I was pretty sure I was the only person left in the world....Now that somebody is here, the thought of going back, the thought of the house and the valley being empty again--this time forever, I am sure of that--seems so terrible I cannot bear it. (O'Brien 5, 45)
"A meteorological enclave. Some kind of an inversion. I suppose that's a theoretical possibility. But the odds--" (56)
"And I realized that we've got to plan as if this valley is the whole world, and we are starting a colony, one that will last permanently." It was the same thought, or nearly the same, as the one I had had when I was plowing. (152)
Burden Valley is the last known place on Earth that can support life after a global nuclear war. As Loomis says, it is "the whole world" for most practical purposes. A single radiation-proof suit is the only means by which one person at a time can travel safely outside the valley to retrieve useful items, which might be safe to handle after being allowed to "cool off" for 6 months or more (148).
The valley symbolizes life and procreation. The name "Burden" suggests the valley's responsibility for the survival of life on Earth, providing the last environment in which plants and animals can reproduce and thrive.
But if he comes to the top of the ridge, he is sure to come down here, because he will see the green leaves. On the other side of the ridge, even on the other side of Burden Hill, there are no leaves; everything is dead. (4)
...I have climbed the hills on all sides of this valley, and at the top I have climbed a tree. When I look beyond, I see that all the trees are dead, and there is no sign of anything moving. I don't go out there. (9)
He drove the tractor to the very top of Burden Hill, just opposite my hiding place. He jumped down and began to scan the road to Ogdentown. (245)
Burden Hill is a border between the contaminated outside world and the living valley. It is the place where Loomis enters the valley as Ann watches fearfully from hiding. It is also the site of their last meeting before Ann's fear and vengefulness drive her to leave the valley. When Ann watches Loomis arrive, her fear is mixed with a yearning for companionship that she suppresses. At their last meeting, she is determined to strike out on her own whereas Loomis pleads with her to stay with him. Thus, the hill is strongly associated with conflicting desires for self-preservation and companionship. In the end, egotism thwarts the desire for companionship in both characters, dooming both them and the human species to death.
Burden Hill symbolizes the potential for life or death for the last two humans in the valley, the outcome depending on whether they help each other or act selfishly. It also represents the conflict between social and egoistic instincts. The name "Burden" suggests these dual instincts that humans bear as their evolutionary inheritance. We bear the burden of being both social and self-centered animals at the same time.
The other [brook], named Burden Creek (after my family, like the hill--the Burdens were the first to settle in this valley), is bigger and wider, also nearer to the house. It flows more or less parallel to the road, and out of the valley through a gap at the south. It is really a small river, and quite beautiful, or used to be....This stream flows into the valley out of a sort of cleft in the rock ridge to the left of Burden Hill--the water comes from outside, and it was poisoned. (16-17)
It may be that he has made a mistake....It worries me, because I suppose I could have stopped him, though I don't know how. Not without showing myself. (26)
He went swimming and took a bath in the dead stream, Burden Creek.... I can see how he did it. He thought, not knowing the geography of the valley very well, that it was all the same stream. He did not know that there were two streams.... (30)
Faro was swimming in Burden Creek. He had found my scent but, instead of following my trail on the rocks, he had plunged into the water....He slept beside me all night and was sick in the morning. I expected he would be sick for several days--I remembered the course of illness in Mr. Loomis--but I guess dogs react differently from human beings, for by nightfall he was dead. (235)
In setting the trap for Faro, I had exposed an important secret: I had a gun and bullets. (237)
Burden Creek is a dead stream that flows through the valley, introducing contamination into it from the outside world. When a stranger arrives, Ann chooses not to warn him about the dead stream, allowing him to be perhaps fatally poisoned because of fear he might be a threat to her. Later, she uses the dead stream again to ensure her safety by luring the dog Faro into it so he will die of radiation sickness. Then Loomis cannot use the dog to find her.
The dead stream is linked with Ann's irrational and selfish fear, which leads her to allow the near-fatal poisoning of the last man and to kill the last dog. The way Ann uses the stream to poison her only companions is analogous to the way her fear poisons her desire for companionship. The poisoned stream thus symbolizes fatal egotism, the instinct that poisons friendly feelings and threatens human survival. The name "Burden" suggests that egotism is a trait we are burdened with by our nature. It must be recognized and controlled if we are to survive as a species (particularly now that we have the power to destroy all life on our planet). Ann in particular fails to do this, since she is governed by her feelings, has poor reasoning skills, and seldom questions her own judgments.
