska, when the full moon rose, an absurd visage balanced in his rearview mirror

So that’s one argument in favour of the magical reading. On the other hand, Mero is cold, thirsty and disorientated to the point where he breaks into his car which isn’t even locked.

Allegorical Names In “The Half-Skinned Steer”

It has been pointed out that Mero might be an anagram for “more.”

In addition, Mero stands as a near-palindrome for Homer, and, finally as a truncated version of Oedipus’ adoptive mother’s name, Merope. (And if you’re into Freudian psychoanalysis, Sophocles offers the Urtext when it comes to sons and their displaced erotic feelings for their mothers.)

Make of that what you will, but Annie Proulx does not choose run-of-the-mill names for her characters.


James Agee’s “A Mother’s Tale” set on a ranch, a cow narrator

Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf” another tragic tale including a bull. (Many of Proulx’s anti-heroes read as grotesque figures reminiscent of the Southern freak tradition inherited from Flannery O’Connor.)

Work by Sherwood Anderson. O. Alan Weltzien has called Proulx’s Wyoming grotesques “weathered, Western descendants of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio gallery.”

The Symbolism Of Altitude: Clifftops, Mountains and Roofs

Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.

mountains and valleys

Something weird happens when humans position ourselves in high places. High place phenomenon is that weird urge you get to jump off a bridge.

I don’t get that, exactly. I get a strange variation on that. I remember standing on a bridge one time holding a tennis ball. I wondered how hard it would be to get the tennis ball back if I dropped it. So I dropped it, entirely without meaning to. Sure enough, it was no easy job getting the tennis ball back.

In London I never liked standing at the front of the queue to get on a rush hour underground train. I always felt like I’d be pushed by the people behind me into the oncoming train and fall onto the tracks. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to push someone in front of me. But don’t worry, I never tried it. And I stay right away from trains these days.

Because there’s always the tennis ball.


A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.

Miss Rumphius Barbara Cooney house on hill

From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Gustave Doré (1832 - 1883) 1877 illustration 'The Army Of The Second Crusade Find The Remains Of The Soldiers Of The First Crusade' valley death
Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) 1877 illustration ‘The Army Of The Second Crusade Find The Remains Of The Soldiers Of The First Crusade’ valley death

Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Wolf Hollow is an interesting setting because it is an snail under the leaf setting. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.

Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?

First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.

Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.

from Treasure Island
from Treasure Island

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson
Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson


Where The Mountain Meets The Moon

In the valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon.

Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune.

She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.

Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.

In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her anagnorises.

A character often has a revelation in a high place (mountain, hill, knoll, rooftop… any high place will suffice).

  • The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
  • Greek myths about gods on Mt Olympus
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Heidi
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Shining
  • The Bears On Hemlock Mountain
  • Serena
Libert, Georg Emil (Danish, 1820 - 1908) Moonlight Landscape with couple
Libert, Georg Emil (Danish, 1820 – 1908) Moonlight Landscape with couple

In Remains of the Day, the butler has a high-altitude revelation early in his journey:

It was a fine feeling indeed to be standing up there like that, with the sound of summer all around one and a light breeze on one’s face. And I believe it was then, looking on that view, that I began for the first time to adopt a frame of mind appropriate for the journey before me. For it was then that I felt the first healthy flush of anticipation for the many interesting experiences I know these days ahead hold in store for me. And indeed, it was then that I felt a new resolve not to be daunted in respect to the one professional task I have entrusted myself with on this trip; that is to say, regarding Miss Kenton and our present staffing problems.

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro


Sidney Paget for 'The Final Problem' (1893) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Reichenbach Falls fight
Sidney Paget for ‘The Final Problem’ (1893) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Reichenbach Falls

The cliff face does not have the same meaning as the beach. Cliffs are elevated areas without sand. Cliffs work quite differently in English literature. 

  • Cliffs in English (England) are gloomy settings
  • Cliffs also exist in Australia of course, but they are most often considered dangerous e.g. the Twelve Apostles in Victoria give way to rough ocean rather than a safe beach.

The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.

And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.

Roger Ebert’s review of The River Wild

In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).

from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986
from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986
house on cliff

Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.

See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.

from The Adventures of Robin Hood
from The Adventures of Robin Hood
British artist Tracy Savage draws her inspiration from the Yorkshire coastline and landscape.
Her paintings are bursting with subjects she finds fascinating, capturing the imagination with her individual & dramatic style.

Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.

a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry
a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry
John Frederick Tennant - Waiting for the Catch 1839
John Frederick Tennant – Waiting for the Catch 1839

For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:

  • mountains
  • high desert landscapes
  • canyons
  • buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
  • eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)

When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.

“Lookout Point” by Richard Sargent, cover art for the July 18, 1953, Saturday Evening Post


The manmade equivalent of a natural high place is a rooftop. Characters often experience anagnorises on rooftops, or go there to achieve an overview of a situation, and to work out a plan to achieve their desires.

