Into the Big Empty

 

Cross posted from the Last Word on Nothing.

I grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York State, and went to college in western Oregon — both beautiful places, beloved by many. But I never knew what it was to love a place until I spent a college summer in southern Utah, where I worked as a field tech on a wildlife research project. The red rocks, the blue sky, the dry, quiet air, the weather building on the horizon — why had no one told me this place existed? I was a goner.

Ever since that first Utah summer, now close to 20 years ago, I’ve lived in places that remind me of it. I’ve come to appreciate not only desert landscapes, but also the people who hang on in them, even as the land tries its best to shake them off. Only once has my love of the Big Empty wavered: When I had a bout of postpartum depression, the arid Colorado mesa top around my house turned monochromatic, suddenly choked with weeds and crumbling to dust. This is how other people see it, I thought. When the depression lifted, the beauty came back, and stayed.

Tyra Olstad, a Ph.D. student in geography at Kansas State University, has spent the last few years trying to explain people like me — or, rather, trying to explain the far-from-universal appeal of big, wide landscapes like deserts and prairies. Like me, Olstad grew up in New York State and spent a season working in the Southwest — in her case, for the National Park Service in the Painted Desert of Arizona. “I just absolutely fell in love with the space,” she says. “But I also realized that a lot of people didn’t like it — they felt uncomfortable in it, or they thought something needed to be done with it to make it more productive.”

In her research, presented at the Association of American Geographers’ meeting this week, she’s found that many before her have struggled with the elusive attraction of open landscapes. Psychologists have concluded that most people feel alienated by pictures of broad plains, perhaps feeling an ancient need for shelter and protection. Landscape managers have lamented the difficulty of measuring emptiness, of comparing absence with the un-ignorable presence of waterfalls and forests and mountains. Even conservationists speak of “scenically challenged” places — places that might be rich in diversity, but whose flat, open countenance doesn’t translate into calendar photos. But certain people get these places, and they range from environmentalists to ranchers to roughnecks on Red Desert drill rigs: rich or poor, old or young, natives or imports, they just love being out there.

Which is part of the problem, Olstad says. Understanding these landscapes means understanding what it’s like to be out there watching the clouds, seeing the light change, or just getting close to the ground to watch a spider spin a web, and marveling at the contrasts in scale. Static photographs and facts can’t contain these experiences. During her research, Olstad has found that stories in any form — series of images, anecdotes, anything with an axis of time — are the best way to share the lure of open space. “Almost every time I tell someone I love prairies, and why I love them, they perk up and we have a conversation,” she says.

For Olstad, the exposure of the desert and the prairie inspires not fear, but excitement and aliveness. For me, the Big Empty is somehow both humbling and comforting, a reminder of the tininess and temporariness of my own problems. Whatever your reasons for loving or hating these flyover landscapes, though, Olstad has some advice. “Sometimes I see people with cameras and I think, ‘Stop!Stop trying to take a picture of it!”” she says. “I want to say, ‘Just stand there. Stand there and let it amaze you.’”

Image courtesy Flickr user Mark Montgomery

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.