Medium 9781574415629

Zen of the Plains: Experiencing Wild Western Places

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Although spare, sweeping landscapes may appear “empty,” plains and prairies afford a rich, unique aesthetic experience—one of quiet sunrises and dramatic storms, hidden treasures and abundant wildlife, infinite horizons and omnipresent wind, all worthy of contemplation and celebration.  In this series of narratives, photographs, and hand-drawn maps, Tyra Olstad blends scholarly research with first-hand observation to explore topics such as wildness and wilderness, travel and tourism, preservation and conservation, expectations and acceptance, and even dreams and reality in the context of parks, prairies, and wild, open places. In so doing, she invites readers to reconsider the meaning of “emptiness” and ask larger, deeper questions such as: how do people experience the world? How do we shape places and how do places shape us? Above all, what does it mean to experience that exhilarating effect known as Zen of the plains?“Olstad speaks not merely to Plains aficionados and devotees of nature writing but also to readers who like to think critically about issues of space, place, and the literary representation thereof.”—Kent Ryden, author ofMapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place“This young woman has a poetic style and a good eye, she’s an excellent writer with a tremendous future. The illustrations are outstanding and add much to the value of this work.”—Gary Lantz, author of Morning Comes to Elk Mountain: Dispatches from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refug

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Prologue. Flyover Country; Scottsbluff, NE

ePub

PROLOGUE

Flyover Country

Scottsbluff, Nebraska

[W]hile I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, and precede all the rest . . . what most impress’d me, and will longest remain with me, are these same prairies.

—Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, America’s Characteristic Landscape1

Hot. Hazy. The June sun was glaring down on the dusty brown earth and distant black cattle and my father and me, sitting in a Piper Cherokee, slowly buzzing our way west.

It was our fourth day in that little plane. We had begun the trip full of enthusiasm, lifting off from the Niagara Falls International Airport into a sun-pierced sky and skimming over islands of light on Lake Erie. The next day, we slipped between tidy white puffs and their neatly spaced shadows on checkerboard fields below. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, then past the muddy meanders of the Mississippi (the Mississippi! I’d never seen the Mississippi!). The land began flattening out, drying brown, browner, beige. Thin strips of road cut indomitably straight lines toward the horizon, occasionally intersecting in sharp, desperate 90-degree angles. Tiny bovine dots clustered just as desperately at infrequent watering holes while bzzzz the engine droned on above them, were we actually moving or just hovering, suspended in time and space? It was hard to tell.

 

1. Shortgrass / Semi-Desert Shrub-Steppe

ePub

CHAPTER 1

Shortgrass / Semi-Desert Shrub-Steppe

1.1 Terra Incognita

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Before desire and before knowing, how can I say I am? Consider. Dissolve in the beauty.

—The 72nd of Shiva’s 112 ways to open the invisible door of consciousness, trans. by Paul Reps 1

The wind was whipping fiercely. Grey clouds hung low over a rugged expanse of scraggly sagebrush, sandy arroyos, and the occasional tumble-weed or dust devil or raven swooping by. Because I didn’t yet have the words for “sagebrush” or “arroyo” or “raven” on that cold November morning, I was left with nothing but an empty horizon and big black birds.

I had been driving for hours, following Interstate 40 into northern Arizona, where I was to report for an internship at Petrified Forest National Park. Although I sought a bit of adventure—anything other than another long cold winter at college in New Hampshire—I was beginning to wonder just what I was doing, where I was going, how I could possibly pass the next four months in such a place. (Such a place! Were there any people here? What were those birds?) Having spent my life comfortably surrounded by roads and rivers, trees and buildings, I was both intrigued and terrified by the yawning desolation of the landscape—what was out there but cold, windy, open space?

 

2. Mixedgrass

ePub

CHAPTER 2

Mixedgrass

2.1 Wonderlands

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping . . .

—Willa Cather, My Ántonio1

Green! Lush, luxurious green!

So this was the legendary sea of grass; here was the soft growth of Poaceae; now was Willa Cather’s “spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly”2

I thought I needed to try something more spectacular—less desolate and more inhabitable—so headed northeast, destination South Dakota. I arrived at Badlands National Park on a glorious day, mid-May—a sunny, blue-sky-with-puffy-white-clouds, air-throbbing-with-spring sort of day. I should describe the drive: how I was so eager to get to there from Denver that I woke pre-dawn and zipped all the way along the Interstate instead of lingering on scenic back roads; how I hadn’t even turned off I-80 at Wall to drive through the bulk of the park, but rather stayed on the highway until I reached the exit nearer the Ben Reifel Visitor Center; how I had slowed slightly and opened my windows to let the fresh morning air and the liquid songs of meadowlarks permeate my car; how I caught my first glimpse of the jagged, pink-cream-red-striped mountains of clay, passed the parking area for the Notch Trail and Castle Trail, then rolled down the steep hill after Cliff Shelf and finally stopped at the visitor center; how I had introduced myself to a half-dozen new faces, then gotten directions to my new quarters; how I had begun to unpack my car, but, halfway through, finally looked up and around and realized, I’m here! I dashed out the back door, scrambled over a hill, flung myself down into a soft carpet of spring grass, and let my mind explode with, Green! “Bad” lands?

 

3. Tallgrass

ePub

CHAPTER 3

Tallgrass

3.1 Experiment and Experience; Or, How I Tried to Like a Prairie

Konza Prairie Preserve, Kansas

I didn’t dare leave much out. I wanted to bear witness to the facts . . . There’s no cleverness to be found here, only rawness

—Rick Bass, Book of Yaak 1

You cannot make yourself love a place. You can go again and again with different expectations, for different reasons, in different seasons, but you can’t make yourself love a place. You can learn the names of the plants and the colors of the sky, make friends with the deer and come to terms with the wind, but you can’t make yourself love a place. You can rationalize and rhapsodize, open your mind and narrow your field of vision, sit and watch, walk and think, think and try through rain snow sunrise sunset, but no. Know you cannot make yourself love a place.

When I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, late one summer, I was not dreading what journalists such as Stephen Darst denigrate as an “all-pervading flatness, moral, cultural, social, topographical, political.”2 Rather, I was eager for Kansas! The Heartland! Wide-Open America! As Big as I Thought! I thought it would be big. And beautiful. Ad astra, per prairie!

 

4. Shortgrass / Semi-Desert Shrub-Steppe

ePub

CHAPTER 4

Shortgrass / Semi-Desert Shrub-Steppe

4.1 The Return to the Plains

Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming

He who pursues learning will increase every day; / He who pursues Tao will decrease every day.

—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching1

I could tell you about how I’d seen the place a year earlier, when traveling through on the way to somewhere from somewhere else, and thought, hmmm, I could live here. I could tell you about how circumstances obliged and I moved to southwestern Wyoming—Fossil Butte National Monument—late one spring to start work as a physical science technician (paleontology). I could tell you about the months I spent perched halfway up the side of a tawny bluff, peeling up layers of limestone in search of 52-million-year-old fossil fish, or the hundreds of walks I took up and down old ranching roads and off into the scraggly steppe, looking for wonders. In short, I could review the process of getting to know a place—exploration, exhilaration, familiarity; flowers, marmots, cattle; sunrise, sunset, storms—and Look, I could sing, how beautiful the plains are!

 

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