Artist on the Roof (1950) From…The Amsterdam Series (1940-50’s) ~Anton Pieck~ Dutch~ Painter/Graphic Artist/Illustrator
Ink sketch by Duilio Cambellotti roof
Ink sketch by Duilio Cambellotti roof
Adolph K. Kronengold
Adolph K. Kronengold
Rooftop Gardening by Garth Williams (1912-1996) accent colour
Rooftop Gardening by Garth Williams (1912-1996) accent colour

One hot summer night in the city, all the power goes out. The TV shuts off and a boy wails, “Mommm!” His sister can no longer use the phone, Mom can’t work on her computer, and Dad can’t finish cooking dinner. What’s a family to do? When they go up to the roof to escape the heat, they find the lights–in stars that can be seen for a change–and so many neighbors it’s like a block party in the sky! On the street below, people are having just as much fun–talking, rollerblading, and eating ice cream before it melts. The boy and his family enjoy being not so busy for once. They even have time to play a board game together. When the electricity is restored, everything can go back to normal . . . but not everyone likes normal. The boy switches off the lights, and out comes the board game again.

Using a combination of panels and full bleed illustrations that move from color to black-and-white and back to color, John Rocco shows that if we are willing to put our cares aside for a while, there is party potential in a summer blackout.

For the most part, Hannah’s life is just how she wants it. She has two supportive parents, she’s popular at school, and she’s been killing it at gymnastics. But when her cousin Cal moves in with her family, everything changes. Cal tells half-truths and tall tales, pranks Hannah constantly, and seems to be the reason her parents are fighting more and more. Nothing is how it used to be. She knows that Cal went through a lot after his mom died and she is trying to be patient, but most days Hannah just wishes Cal never moved in.

For his part, Cal is trying his hardest to fit in, but not everyone is as appreciative of his unique sense of humor and storytelling gifts as he is. Humor and stories might be his defense mechanism, but if Cal doesn’t let his walls down soon, he might push away the very people who are trying their best to love him.

Told in verse from the alternating perspectives of Hannah and Cal, this is a story of two cousins who are more alike than they realize and the family they both want to save.

by Arthur Getz (1913-1996) roof top
by Arthur Getz (1913-1996) roof top
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30 roof
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30
Piet Meiners (Dutch, 1857 - 1903) Still Life with Bread, Bottle of Water, Pipe and Mirror, 1884
Piet Meiners (Dutch, 1857 – 1903) Still Life with Bread, Bottle of Water, Pipe and Mirror, 1884
Ethel Franklin Betts (1877-1959) roof
Ethel Franklin Betts (1877-1959)
Klaus Ensikat (german, b. 1937) - Illustration from book Cats by Axel Eggebrecht roof
Klaus Ensikat (german, b. 1937) – Illustration from book Cats by Axel Eggebrecht
Gustave Caillebotte (1848 - 1894) Snowy Roofs, 1878. Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Gustave Caillebotte (1848 – 1894) Snowy Roofs, 1878. Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Marit Törnqvist, Swedish-Dutch illustrator flying
Marit Törnqvist, Swedish-Dutch illustrator flying
Paoli Domeniconi, Italian illustrator
Marit Törnqvist, Swedish-Dutch illustrator giant child
Marit Törnqvist, Swedish-Dutch illustrator giant child
By the Cellar, 1917, Carl Larsson
“By the Cellar”, 1917, Carl Larsson
Kings of Summer leaky roof
Kings of Summer leaky roof
Lovely Is The Lee by Robert Gibbings house with no roof
Lovely Is The Lee by Robert Gibbings house with no roof
Courage the Cowardly Dog
Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge


If we take a look at imagined futures, cities always seem to go up and down. This is indeed the general trend, as population density grows, building technologies improve and city buildings get taller and taller. What I find surprising is how far back these visions go.

Albert Robida (1848-1926), Le Vingtième siècle aka The Twentieth Century, 1883
Albert Robida (1848-1926), Le Vingtième siècle aka The Twentieth Century, 1883
Grant E. Hamilton (1862 - 1926) 1895 futuristic city Illustration from Judge magazine What We Are Coming To (whole city in one building)
Grant E. Hamilton (1862 – 1926) 1895 futuristic city Illustration from Judge magazine What We Are Coming To (whole city in one building)

Header painting: Louis Bosworth Hurt – A Highland Drove at Strathfillan, Perthshire 1

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » landforms

The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar

Hear “The People Across The Canyon” (1964) read by Douglass Greene at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

This is my favourite story from the excellent collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, partly due to how much I relate to the characters. When our daughter was five some new neighbours moved in next door. The adults were super unfriendly, but had two sons who were overly friendly. They would invite our daughter next door, but oftentimes she came back subdued, and once, crying. I never knew what happened next door, but I did learn more and more about the family, and had to stop my daughter from going over there. When you’re the parent of a child between around 4-8, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction; children so often live in their own worlds. “The People Across The Canyon” encapsulates that confusion most beautifully.


