Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From My Bookshelf: Bone Deep in Landscape by Mary Clearman Blew


As I rake my way down one row of hay and then another, I am held in the hands of small hillsides, ancient volcanic mountains, and the distant peaks of the Continental Divide. My path north and south follows the contours of the Whistling Ditch and the cottonwoods securing the banks of the Elk River. The grass hay consisting of Timothy and abundant clover bends ever so softly to a southerly breeze mesmerizing in its rhythm. I comfortably sidle up to this landscape as I work.

I remember the day, twenty-five years ago, when I stood on the top of Hahn’s Peak with my newborn daughter; I know where the first aspens turn on Elk Mountain; I remember riding horseback beyond Round Mountain passing cabins where friends once lived thirty years ago; and I think of the one-time family ranch covering rich meadow land at the foot of Pilot’s Knob and beyond. The Whistling Ditch directs water from the Elk River to our hay meadows and my garden where the sugar peas and French potato fingerlings have begun to mature and await harvest. This familiar landscape provides both a backdrop to and a complex texture to my life in the Elk River Valley.

Although I realize I am steeped in my landscape, I’ve found myself wrestling with what the relationship with my immediate landscape means to me. In Bone Deep in Landscape, Mary Clearman Blew suggests that “…place affects our innermost selves.” She continues by referring to Barry Lopez, author of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, who “believes that our minds are shaped by landscape…interior landscape is a metaphorical representation of exterior landscape…”

I reflected on Lopez’s belief as Pete and I recently traveled through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, nearly a 1000 miles of mountains, desert, farm land, ranch land, river bottoms, arroyos, as well as small towns and cities. I tried to imagine how it felt to be in differing landscapes. How did my heart feel as we drove along the interstate in Amarillo? How did I feel driving through Windthurst, a small dairy community just north of Fort Worth? Did my pulse rate go up or down? Was I drawn to a particular landscape emotionally and if so, why? Did I feel a sense a home in any given setting? I found the arid landscapes uninviting as I always have. But I know arid landscapes are appealing to others. I found the rural areas peaceful and the expansive ranch lands challenging in their scope. And I found myself feeling workman-like driving through cities: simply a necessary means to an end. Even though my travel through these landscapes was transitory, I tried to imagine my life in each one.

If, as Barry Lopez suggests, the “interior landscape is a metaphorical representation of exterior landscape,” how do the small hillsides, volcanic mountains, distant peaks, rivers, and meadows that make up the landscape in which I live express themselves within? I do feel held in the hands of the surrounding mountain landscape. I feel nourished by the waters of the Elk River. The open and protected lands of the river bottom offer an intellectual sense of openness and possibility. The more I contemplate being present in the landscape the more I feel as though I am not a part of the landscape but the landscape is a partner in my daily living, both nurturing and challenging. The landscape provides encouragement, comfort, and an enduring steadiness. It is also a challenging partner—one in which I labor to create a soothing garden landscape and Pete patiently oversees the seasonal hay harvest; and one in which Pete and I are tried mid-winter when January’s harsh chill and deep snows close off the bustling activity of milder months.

I believe Mary Clearman Blew is correct: “…place affects our innermost selves.” Geography becomes personal when we find the place we feel at home whether it’s in the city or on the plains or the hillsides or in the southwestern deserts. And as we create our history in that home, our story within a living landscape, we are naturally, intimately, and forever tied to the landscape in which we live: one to the other, from within and from without.

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