Praise for Creatures of the Kingdom
“[Creatures of the Kingdom contains] the dramatic elements of a life—the wonder of birth, rites of passage, lots of conflict, much of it physical and bloody, and death. . . . As characters in a James Michener novel, a beaver can know loneliness, a buffalo can bide his time, a salmon can feel encouraged, and a woolly mammoth can ‘luxuriate’ in the ecological rewards of a plains fire.”—Boston Sunday Herald
“Dramatic . . . enthralling . . . expertly crafted . . . Michener treats each of these creatures with fundamental respect, and in many cases, admiration and awe, if not outright love.”—The Virginian-Pilot
“Anyone who has read a James Michener novel knows that it’s a learning experience as well as an adventure.”—The Sacramento Bee
“Delightful . . . nature writing at its most fluid and involving.”—Booklist
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 3, 1907
Date of Death:October 16, 1997
Place of Death:Austin, Texas
Education:B.A. in English and history (summa cum laude), Swarthmore College, 1929; A.M., University of Northern Colorado, 1937.
Read an Excerpt
Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been fixed, there was, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others. It was a mighty ocean, lying to the east of the largest continent, a restless, ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific.
Over its brooding surface immense winds swept back and forth, whipping the waters into towering waves that crashed down upon the world’s seacoasts, tearing away rocks and eroding the land. In its dark bosom, strange life was beginning to form, minute at first, then gradually of a structure now lost even to memory. Upon its farthest reaches birds with enormous wings came to rest, and then flew on.
Agitated by a moon stronger then than now, immense tides ripped across this tremendous ocean, keeping it in a state of torment. Since no great amounts of sand had yet been created, the waters where they reached shore were universally dark, black as night.
Scores of millions of years before man rose from the shores of the ocean to perceive its grandeur and to venture forth upon its turbulent waves, this eternal sea existed, larger than any other of the earth’s features, more enormous than the sister oceans combined, wild, terrifying in its immensity and imperative in its universal role.
How utterly vast it was! How its surges modified the very balance of the earth! How completely lonely it was, hidden in the darkness of the night or burning in the dazzling power of a sun younger than ours.
At recurring intervals the ocean grew cold. Ice piled up along its extremities and pulled vast amounts of water from the sea, so that the wandering shoreline of the continents sometimes jutted miles farther out than before. Then, for a hundred thousand years, the ceaselessly turbulent ocean would tear at the exposed shelf of the continents, grinding rocks into sand and incubating new life.
Later the fantastic accumulations of ice would melt, setting cold waters free to join the heaving ocean, and the coasts of the continents would lie submerged. Now the restless energy of the sea deposited upon the ocean bed layers of silt and skeletons and salt. For a million years the ocean would build soil, and then the ice would return; the waters would draw away; and the land would lie exposed. Winds from the north and the south would howl across the empty seas and lash stupendous waves upon the shattering shore. Thus the ocean continued its alternate building and tearing down.
Master of life, guardian of the shorelines, regulator of temperatures and sculptor of mountains—the great ocean was all these.
Millions upon millions of years before man appeared on Earth, the central areas of this tremendous ocean were empty, and where famous islands now exist nothing rose above the rolling waves. Of course, crude forms of life sometimes moved through the deep, but for the most part the central ocean was marked only by enormous waves that moved at the command of moon and wind. Dark, dark, they swept the surface of the empty sea, falling only upon themselves, terrible and lonely and puissant.
Then one day millions of years ago, a rupture developed in the rocky bed of the ocean. It occurred near the middle of the sea, a bit closer to what would later become the western United States than to the shores of eastern Asia. Some great fracture of the earth’s basic structure had occurred, and from it began to ooze a white-hot liquid rock. As it escaped from its internal prison and came into contact with the ocean’s wet and heavy body, the rock instantly exploded, sending aloft through the nineteen thousand feet of ocean that had pressed down upon it columns of released steam.
Upward, upward, for nearly four miles they climbed, those agitated bubbles, until at last upon the surface of the sea they broke loose and formed a cloud. In that instant the ocean signaled that a new island was building. In time it might grow to become an infinitesimal speck of land that would mark the great central void. No human beings then existed to celebrate the event. Perhaps some weird and now-extinct flying thing spied the escaping steam and swooped down to inspect it; more likely the roots of this future island were born in darkness and brooding nothingness.
