The majesty of the natural world is an important part of Where the Red Fern Grows. On nearly every page, there is some description of nature as the young Billy Colman tromps and tracks raccoons through the scenic Ozark mountains. Billy is under the spell of nature, and through Billy’s reverence for the beauty all around him—and his disdain for even the small “cities” miles and miles from his mountain home—Rawls argues that to exist alongside and commune with nature is to understand not just the world one finds around oneself but the wilds one encounters within oneself.
Over the course of the novel, Rawls uses Billy’s adventures in nature to show how as the boy becomes more familiar with the world around him, he also begins to better understand and enjoy his relationship with himself—ultimately suggesting that just as Billy grows through his time in nature, so too can all human beings. In order to demonstrate the ways in which adventures in nature allow people to challenge themselves, Wilson Rawls centers much of the book around Billy’s exploits in and around the Ozark mountains. Billy is a boy who has a deep relationship with nature, as he spends his days helping his father on their family’s small farm or fishing in the nearby river. When he travels to Tahlequah to retrieve his hound pups, he does so on foot, without shoes to shield his feet from the forest floor. On the way back, Billy proves himself to be resourceful by building a fire in a cave for himself and his pups—and he never once grows weary of the long walk through the towering sycamore forests and swampy bottoms of the Ozarks. On nights when Billy takes his dogs hunting, he takes stock of and marvels at the plant and animal life all around him. He knows trees by their leaves and animals by their calls, and he loves the easy pleasure of simply being alone in nature as much as he loves the thrill of the hunt. Wilson Rawls takes care in the book’s early chapters to paint Billy as a boy whose reverence for nature is pure and intense: he is a country boy who is skeptical of the city and a nature lover who has deep respect even for the animals he hunts. Rawls shows how taking such pleasure from the simplicity of the natural world allows one to be happy nearly all the time. Even when Billy is working hard in the sun, exploring the unknown, or putting himself into danger, he trusts in the natural world to hold and care for him. He doesn’t fear the call of a mountain lion or resent the scratches he gets on his bare feet as he walks through the woods—Billy’s relationship to nature is the most mature, stable aspect of his life.
As the book progresses, Rawls continues to use examples of Billy’s adventures in the natural world to show how, the more time he spends in nature, the more he learns about himself. The hunting competition which Billy, his father, and his grandpa all attend together serves as a kind of litmus test for Billy’s understanding of nature—and thus his understanding of himself, too. Billy is the only child competing in the hunting contest, yet with the help of Little Ann and Old Dan, he succeeds in taking home the winning golden cup after a long, harrowing final round of hunting conducted at night in the middle of a terrifying blizzard. Billy and his dogs nearly freeze to death in the cold, and yet Billy’s faith in the idea that the natural world will in fact deliver them never wavers. It’s not so much that he believes he can conquer nature—it’s that he has, through his experiences in nature, come to understand his and his dogs’ capacity for resilience in the face of tough situations. Billy’s success in the hunting contest serves as a symbol of the ways in which he’s come to understand the world around him and the world within himself simultaneously. He understands both the possibilities and limitations which nature represents, and though he recognizes nature’s dangers, he remains committed to plunging deeper and deeper into those danger to prove his grit and worth to himself and to others.
Ultimately, Wilson Rawls uses Where the Red Fern Grows to illustrate how humans are dependent upon and inseparable from the natural world all around them. In exploring and understanding the ecosystems of plant and animal life around them, Rawls suggests, humans can ultimately achieve a deeper understanding not just of their place in the world but indeed of their own innermost selves.
The Natural World ThemeTracker
The Natural World Quotes in Where the Red Fern Grows
By this time, my fighting blood was boiling. It's hard for a man to stand and watch an old hound fight against such odds, especially if that man has memories in his heart like I had in mine. I had seen the time when an old hound like that had given his life so that I might live.
I remembered a passage from the Bible my mother had read to us: "God helps those who help themselves." I thought of the words. I mulled them over in my mind. I decided I'd ask God to help me. There on the bank of the Illinois River, in the cool shade of the tall white sycamores, I asked God to help me get two hound pups. It wasn't much of a prayer, but it did come right from the heart.
Lying back in the soft hay, I folded my hands behind my head, closed my eyes, and let my mind wander back over the two long years. I thought of the fishermen, the blackberry patches, and the huckleberry hills. I thought of the prayer I had said when I asked God to help me get two hound pups. I knew He had surely helped, for He had given me the heart, courage, and determination.
By the road it was thirty-two miles away, but as the crow flies, it was only twenty miles. I went as the crow flies, straight through the hills.
Although I had never been to town in my life […] I had the river to guide me.
[…] In a mile-eating trot, I moved along. I had the wind of a deer, the muscles of a country boy, a heart full of dog love, and a strong determination. I wasn't scared of the darkness, or the mountains, for I was raised in those mountains.
One pup started my way. I held my breath. On he came until I felt a scratchy little foot on mine. The other pup followed. A warm puppy tongue caressed my sore foot.
I heard the Stationmaster say, "They already know you."
I knelt down and gathered them in my arms. I buried my face between their wiggling bodies and cried. The Stationmaster, sensing something more than just two dogs and a boy, waited in silence.
What I saw in my pups gave me courage. My knees quit shaking and my heart stopped pounding.
I figured the lion had scented my pups. The more I thought about anything harming them, the madder I got. I was ready to die for my dogs.
Papa whacked him again and it was all over. […]
After the coon was killed, I walked over. Papa was trying to get the coon's paw from the trap. […] A sorrowful look came over Papa's face… […] "Billy," he said, "l want you to take a hammer and pull the nails from every one of those traps. […] I don't think this is very sportsmanlike.”
