Our Turn At This Earth: The Exploratory Impulse

May 24, 2018

At age 12, my older brother Bruce knew more about the native plants in our pasture and the birds in our windbreak than I would learn by the time I was 30. I brought his wrath down on my head once for placing stamps of cardinals and woodpeckers, muskrats and badgers—crookedly, poorly torn, and in the wrong spaces—in his Junior Audubon Society booklet. But for the most part, I didn’t share my brother’s drive to understand the natural world.

Today I wonder why it took me so long to develop an interest in the big outdoors beyond the farmyard. Certainly, my parents gave Bruce freer rein and protected me more because I was a girl. I also had few if any examples, in children’s books or locally, of female adventurers.  But for whatever reason, adventurousness and curiosity seemed to be innate in my brother, while they needed a jumpstart in me. I’ve spoken here before about the jolt that awakened my outdoor spirit, which in my case took diving into a frigid mountain lake. By then, I was living in California, so I did most of my roving in the deserts and mountains there.

I got my first opportunity to apply my awakened exploratory impulse back home when I returned to Kansas and farmed with my father for a while in my thirties. Only then did I discover the places where Bruce used to go fishing at fourteen, breaking his driving permit’s “only to school and back” rule. Still, today, whenever I manage a trip home, I drive the back roads in search of water, wildlife, and a whiff of the more spirited times before my people arrived, when Indians hunted bison on the flat divides above Ogallala-fed streams.

Speaking to an anthropology class at a western Kansas junior college a few years ago, I was dismayed to discover that, of eight or so students, only one had ever ventured beyond town to explore the land.  They hadn’t visited an Indian campsite or taken a drive in the Beaver Valley, where giant native cottonwoods and hackberries shade streams that still run and ducks swim in glassy, tannin-stained pools. They hadn’t fished or waded at Cumberland, another, Thomas County, oasis far out of town. They hadn’t caught minnows, crawdads, frogs or turtles with a net, attempted to identify an unfamiliar bird or noticed that the breeze rustling the leaves of the cottonwoods sounded like running water. Growing up in a rural town, surrounded by countryside, they were no more familiar with or curious about nature than inner-city kids who’d never gone hiking or camping.

“Wake up! Go! Get excited,” I wanted to tell them, even though I knew that it had taken a clear, cold lake surrounded by a million acres of wilderness to do that it for me. Wishing them a metaphoric lake to dive into, I left the campus that day and did what I do every time I have a free moment in Kansas—drove out to the countryside to see what I could discover.