A Million Years with You : A Memoir of Life Observed

by Elizabeth Thomas

One of our greatest literary naturalists, now in her eighth decade, turns her famed observational eye on herself: how is it that an untrained, self-taught observer and writer could see things that anthropologists and zoologists often missed? How can we all unlock the wisdom of the world simply by paying close attention?

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547763958
  • ISBN-10: 0547763956
  • Pages: 304
  • Publication Date: 06/11/2013
  • Carton Quantity: 12

Also available in:

About the Book
About the Author
  • One of our greatest literary naturalists turns her famed observational eye on herself in this captivating memoir.

    How is it that an untrained, self-taught observer and writer could see things that professional anthropologists often missed? How is that a pioneering woman, working in male-dominated fields, without sponsors or credentials, could accomplish more than so many more celebrated and professionally educated men could manage? How can we all unlock the wisdom of the world simply by paying close attention?

    With their intelligence and acute insight into other cultures and species, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's many books have won a wide and loving audience. In A Million Years with You, this legendary author shares stories from her life, showing how a formative experience in South West Africa (now Namibia) in the 1950s taught her how to pay attention to the ancient wisdom of animals and humankind.

    As a young woman, Marshall Thomas joined her family on an anthropological expedition to the Kalahari Desert, where she conducted fieldwork among the Ju/wa Bushmen, later publishing her findings as The Harmless People. After college, a wedding, and the birth of two children, she returned to Uganda shortly before Idi Amin's bloody coup. Her skills as an observer and a writer would be put to the test on many other occasions working with dogs, cats, cougars, deer—and with more personal struggles. A Million Years with You is a powerful memoir from a pioneering woman, an icon of American letters.


    My parents taught me to enjoy observation. They loved the sky and also the life of our planet. My dad, Laurence Marshall, would go out on the porch to see what the sky was doing, and if something exciting was going on he’d demand that the rest of us to come to see it too. He was clearly the head of our family and also our leader, and we always did what he said. So all of us — me, my brother, John, who was a year younger, our mom, her mother, and Dad’s mother (both of whom lived with us) — would drop what we were doing and obediently troop out to the porch. Sometimes we saw cumulous clouds, sometimes falling stars, sometimes a spectacular sunset, and sometimes northern lights. Dad was a civil engineer with an awesome knowledge of math and physics, and northern lights enthralled him. They came from the sun, he said.

       My mom, Lorna Marshall, was a caregiver to all life forms and a known animal lover to the point that she sometimes found cats in boxes on her doorstep, evidently delivered by someone who thought she’d take them in. She took them in. She never killed mice, although her cats did. And she never killed insects, not even flies. Instead, she’d put a glass over them, slide a piece of paper under the glass, and release them outside. To her, animals were on earth to be cared for. Her cats were so healthy that on one occasion a veterinarian did not believe her when she told him her cat was sixteen. The cat was in such good shape that he could only be eight or nine, said the veterinarian. But the vet was mistaken. The cat had been left on her doorstep as an adolescent, and she’d had him for sixteen years, so he was closer to seventeen. Just about everyone who knew my mother wanted to be reincarnated as her cat.

       Everyone flourished who was in my mother’s care. Her oldest houseplant was over thirty, and at the time of this writing, a climbing rose she planted is at least seventy-six and was an adult when she got it. My dad lived to ninety-one, his mother lived to a hundred and five, my mother herself lived to a hundred and four, and every dog or cat who came into her life lived well beyond the life expectancy of its species. Wild animals near her also flourished. She put seeds for birds and bread and peanuts for squirrels on the shed roof outside her kitchen window. The squirrels knew her. If she was late with the food, we’d notice a squirrel or two looking in the window to see if she remembered them. Of course she did.

       Religion might have had something to do with this, because her mother, our gran, was a Christian Scientist. Our mom was not, due to a catastrophic event when she was six or seven and was listening to Gran and some of Gran’s friends discussing the power of faith. Fascinated, my mom asked if she could fly if she had faith. They said she could fly if she had enough faith. My mom was thrilled. Brimming with faith and prepared for a great experience, she climbed out a window to the roof of their house and jumped off. What happened next erased her religious inclinations permanently, but perhaps an aura still clung, because according to Gran, everything made by God was good. This, of course, included the flies whom my mother set free and the squirrels who looked in our window.

       Gran’s sense of global goodness was more extreme and included the famous hurricane of 1938, which she, age sixty-something, and I, age seven, went outside to experience. We were alone in the house at the time so no one was there to stop us. The wind lifted me off the ground and carried me about fifteen feet down a hill, so I got to fly even if my mother didn’t. I found it thrilling, and agreed with my Gran that a hurricane was good.