It was wonderful indeed how I could have heart-to-heart talks with my dogs and they always seemed to understand. […] Although they couldn't talk in my terms, they had a language of their own that was easy to understand. Sometimes I would see the answer in their eyes, and again it would be in the friendly wagging of their tails. […] In some way, they would always answer.
I was expecting one of them to bawl, but when it came it startled me. The deep tones of Old Dan's voice jarred the silence around me. […] A strange feeling came over me. […] This was what I had prayed for, worked and sweated for, my own little hounds bawling on the trail of a river coon. I don't know why I cried, but I did.
With tears in my eyes, I looked again at the big sycamore. A wave of anger came over me. Gritting my teeth, I said, "l don't care how big you are, I'm not going to let my dogs down. I told them if they put a coon in a tree I would do the rest and I'm going to. I'm going to cut you down. I don't care if it takes me a whole year."
Kneeling down between my dogs, I cried and prayed. “Please God, give me the strength to finish the job. […] Please help me finish the job." I was trying to rewrap my hands so I could go back to work when I heard a low droning sound. […] I looked up. High in the top of the big sycamore a breeze had started the limbs to swaying. A shudder ran through the huge trunk. […]
It started popping and snapping. I knew it was going to fall. […]
I held my breath. The top of the big sycamore rocked and swayed.
About halfway up, far out on a limb, I found the ghost coon. As I started toward him, my dogs stopped bawling. I heard something I had heard many times. The sound was like the cry of a small baby. It was the cry of a ringtail coon when he knows it is the end of the trail. I never liked to hear this cry, but it was all in the game, the hunter and the hunted.
As I sat there on the limb, looking at the old fellow, he cried again. Something came over me. I didn't want to kill him.
“Don't let him up, Rubin," Rainie said. "Beat the hell out of him, or hold him and let me do it."
Just then I heard growling, and a commotion off to one side. […] I heard Rainie yell, "Rubin, they're killing Old Blue."
Rubin jumped up off me.
I clambered up and looked over to the fight. What I saw thrilled me. Faithful Little Ann […] had gone to the assistance of Old Dan.
I knew my dogs were very close to each other. Everything they did was done as a combination, but I never expected this.
Both of them started eating at the same time.
With an astonished look on his face, Grandpa exclaimed, “Well, I'll be darned. I never saw anything like that. Why, I never saw a hound that wouldn't eat. Did you train them to do that?"
"No, Grandpa,” I said. "They've always been that way. They won't take anything away from each other, and everything they do, they do it as one."
The judge said, "Well, have you ever seen that? Look over there!"
Old Dan was standing perfectly still, with eyes closed and head hanging down. Little Ann was licking at his cut and bleeding ears.
"She always does that," I said. "If you'll watch, when she gets done with him, he'll do the same for her."
We stood and watched until they had finished doctoring each other. Then, trotting side by side, they disappeared in the darkness.
“Please go just a little further," I begged. "I just know we'll hear them."
Still no one spoke or made a move to go on.
Stepping over to my father, I buried my face in his old mackinaw coat. Sobbing, I pleaded with him not to turn back. He patted my head. “Billy," he said, “a man could freeze to death in this storm, and besides, your dogs will give up and come in."
"That's what has me worried," I cried. 'They won't come in. They won't, Papa. Little Ann might, but not Old Dan. He'd die before he'd leave a coon in a tree."
I heard the judge say to my father, “This beats anything I have ever seen. Why, those dogs can read that boy's mind.” […]
Papa said, "Yes, I know what you mean. I've seen them do things that I couldn't understand. I'd never heard of hounds that ever had any affection for anyone, but these dogs are different. Did you know they won't hunt with anyone but him, not even me?"
"What I can't understand is why they stayed with the tree," Mr. Benson said. […]
“Men,” said Mr. Kyle, "people have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. […] You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don't. I may be wrong, but I call it love… […] It's a shame that people all over the world can't have that kind of love in their hearts… […] There would be no wars, slaughter, or murder; no greed or selfishness. It would be the kind of world that God wants us to have.”
I went berserk, and charged into the fight.
There in the flinty hills of the Ozarks, I fought for the lives of my dogs. I fought with the only weapon I had, the sharp cutting blade of a double-bitted ax.
Screaming like a madman, with tears running down my face, I hacked and chopped at the big snarling mountain cat.
"l never saw anything like it. Little Ann wouldn't have fought the lion if it hadn't been for Old Dan. All she was doing was helping him. He wouldn't quit. He just stayed right in there till the end. I even had to pry his jaws loose from the lion's throat after the lion was dead."
Glancing at Old Dan, Papa said, “It's in his blood, Billy. He's a hunting hound, and the best one I ever saw. He only has two loves—you and hunting. That's all he knows."
'Don't touch it, Mama," my oldest sister whispered. "It was planted by an angel."
Mama smiled and asked, "Have you heard the legend?"
'Yes, Mama," my sister said. “Grandma told me the story and I believe it, too."
With a serious look on his face, Papa said, "These hills are full of legends. Up until now I've never paid much attention to them, but now I don't know. Perhaps there is something to the legend of the red fern. Maybe this is God's way of helping Billy understand why his dogs died."
“I’m sure it is, Papa," I said, "and I do understand. I feel different now, and I don't hurt any more."
I have never been back to the Ozarks. All I have left are my dreams and memories, but if God is willing, some day I'd like to go back-back to those beautiful hills. I'd like to walk again on trails I walked in my boyhood days.
[…] I'm sure the red fern has grown and has completely covered the two little mounds. I know it is still there, hiding its secret beneath those long, red leaves, but it wouldn't be hidden from me for part of my life is buried there, too.