For nearly forty million years, an extent of time so vast that it is almost meaningless, only the ocean knew that an island was building below its surface. For nearly forty million years, from that extensive rupture in the ocean floor, liquid rock seeped out in small amounts, forcing its way up through what had escaped before and contributing to the accumulation that was building on the floor of the sea. Sometimes a thousand or ten thousand years would pass before any new eruption of material would take place. At other times gigantic pressures would accumulate beneath the permanent rupture and with unimaginable violence rush through the existing apertures, throwing clouds of steam miles above the surface of the ocean. Waves would be generated that would circle the globe and crash upon themselves as they collided twelve thousand miles away. Such an explosion, indescribable in its fury, might in the end raise the height of the suboceanic island a foot.
For the most part, the slow constant seepage of molten rock was not violently dramatic. Layer upon layer of the earth’s vital core would exude, hiss when it met the cold seawater, and then slide down the sides of the mountains, for this bound together what had gone before, and established a base for what was to come.
And then one day, at the northwest end of the suboceanic rupture, an eruption of liquid rock occurred that was different from any others that had preceded it. It threw forth the same kind of rock with the same violence and through the same vents in the earth’s core, but this time what was erupted reached the surface of the sea. There was a tremendous explosion as the liquid rock struck water and air together. Clouds of steam rose miles into the air. Ash fell hissing upon the heaving waves. Detonations shattered the air for a moment and then echoed away in the immensity of the empty wastes.
But rock had at last been deposited above the surface of the sea. An island had risen from the deep.
In the long history of the ocean many such piles had momentarily broken the surface and then become submerged again. What was significant about the initial appearance of this first island along the slanting crack was the fact that it held on and grew. Stubbornly, inch by inch, it grew. In fact, it was the uncertainty and agony of its growth that were significant, and only by relentless effort did it establish its right to exist. For the first ten thousand years after its tentative emergence, the little pile of rock in the center of the sea fluctuated between life and death. Sometimes molten lava would rise through the internal channels and erupt from a vent only a few inches above the waves. Tons upon tons of material would gush forth and hiss madly before falling back into the ocean. Some, fortunately, would cling to the newborn island, adding many feet to its formation.
Then from the south, where storms breed in the deep, a mighty wave would form and rush across the world. Its coming would be visible from afar, and in gigantic, tumbling, whistling, screaming power it would fall upon the little accumulations of rocks before surging past.
For the next ten thousand years there would be no visible island, yet under the waves, always ready to spring back to life, there would rest this huge mountain, rising nineteen thousand feet from the floor of the ocean, and when a new series of volcanic thrusts tore through the vents, the mountain would patiently build itself for another try at breaking through the surface. Exploding, hissing and spewing forth ash, the great mountain would writhe in convulsions as it tried to pierce the waves. Its island would be born again.
This was the restless surge of the universe, the violence of birth, the cold tearing away of death; and yet how promising was this interplay of forces as an island struggled to be born, vanishing in agony and then soaring aloft in triumph.
For a million years the island hung in a precarious balance, a child of violence; but finally it was firmly established. Now each new lava flow had a solid base upon which to build, and inch by inch the debris agglutinated until the island could be seen by birds from long distances. It was indeed land, habitable for men had there been any then existing, with shelters for boats, had there been boats, and with rocks that could have been used for building homes. It was now an island, in the real sense of the word, taking its rightful place in the center of the great ocean.
But before life could prosper on this island, soil was needed, and as yet none existed. When molten lava burst upon the air it generally exploded into ash, but sometimes it ran as a viscous fluid down the sides of mountains, constructing extensive sheets of flat rock. The action of wind and rain and cooling nights began to pulverize the newly born lava, decomposing it into soil. When enough had accumulated, the island was ready to support life.
The first living forms to arrive were inconspicuous, indeed almost invisible—lichens and low types of moss. They were borne by the sea and by winds that howled back and forth across the oceans. With a tenacity equal to that of the island itself these fragments of life established themselves, and as they grew they broke down more rocks and built more soil.