In 2012 we took a short car trip to Kansas and it was this trip which made clear how open spaces offer me psychic rest.
The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed the flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modelling of human faces.–Willa Cather
I remembered pieces of this quote as we drove the “wrong” road in northern Kansas, a spare forty miles from Cather’s childhood home in Nebraska. The corn fields seemed infinite in places along the highway as the rows spanned towards the horizon, the view offering nothing but the frilly tops promising to ripen yellow ears which would feed man, machine or beast. Sunflower fields interrupted the scene at times, and offered a surprise of vibrant yellow. When we traveled westward, their faces bobbed and waved at us like friendly folks sitting on their porches in the evening. On the face of it, the topography was monotonous but like a poem, it’s necessary to look beneath the surface.
Many people express impatience with these empty spaces but I find this nothing enormously interesting. This vacuous landscape leaves my imagination free to roam and catapult into what often feels like a thousand ideas at once: each tumbling one after the other. In a classically picturesque landscape, my mind is too busy taking in the sweeping vistas and I cannot manage that flight of idea the bare plains induce. And unlike the classically beautiful places, a simple deviation from the linear traces of light playing on the soybean fields becomes profound and impossible to ignore.
In a hilly terrain it is easy to miss the cloud shadows’ dance over the landscape. The dance unfolds around me and is a reminder of just how infinitesimally small we are on this blue marble. During summer the sun casts heat over the asphalt and the line is blurred as if I’m about to leave the road and drive across water. The heat mirages are disorienting, looking at them any length of time makes me believe the road has disappeared. Once I tried to paint a picture of the plains. I thought it would be easy and it was only after I tried to capture the dimensionality of this space I realized how complicated the colors were and it was the variation in color and light which made the expanses meeting the sky anything but flat. Each blade of prairie grass and broken corn stalk added to the whole of “nothing”.
Buildings and towns were sparse along the northern most route across Kansas. Most of the houses were ruins, left to their own devices: roofs caved in, weeds threatening foundations. They were lonely as they held forth but they didn’t seem morose or tragic in their dishabille. The grain elevators and silos giant surprises on the horizon: a sign we weren’t alone as we moved along the road. I remember a friend telling me when her family drove across the plains in West Texas she would pretend the silos were fortresses and the grain elevators were castles. They do indeed look to be these things in the distance and just for a moment you are suddenly in a place where there are castles and fortresses surrounding a king’s treasury rather than gigantic steel kegs storing grain.
From inside the car, I tend to forget the plains are not silent. I expect them to be quiet but they are alive with the hum and buzz of insects and the wind stirring the grasses. The grasses sing the alto line of the song while the insects sally forth with bass notes singing their ode to creating the flowers, grasses, crops. It is always surprising how loud the prairie is but my heart hums along with the white noise of the grass and flying things.
These plains are dear to me and often when I reach a pinnacle of emotional exhaustion I find myself in these spaces during my dream time. Always on foot, I wander through the fields, the grass up to my knees and the ground beneath smooth, without furrow or rise. I work my way towards distant hills only to discover they are nothing more but a small rise in the landscape. The walk is effortless as I climb closer to the sky where the clouds mold together and then come apart just over my head. The freedom of the open space washes through me and the only thing audible is silence.