« Return to this article

Know the West

Student essay: Lost and found in the sagebrush


Editor's note: This is a runner-up essay from our annual student essay contest. This year's theme was "How I Became a Westerner." Learn more about student subscription offers here.

Artemisia tridentata.

Commonly known as sagebrush, it's seen as ugly, a terribly widespread eyesore --  a dead-looking, twisted piece of scraggly shrubbery that fills the landscape of the Intermountain West. It has few admirers, but this humble plant is the foundation of the rugged land that I call home.

My love for sagebrush was not something that was particularly apparent to me; I didn't really value it until I left. But when I realized how important a role sagebrush had played in my life, I missed it much the way a child misses her parents on her first day of school. It gave me a deep sense of belonging and trust. And now, no matter how long I've been away from home, I still get a child-like excitement whenever I return, an appreciation for the small things that make up this grand ecosystem.

Coming back from north Idaho, I slowly descend into the valley. Small sprigs of soft green begin to appear; the sagebrush starts to fill all that I see to the horizon. I feel the dryness. Warm wind wraps around me, sunlight gently baking the life below me. And the scent … the smell of sagebrush is the best in all the world. Sweet, strong, yet soothing. After the rare event of rain, a most delicious aroma fills the air.  All is clean once again, the layers of dust discarded, and the sagebrush celebrates.

Its leaves are surprisingly soft.  Despite sagebrush's stunted appearance, this plant is surprisingly giving and gentle.  It takes time, patience and an open mind to see and feel these characteristics.  Other landscapes -- green rolling hills, for example, and verdant forests -- are easy to love, visually pleasing and emotionally satisfying.  But the sagebrush steppe is different.  Its attractions are is not immediately obvious; its beauty is not superficial.  What initially seemed like a harsh and hostile environment suddenly becomes sensitive and sympathetic.

The sagebrush embodies home for me. And yet, my family and I are new to this land; the blood of generations of hardy Western folk doesn't flow in my veins. My parents come from a densely populated country, Holland, whose neat streets and charming towns warm any weary traveler's heart and mind. Holland is compact and clean. It is a well-trimmed country.  Idaho, by contrast, is vast and untamed.

Then why do I feel that I belong here? Why am I so strongly drawn towards scraggly sagebrush under endless skies of sunny blue? Perhaps it is because this arid land has always been under my feet and this dry wind has always been in my lungs. Maybe it is the way that the sagebrush steppe is always open to me, a place where I can return to again and again.

I have walked among sagebrush ever since I can remember. The steppe is fiercely alive, so exposed and raw.  Living alongside and within this landscape forges a lifelong bond; it understands me without knowing it. Gently treading on the bare mineral soil, I feel its fragile nature. At one point, this intimate knowledge and connection begins to transcend feelings of understanding, respect and even love. That union quite simply becomes the idea of one -- one dissolving into a greater ecosystem and existence.  When I walk into this land, all begins to merge. I am lost in the sagebrush, but found at home.