The Cave (Ann's Refuge)
Suppose a car came over the hill, and I ran out, and whoever was in it go out--suppose he was crazy? Or suppose it was someone mean, or even cruel, and brutal? A murderer? What could I do? .... So I decided: if anyone does come, I want to see who it is before I show myself. It is one thing to hope for someone to come when things are civilized, when there are other people around, too. But when there is nobody else, then the whole idea changes. This is what I gradually realized. There are worse things than being alone. It was after I thought about that, that I began moving my things to the cave. (6)
Thinking about Sunday School and about Mr. Loomis getting angry, I wished I were back in the cave again. It seemed cozier somehow.... I decided I had better not go to the cave after all. Suppose he should call for help? (75-76)
The cave is the only place where Ann feels completely secure. She feels safe there because she is alone, and she can only feel safe if no one else can find her. Thus she fears being betrayed by Faro. Yet, at the same time, she feels it is "wrong" to be afraid Faro will befriend the stranger, presumably thinking it is unkind to deny the man Faro's companionship. Also, although the cave is a comforting sanctuary when she is afraid, it is not practical or comfortable for Ann to live there permanently, and winter is only a few months away.
Like Burden Creek, the cave is a symbol of egotism. But whereas the stream associates egotism with poisoning and death, the cave relates more directly to its isolating effect. Just as the cave physically isolates Ann from others, her egotism psychologically isolates her so that fear for her own safety makes her suppress sympathy and the desire for companionship. When the stranger calls out, Ann suppresses an instinctive urge to run to him. When he prepares to bathe in the dead stream, her fear prevents normal sympathy for a person in danger. The cave also represents the barrenness and futility of egotism, which prevents companionship (including love and family) and provides only a temporary, illusory comfort rather than real happiness. Ann's hiding in the cave represents her choice to withdraw psychologically into the depths of her fear-obsessed mind rather than share her thoughts openly with another and build a life together.
Faro, the last Dog
An inexplicable thing: the dog, Faro, has come back....He looks terrible--as thin as a skeleton, and half the hair is gone from his left side....He came with David when David moved in with us, about five years ago after his father died and he became an orphan....Poor dog. He looked terrible.... He gave two short, creaky little barks and ran to me. But I was scared. Inevitably, if he stayed around, he was going to betray me. So I did not know what to do; I did not dare act too friendly. I said in a whisper, "Good Faro," but I did not hug him the way I felt like doing....If the man makes friends with Faro, he will come to a whistle, as he did for David; the man can keep him close, and follow him when he comes up here. I suppose it seems wrong to be so afraid of that. But I don't know what the man will do. (32, 35-36)
The worst part of it was that I really did decide to kill Faro....It makes me feel as much a murderer as Mr. Loomis. Now there are two of us in the valley. (225)
...on the edge of the woods, was a crab-apple tree in full bloom....we used to eat the apples sometimes, and my mother used them for jelly. They had a nice flavor, though they were small, hard and quite sour.... (80)
The Crab-apple Tree
But I had never known the tree to look so beautiful or smell so nice....I thought, if I ever got married, apple blossoms were what I would like to have in the church. Which meant that I would have to get married in May or early June.I got to thinking about it. Next June I would be seventeen, and in my entire life I had only had one real date, and that was when I was thirteen, in junior-high school....So to me the idea of getting married seemed like quite an enormous step. Still I thought, when Mr. Loomis recovered from his sickness, there was no reason why we could not plan to be married in a year; that is, next June, perhaps on my seventeenth birthday.... The whole idea was thrilling....And I thought: what would it be like, ten years from now, to be up here gathering greens some morning with children of my own?...I got out my pocketknife and cut a bunch of apple blossoms. Mr. Loomis could have a bouquet for his sickroom. (80-81)
Crows, the last Birds
There are quite a few [rabbits] in the valley; also squirrels, and a few crows who seem to have had the sense to stay around. (29)
Then, as I plowed, I thought I heard, over the noise of the tractor, a high squawking sound overhead. I stopped, turned the engine to idle, and looked up. There were crows, sharp and black against the sky, wheeling in a circle over the field. I counted eleven of them, and I realized they had remembered the sound of plowing; they knew there would be seeds to follow....They were probably the only wild birds left anywhere. (96-97)
