Back east visiting my aged mother, I find myself again in that verdant country in high summer.
Once long ago, growing up in the Midwest, I loved these steamy late-summer days. They spoke to me of indolent lassitude, of the seemingly endless stretch of uncommitted time. I tried not to think of the start of school, only weeks away.
One of my favorite songs paints a word picture of this pleasant torpor induced by humid heat:
It’s a lazy afternoon
And the farmer leaves his reaping.
In the meadow cows are sleeping,
And the speckled trouts stop leaping up stream
As we dream
Today, I took a short hike in the woods behind that meadow. For many years, it seemed like a luxury to take a long walk under such a canopy of trees, with the crunch of dead leaves underfoot and the wisps of fragile greenery brushing at my ankles.
I texted these pictures to my daughter in Florida. “I miss forest,” she wrote back.
“I miss mountains and sagebrush,” I replied.
After spending several summers in our Wyoming house, I realized that the tree-lined New England back roads that I used to find charming had begun to close in on me and now seemed vaguely threatening. I was amused to find that another Wyoming transplant, the writer Annie Proulx, had the same reaction.
“Trees bothered me,” she wrote about Vermont in an essay after she moved to Wyoming, “their dense shade, their impenetrable jungles of seedlings, the claustrophobic looming that cut off all but a small piece of sky.”
A few years ago, shoving our rusty wheelbarrow across the rocky ground beside the house, I suddenly had a vision of an old picture I had seen of my grandmother. She was a Nebraska farmwife, and told me about the land of coyotes and rattlesnakes, and about leading my young mother and her brother on hikes for picnics on top of the tall bluff. I learned a few years ago (to my surprised delight) that her husband, my grandfather, grew up in Casper, in northeast Wyoming.
Is it a mere coincidence that I experienced a conversion, late in life, to a deep love for that desolate scrub-covered landscape beneath mountains and under an endless sky? Or is it written somewhere in my genes, inherited from that grandfather and grandmother?
Being a retired science writer, I couldn’t resist looking it up.
I found this review article, which I got around to reading while my husband was somewhere out there on Brooks Lake fishing with friends.
“[I]t is commonly assumed that restorative responses triggered by exposure to natural elements and settings are ultimately adaptive traits originating from our species’ long evolutionary history,” wrote Joye and van den Borg in 2011, in their analysis of the psychology of landscape preferences.
One theory, they said, is that we humans like wide-open spaces surrounded by a defined border because, harking back to our distant ancestors on the savannah, we find them non-threatening. They are not frighteningly endless; they have a boundary, and the trees have the promise of forage. But being able to see open land around us, according to the theory, gives us ample opportunity to detect threats. (Anyone who has hiked in grizzly country can appreciate this.)
This doesn’t account for my exultant sense of the transcendent as I watch a leaden bank of storm clouds move across the mountain peaks, followed by a rainbow. I wouldn’t see something like this in Connecticut.
Whatever the reason, I’d far rather be in this kind of landscape now, whatever the season. No contest.
© Lois Wingerson, 2016
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