Masterful Descriptive Writing From Isabella Bird

I’ve been re-rereading A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird about her trip to Colorado in 1873 and I am constant struck by the power of her descriptions. She’s the only writer I’ve ever read who uses the word “empurpled.”

She doesn’t just see a horse, she sees “a high-bred, beautiful creature, stable-kept, with arched neck, quivering nostrils, and restless ears and eyes.”

Then she mounts up and we get descriptions of the trails and the scenery. “It’s not easy to sit down and write after ten hours of hard riding,” she writes to her sister, “especially in a cabin full of people, and wholesome fatigue may make my letter flat when it ought to be enthusiastic.”

Doesn’t sound so flat to me:

“Very fair it was, after the bare and burning plains, and the variety was endless. Cotton-wood trees were green and bright, aspens shivered in gold temulousness, wild grape vines trailed their lemon-colored foliage along the ground, and the Virginia creeper hung its crimson sprays here and there, lightening green and gold into glory.

“Sometimes from under the cool and bowery shade of the colored tangle we passed into the cool St. Vrain [Valley], and then were wedged between its margin and lofty cliffs and terraces of incredibly staring, fantastic rocks, lined, patched, and splashed with carmine, vermillion, greens of all tints, blue, yellow, orange, violet, deep crimson, coloring that no artist would dare to represent, and of which, in sober prose, I scarcely dare tell.”