A Baby Crow: A Surviving Species
I motioned him [Faro] to lie still, went forward myself, rather fearfully, and then I saw it: a small, rumpled black thing--a baby crow, no bigger than a sparrow, its furry down just beginning to sprout feathers that would be wings and a tail....A pair of crows had built there, and one of the babies had fallen out....So I picked it up, holding it as gently as I could in both hands. It did not struggle, but sat quite trustingly....I set the baby down in the grass where they [the parents] could not miss finding it.... As I walked back to the house, I decided it might be a good omen. I am a little superstitious, and have always thought that birds bring good luck....I suppose that is because when I was about four and first heard about prayers, I was told that they flew up to heaven. So I thought of them as rather like birds. (124-125)
He [Loomis] opened his eyes this morning, but they were blank and unfocused, the eyes of a newborn animal. (132)
The other birds, moving about as they do, flew out into the deadness and died. (29)
Singing Dickcissels of the US Midwest
I thought writing in it might be like having someone to talk to, and if I read it back later it would be like someone talking to me.... But most of the time I didn't write,...and sometimes I thought--what's the use of writing anyway, when nobody is ever going to read it? (4)
I am glad to have told my story. (244)
Sometimes...I have thought about my book. I've remembered the stories that were my favorites.... But I've also remembered how I found the book that night when I went back to the cave after he had burned my things. That memory stirs my harshest feelings toward Mr. Loomis.... I admit that I want to hurt him, and cause him grief. He deliberately ruined the thing I prized most. Stealing the safe-suit will be my revenge. (231)
Visions moved behind my eyes, and I saw the house as I had seen it as a child:...later sitting on the swing at night weaving long, romantic dreams about my life to come. (242)
The Church, Sunday School, the Bible, and Prayer
I am afraid....I think someone is coming, though I am not sure, and I pray that I am wrong. I went into the church and prayed all this morning. (1)
I have hoped and prayed for someone to come, someone to talk to, to work with and plan for the future of the valley. I dreamed that it wouuld be a man, for then, some time in the future--it is a dream, I know--there might be children in the valley. (36)
...it is Sunday. Ordinarily...I would go to church in the morning, and try to make the rest of the day a day of rest. Sometimes I would go fishing, a practical way of resting.... I would take the Bible with me to the church....I like Psalms and Ecclesiastes... (37)
Thinking about Sunday School and about Mr. Loomis getting angry, I wished I were back in the cave again. (75)
I thought, if I ever got married, apple blossoms were what I would like to have in the church....There should be a ceremony; I felt strongly about that, and it should be in the church, on a definite date, with flowers. (80-81)
I do not want to make it sound as if I am extremely religious, but I did not know what else to do, so I thought I might pray. I said I thought it might do him some good; maybe what I really thought was that it might do me some good. I cannot be sure. (119)
He sounded as if he could not believe it. "To church?"...."Three times to church, and the field not planted."....He had sounded annoyed and did not understand why I had gone to church and how much I had wanted him to live. (142-143)
"When you go to your church, if you want something to pray for, pray for that bull calf....When the gasoline is gone, cattle can pull the plow."....What he meant was that we needed to breed more cattle, and I had planned that, at least, from the beginning. (152-153)
Once or twice I stopped off at the church, but that, like keeping up my notebook, I tended to neglect. It seemed strained. I do not know exactly why. Churches, I suppose, must be associated with normalcy. I did pray some, but only at odd times during the day. The Bible was out of reach in the house. (198)
I took the book and a supply of ball-point pens back in February. By then the last radio station, a very faint one that I could hear only at night, had stopped broadcasting. It had been dead for about three or four months....At first when all the others went away, I hated being alone, and I watched the road all day and most of the night hoping that a car, anybody, would come over the hill from either direction....Then the weeks went by and the radio stations went off, one by one. When the last one went off and stayed off, it came to me, finally, that nobody, no car, was ever going to come. (4, 5)
The fact is, the man on the radio, toward the end, sounded crazy. He was afraid; there were only a few people left where he was and not much food. He said that men should act with dignity even in the face of death, that no one was better off than any other. He pleaded on the radio, and I knew something terrible was happening there. Once he broke down and cried on the radio. (6)