       But I couldn’t agree about gypsy moth caterpillars. The subject of their value arose during one of their population explosions, when these caterpillars seemed to coat the landscape. We could hear their dung pattering down outside our house and see the wide defoliation caused by their chewing.

       My little brother was enthralled by such bounty. He brought handfuls of caterpillars indoors as pets, put them in a box, and gave them leaves to eat. Someone gave him a screen to cover the box, but as often as not he’d forget about the screen, so his caterpillars soon were everywhere — in the dishes on the pantry shelf, in the clothes in our drawers, even in our beds under the covers. They scared me and I complained to Gran. But Gran insisted that even these caterpillars were good, or at least they weren’t bad, because God made them.

       Our dad’s mother, Nana, was a born-again fundamentalist, and because few animals are mentioned in the Bible, her religious views did not include them. But she was kind to them. Our cats liked to sit with her while she knitted or sewed and to sleep on her bed while she rested. It was good to see her lying down, covered with an afghan she had knitted, with a cat curled up beside her, purring.

       However, Nana did not believe in dinosaurs. This caused profound distress to me and my brother, as we were enthralled by dinosaurs. Our dad read to us about them and gave us small, realistic models of them. We thought we knew the names of all dinosaurs (we knew five or six), and on the floor of my brother’s bedroom we made a diorama for them with handmade trees meant to look like cycads. We made our own model dinosaurs too, using a clay called Plasticine, which we thought was pronounced “Pleistocene.” In our imaginations we would live in the Jurassic age, watching our dinosaurs and escaping from them.

       But dinosaurs never existed, said Nana. They’re not in the Bible. “Then the Bible is wrong!” we’d shout. We’d tell her that our dad saw a dinosaur’s footprints in some rocks in South Hadley, Massachusetts. And scientists had found dinosaur bones. If there were no dinosaurs, what made the footprints and bones?

       Satan made them, Nana said. He buried the bones and made the footprints to turn scientists away from the word of God. My brother and I would yell that this was NOT TRUE, and Nana would cover her ears and pray for us aloud.


    From our mom we learned not to tease animals, from Gran we learned that everything was good, and from Nana we learned that the Bible doesn’t tell the whole story. But it was from our dad that we learned where our food came from, and to know the natural world. He had strong feelings about our leisure time and didn’t want us spending the summers lying on a beach like the families of some of his colleagues. So when my brother was three and I was four, he bought the land in Peterborough, New Hampshire where, at the time of this writing, my husband and I live. Dad eventually owned roughly 2,500 acres of forest and farmland on and around the Wapack Range, most of which he gave to the Department of the Interior as a wildlife sanctuary. But on the road that passed through these acres — a dirt road — were two adjoining abandoned farms, and these Dad kept. Both are on hilltops but sheltered from the wind by higher hills, and both are free of frost much longer than those hills and the valleys. I suspect that before the old-time farmers chose these places, they found out where the deer stayed on cold nights, because deer know all that anyone needs to know about microclimates. To this day, on autumn nights, they sleep in our frost-free field.

       My dad renovated one of the farms, then hired a farm manager and began raising Milking Shorthorn cattle. On the other he built a house for us, his family. T...

  • "Thoughtful" -- Publishers Weekly


    "Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's affirming, finely-observed memoir recounts a life in the process of being fully and unapologetically lived; a gift from someone with an endlessly curious mind and more than eight decades on the planet. But perhaps the greatest gift of A Million Years with You is Marshall Thomas's signal talent: it leaves the reader feeling far less alone in the world, and much more deeply connected to it." — Alexandra Fuller, author of Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness


    "It would be a gross understatement to say that A Million Years with You is a stunning book. Thomas is confronted by Idi Amin in Uganda; she digs roots with women gatherers in the Kalahari. In Ibadan, Nigeria, she witnesses tribal violence, religious sacrifice, and resistance to western medicine. She is a keen observer of lions, hyenas, and wild wolves. All this is interwoven with her own personal history to form a memoir of extraordinary power." — Maxine Kumin, author of Where I Live, and former U.S. Poet Laureate


    "Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes with all her sense of a lifelong love affair with our planet and its astonishing life. She is a meticulous observer of human diversity and the hidden ways of animals, responding with empathy and reminding us to look with wonder." — Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom


    "Fortunately for readers, her keen observation, attentive and inquisitive nature, and thoughtful, unvarnished writing grace numerous books devoted to sharing what she has seen. This time she turns to a fascinating subject: herself." — Concord Monitor