Our Turn At This Earth: Finding The Right Words

Jun 21, 2018

It’s happened many times. There I’ll be driving innocently down a western Kansas road, and a stretch of buffalo grass will reach out and grab me, almost pulling me into the ditch. Often, I’ve had to stop the car and get out, as I did one February afternoon a few years ago.

Here’s the description I wrote later that evening for my book, The Ogallala Road: “…Predominantly grayish-brown with only a hint of green this late in the winter, the grass also had patches of salmon. No single or solid color anywhere—everything complex, everything variegated, like the human eye and human consciousness. That is why coming upon a patch of wild prairie affirms me so much. Wild life recognizes wild life. All life is wild at center. We need the natural world to know ourselves.”

The composer Ludwig van Beethoven used the word “resonance” to describe our relationship to nature. And resonance is exactly what I felt as I stood on that roadside in mid-winter, breathing in the smells of dampening earth and grass, unable to pull myself away despite the sleet hitting my face. Something deep within me resonated with my surroundings.

It wasn’t merely a matter of liking or even loving, what I saw on that February afternoon. Standing in the presence of a large expanse of healthy, unfarmed grass any time of year soothes me. It restores calm and gives me the impression that things are right with the world. Although things may be far from right elsewhere, they are right in that place. Put simply, if nature is okay, so am I, because I am part of nature.

In her book, The Nature Fix, science writer Florence Williams cited an MRI study in which “parts of the brain associated with pleasure, empathy, and unconstrained thinking” received more blood flow when subjects viewed pictures of nature. “Empathy,” I thought, “yes. Pleasure, yes.” But it was the word “unconstrained” that leaped out at me. On the unfarmed prairie, I can feel my mind opening the way my lungs open when breathing fresh, clear air. We use the word “freedom” in association with open landscapes because of the freedom we feel when we’re in them. We identify not only with the openness but with the vitality of the grand, living world.

The biologist E. O. Wilson’s word for this was “biophilia” — ‘bio’ meaning life, ‘philia’ meaning love. He defined it as the “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”

We are biophiliacs one and all.

But not all people are as obsessed as I am with seeing what is left of the natural world on the plains preserved. That is why I search for the right words to share my passionate belief. The wildness outside us speaks to the wildness inside us. Wildness resonates within us. It soothes.