Yet, now that a man has actually come, I realize that my hopes were too simple. All men are different. The man on the radio station, fighting to survive, saw people that were desperate and selfish. (36)
The Wood Stove
There is an old wood-coal stove in the barn that my mother used to use before we got gas. This summer I'm going to try--that is, I was going to try--to haul it to the house. It's heavier than I can lift, but I think I can take it apart. I've already put oil on all the bolts to loosen them. I started this in the morning, while I was resting....The smoke has come again....I feel as if it is the beginning of the end. I must make up my mind what to do. (14)
I had not even thought about it since I--we--got the tractor running. With the tractor cart I could move the whole thing in a matter of minutes....The stove is finished....It is black with nickel trim, and will look beautiful. I am proud of it--especially the oven--and of myself; it is like getting a Christmas present. (133, 135)
It seemed ironic, having finally gotten myself a stove, not to be able to use it. (203)
Though I was sure Mr. Loomis had heard it, I wanted him to see it, too. I drove the tractor to the house and parked it outside his window. I almost laughed, remembering how I had hated to drive it several years ago; the girls who lived in Ogdentown didn't drive tractors. Now I could rejoice over the time and labor it would save us, and I hurried into the house to share the triumph....Even before Mr. Loomis came, I had already been wrestling with the idea that I had to tackle that acre and a half with a shovel. It would have been extremely hard, since it is all covered with a five-year turf. So I was really excited about the tractor, and eager to start plowing. (93, 95)
I felt like singing, but that is hopeless on a tractor....So instead, as I sometimes do, I began remembering a poem. I am very fond of poetry, and this one, one of my favorites, was a sonnet. It began:
Oh earth, unhappy planet born to die,
Might I your scribe or your confessor be...
I had thought of that poem many times since the war, and of myself, by default, as "scribe and confessor." But now I was neither of those. I was the one, or one of the two, who might keep it from dying, for a while at least. (96)
The tractor had come out of the trees and ran in plain view down the blacktop, covering the last half mile to the store. Mr. Loomis sat astride, steering with his left hand. In his right, to my amazement and horror, he held his rifle. He looked like an Indian on horseback in an old Western movie, attacking a wagon train. (210)
It is sad when I think how happy I felt when I was plowing the field. (235)
"It's radioactive, there's no doubt about that. But that's no reason it [Burden Creek] shouldn't be useful. Up there,...there's a sort of a natural dam. It looks as if somebody, sometime, even tried to add to it."
"That's true," I said. "My father said that my great-grandfather had a small mill there, a flour mill...."
"What I was thinking about was not a mill, but electricity. If I could build that dam up a few feet higher--there's a good flow of water. It could run a small generator." .... "There are always motors around a farm. The hard part will be the waterwheel. But I think I can make one....""Would it light the lights?" "Yes. They might be a bit flickery, but they'd light. Mainly, it would run your refrigerator, your freezer, things like that." (83-84)
He had been making drawings steadily during the past week: he was designing the water-powered generator. (147)
The Geiger Counters
Then he stopped, and instead ran back to the wagon....He reached inside and took out a glass thing--a sort of tube with a metal rod in it, like a big thermometer. It had some kind of a dial or gauge on it to read....Then he took out another machine, something like the first one but bigger....I could tell what he was doing: using one machine to check against the other. And I knew what they must be; I had read about them but never seen one: radiation counters, Geiger counters they call them. He walked down the road, a long way this time--half a mile at least, watching one counter, listening to the other. (22)
Also, Mr. Loomis may have been concerned about more than just staying alive. In his dream he said that the suit was too important to waste. He called it "the last useful thing." He may have been thinking not just of himself, but of human survival.... But suppose, on the other hand, Mr. Loomis was trying to keep the suit for himself? (127)
He reached farther into his wagon-trunk and took out another gun, a big one. It looked like an army gun, a carbine I think, with a square magazine sticking out the bottom. He looked at it but put it back, and got the smaller gun from the tent. (27)
That time, last year, [smoke] rose in a cloud a long way away, and stayed in the sky for two weeks. (1)
It had taken him ten weeks to get from Ithaca to the valley, and all that way, all that time, he had seen no living thing...only gray wasteland, empty highways, and dead cities and towns. (57)