A family of two parents and their 8-year-old daughter live in a house on the edge of a Canyon. The parents enjoy solitude. But one day, it appears a new family has moved into the house right across the canyon.

The 8-year-old starts talking about them, and has obviously been to visit them. She even points them out in town, driving in a cream sports car.

When the 8-year-old tells her parents that the Smiths would like to keep her for their own, the father thinks enough is enough, and they go to the house to confront the newcomers.

We learn at this point, though it has been foreshadowed all along, that Cathy has made these people up completely. What they thought was a television set glowing is actually a mirror, reflecting light.


You won’t be surprised to hear that Margaret Millar was born and bred in Ontario, given the proximity of The Canyon in this story. I imagine a vista  little bit like this:

Ontario Canyon Falls

Though with its ‘scratchy clumps of chaparral and the creepers of poison oak that looked like loganberry vines’ I doubt it’s as picturesque.

The canyon is symbolic, of course. There is a gap the size of a canyon between the world view of the little girl and that of her parents. As it turns out, though, Cathy is very much like her parents.


Marion Borton

Mrs Borton’s desire, set up at the very beginning, is for peace and quiet.

“There goes our privacy.” Marion went over and snapped off the television set, a sign to Paul that she had something on her mind which she wanted to transfer to his. The transference, intended to halve the problem, often doubled it.

Marion had her house, her garden, her television sets; she didn’t seem to want any more of the world than these, and she resented anyimplication that they were not enough. 

Paul Borton 

Paul Borton shares his wife’s desire for peace and quiet, but his main problem is marital harmony. We get the sense that he will be happy simply watching the TV, so long as his wife doesn’t turn it off mid-sentence. He is depicted as more worldly and reasonable than his wife.

Cathy Borton

8 years old, ‘gets along with everyone at school and never causes any trouble’, in the words of her parents, via the teacher.

Cathy responded to the sound [of the frog croaking] as if she was more intimate with nature than adults were, and more alert to its subtle communication of danger.


It’s significant that Mr and Mrs Borton are watching a drama on TV:

Paul went over and turned the television set back on. As he had suspected, it was the doorman who’d killed the nightclub owner with a baseball bat, not the blonde dancer or her young husband or the jealous singer.

While the parents get their fiction from melodrama on the evening television, while concocting stories about who may have moved in next door, their daughter is just the same as them, concocting her own stories with a mirror, while all the time it looks to her parents that someone is watching a TV. Though there is a canyon between Cathy and her parents, they are really just the same.

The television makes more than one appearance. Notice how we’re told the backstory of the television set. In this way, Millar attracts exactly the right amount of attention to it:

It was the following Monday that Cathy started to run away. Marion, ironing in the kitchen and watching a quiz program on the portable set Paul had given her for Christmas, heard the school bus groan to a stop at the top of the driveway.

This feels like a very modern story. These days it’s not TV that gets blamed when parents are criticised for neglecting their children — it tends to be phones and ‘gadgets’. But this feels like — if not a criticism — then a comment on how we immerse ourselves in screens and fail to see the problems our children are having, right in front of our own eyes.



Millar often delivers “surprise endings,” but the details that would allow the solution of the surprise have usually been subtly included, in the best genre tradition. Her books focus on subtleties of human interaction and rich psychological detail of individual characters as much as on plot.


Indeed, every good story with a surprising ending reveals subtle foreshadowing upon second reading:

“You know how sounds carry across the canyon.”

“I don’t hear any sounds.”

Why don’t they hear any sounds, if noise travels so well?

Of Cathy, the parents ostensibly discuss the prospect of new neighbours, but the reader is really being fed information about young Cathy, who we are to believe is lonely, and therefore prompted to make imaginary friends:

“It would be nice if she had more interests, more children of her own age around.”

We’re told numerous times that Cathy is shy, that she is ‘imitative’, and we’re shown that when Cathy prefers to play with ‘real people’ over watching television, she goes off to play with her dolls. She knows ‘every inch of the way’ across the Canyon.


Apart from the canyon, the mirror in this story is symbolic, reflecting back to Mrs Borton in particular everything she is not. The mirroring is two-fold: She watches Cathy looking at the mirror as a pretend television screen. She herself watches a lot of television; Cathy’s school teacher has expressed concern at the amount. In these ways, our children mirror our behaviour.

When she looks into the mirror, Mrs Borton starts to see her own image morph into the Mrs Smith of her daughter’s imagination. This image rapidly disappears, and she is left with nothing. The mirror has highlighted her deficiencies.


First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 1962.

Can now be found in the following anthology:

Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives Cover


There are numerous picture books for children about the power of imagination, and these are told from a child’s point of view. In a sense, this short story for adults is the inverse of that — a picture book story of imagination but told from the parents’ point of view.


Using the same storyline, what would the picture book version look like?

In what ways are children more in touch with realities than the adults in their lives?

In what ways to children make glaringly obvious any deficiencies in their parents?

Home » landforms