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Know the West

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.