Of course my image of them was made uglier by what I figured they would be, a continuation of the flat, artificial cornfield "prairies" of far southern Ontario, Ohio, and southern Michigan. There was no life between the Appalachians and the Rockies, I had gathered. But then I drove into central Illinois and saw the sky get bigger. I crossed the Mississippi and found Iowa to be rolling, and in places where the farms had gone fallow, lush green lands dotted with the occasional Bur Oak (Quercus Macrocarpa) standing as a lone witness to another world. August rains had come and blessed the land so that it looked as if it were something out of Hobbit country. Again, I placed my conception of the world on top of the landscape as it truly existed and was perhaps even eager to be seen by my overly-focused eyes.
Then came Nebraska, and some more corn, especially between Lincoln and where the Platte and I-80 meet for the first time heading west. That river though, that shallow, silty, seemingly unimpressive river... it stole my heart and my attention. Perhaps it was the trees that did this; tough-as-nails Cottonwoods (Populus Deltoides) forming gallery forests that made the trip so much more enjoyable for my stubborn sylvan-centric tourist agenda. The funny thing is, though, my eyes started looking for the prairie. I had long wondered what the transition between eastern forest and western void was like, and found instead that the corn, or at least my concern for it, had prevented me from finding this remarkable transition area. Around North Platte, however, I saw it; hills of grass and what I presumed was only grass. I-80 kept following the rivers, but I was headed for golden California, and the majestic mountains of Colorado. I turned onto I-76 and into the High Plains, and much like viewing a religious icon, my mind was made quiet and my gaze indirect. The immensity of all that was not human overtook my concentration; not for nothing have many religious experiences of some of the most intense contemplative types from western Christianity (Jesus, in fact, started to "find himself" in the desert) to the Lakota mystics who once ranged far and wide over that same northeastern Colorado grass included sharing that nature made them forget the self and connect with the infinite.
Doubtless I found such a place in the small, innocent world of childhood. I remember the towering pines and ancient granite of the Canadian Shield transporting me far away from the worries of the present. Then I grew up, indulged in material culture, formed a rigid world view like most other college students sharply liberal and conservative alike tend to do, and forgot about my and my world-view's insignificant place in the cosmos. At some point I started realizing that this was at best silly and at worst insulting to myself, my place in history, and my purpose in the greater world. Maybe I was looking for something else, or something more whole... but that trip to California plunged me into less of a tourist run and into more of a pilgrimage. The High Plains cleared my mind and prepared me for the grandeur of the mountains to come, and more surprisingly so, the desert beyond. I was amazed at the vista given by the Front Range, but the High Plains managed to keep me even more enthralled with my first ever glimpse of an honest-to-goodness western plant, the Sand Sagebrush (Aretmisia Filifolia).
|This one was taken at Pipe Spring National Monument, on the other side of its range compared to where we first met on the Colorado High Plains. I think this is where we fell in love.|
If you've never experience one, I would say that it alone is an excellent reason to go out west. It feels and smells incredible, with the best olfactory performance coming after a rain. Like so many White people before me, I always viewed sagebrush as an afterthought, even a weed. I had encountered its northernmost version, Artemisia Frigida, back in my magical boreal youth. Perhaps I was bred to hate prairie, however, because I found nothing likeable in that patch of meadow that constituted the "back yard" where I found my first specimen of this plant. I have since apologized to what I assume is its children. Back then, however, I was all about the pines, like so many people are. No one can tolerate the fly-over states, and they seem to view anything even drier as either a wasteland, the backdrop for Vegas and sci-fi movies, or a good place to extract resources and produce more crap for us to throw away. I certainly headed into my California voyage with a similar attitude. Then I saw the open skies, and then I saw the sagebrush, and then I saw the yuccas... and then the cacti. Nearly two years later, on a misty March day, I saw the saguaros, and a view of the desert that had gone from hard on life that had turned into otherworldly had then become something closer to ethereal. The desert is a place teeming with life that has managed to not only make the best of the situation, but in many cases to positively thrive there.
I write this because far too often we dismiss the desert as an unwelcome, useless intrusion into our idealized view of the world. We like it lush and green, happy and managed/cultivated. Our vision of the world, even the wild portions of it, are often frowned upon if they do not conform to our place in it. This attitude exists in persons as different as lobbyists for the Koch brothers or ecological restorers concerned with the dwindling wolf populations on Isle Royale. Those religious types I mentioned would probably tell the rest of us to focus instead on greater things than our immediacy. I write this because today I read a piece related to this post, written by an "activist" living in the Mojave, an atheist no less. I wanted to share his piece here, with all of you, and give a brief description of my own of why I think it is important. Please, take the time to read it, because I'm shutting up now.