Thursday, June 27, 2013

Landscape vs. Family

One of the ideas I'm flushing out in my memoir as I enter the middle stages of drafting is how the Great Plains landscape influences us, and vice versa; how the solitude of prairie produces fear and anxiety, and the outcome is rowcrop monoculture. We feel placeless. Disconnected. We don't know how to honor our families by honoring the land, and vice versa. We don't know our families or land, and we go even more mad. As our grip tightens on nature, in an attempt to assuage our emotions, we dismantle the only thing that could save us emotionally and physically.

"There’s an emptiness in the Plains. It’s not a literal emptiness because it is our absence which is most present. And yet our existence has redefined the absence: you can get lost in a corn field, lay down in the wheat and just vanish—no one will ever find you.

It’s a dangerous thing being lost to the horizon. Walking any open field we are both compass point and sun dial, searching for home in the time allotted us on this earth. At most we will discover that while alive we’re as ethereal as a memory. Cross paths with a mountain lion or sandhill crane or butterfly or prairie dog and we will know the silence we carry inside, the silence we insist upon field after field. There’s nothing here because we made it so. Our absence is present in the rows stretching to infinity off the highways and county roads.
But stop. A dung beetle is moving from shadow to shadow underneath the sunflowers, pushing its brown marble over pebbles, past cracks, and through thick brush. When I was a kid I’d sit near an ant hill—the inverse funnel pushing out ants like a great heart pumping blood. Each body scatters in every direction, following the marked trails out beyond the center of their lives. Can you imagine being an ant or a dung beetle? Can you imagine? You have never been anything else, following the narrow path laid out for you, but pushing your burdens before you like they were the only treasure you’d ever had. When we enter the earth from another perspective we become our truest selves—we give up the right to take away other lives and enter into an unwritten contract that we signed at our births. We are here, made of the same stuff as everything else. We are here for only a moment, too, already absent in our presence until we go mad with the terror of our short lives and break the contract. The only way to rewrite ourselves is to walk the horizon until the prairie comes back."


ProfessorRoush said...

This is a piece of great literature, Benjamin. The emptiness of the Plains.

Robley H said...

This is so moving, in the same way that my first reading of DAKOTA was so many years ago. Oh my.

Benjamin Vogt said...

You both honor me with you words, humble me honestly. The perceived emptiness of the Plains is really our own emptiness externalized -- the subtlety of the Plains is all our inward emotions. Robley, I loved DAKOTA, and to be compared to her memoir is awesome. :) I hope I can write the book I want to write, and they you'll both want to read.

doggirl said...

i wonder if that emptiness was felt by the Native Americans when they existed on the great plains for centuries long b4 any of our Western culture permeated the lands. I kind of doubt that they did because my understanding is people like the Dakotas and Soux felt connected to their Mother Earth and included her into their religion. The non-indiginous religions of the West, like Christianity during the Crusades were and still are separate from nature and try to define man in the image of God as someone who has this "Dominion" over nature. The Native Americans had/have such a different view of nature and their relationship to it/her. Instead of conquoring Nature they felt she was a part of their family. When Nature is part of yourself then how can you distance yourself from it. I think the emptiness is just a projection of our own empty lives and spirit. It's similar to the hatred western man has for the wolves, which the Natives respected and learned to live with in a certain degree of harmony. My theory is modern hunters, and those b4 our present day wolf killers, who almost completely decimated the wolf populaiton in the USA, simply loathed the wolf for her ability to live without the interdependance of man. Wolves are truly free creatures who only want to be left alone. Unlike their frivolous and adorable canine cousins, dogs, who have cozied up to humans and let them domesticate them. I love dogs but they gave up their free nature for a partnership with humans. Wolves would never do that and they have paid a terrible price for rejecting humankind. Wolves and the great plains have certain common traits. It is always about how much is given up so that humans can control . The real prairie in all of its majesty is the anti-thesis of humankind--at least the humankind in modern, western society.