Nature: A Saving Grace

IMG_0106I was doing my fifth circuit of the small city park when I spotted the woman with the snow-white hair. She was holding a small child up to one of the hardy desert pine trees that punctuate the perimeter. As I power-walked by, the wild-haired little thing gave a cry of delighted wonder. She slapped the bark of the tree and kicked the trunk with her small, ineffectual foot. I left the two of them looking up in wonder through the needled branches.

I was happy to think of the myriad pleasures and lessons from Nature that the child would, like all of us, go on to experience. And I delved into the depths of my own memory to recall the time in my youth when I first confronted Nature as a wondrous, awe-inspiring force.

I was five when my parents piled my four siblings and me into their pink and white, jet-ship of a Dodge and relocated us from Minnesota to Phoenix Arizona. It was July of 1961. Of that trip, I mostly remember being condemned for three endless days to the middle of the back seat between my two brothers and older sister. Yet, my first intimations of the power of Nature date to that first remembered journey: my mother pointing to the sky on a midnight rural highway in North Dakota, calling us to “Look!” as shimmering curtains of emerald and gold rippled across the heavens; my brother Jack at age ten standing dangerously close to the edge of a precipice in the Rockies, below which sheer walls of pine-encrusted rock cascaded down and down and down to a winding thread of river; a sea of buffalo and choreographies of antelope under immense skies, clouds sailing above like voluminous ships.

From the left bottom: Jeanne, Peggy, Patty. From the left top: Danny and Jack. 1961.

Over the next decade and a half, we made the round trip from Arizona to my parents’ home towns in North Dakota three or four times. Eventually it was just my twin and me in the back seat, equipped with Almond Joys and Paydays, Juicy Fruit and Spearmint gum, Planters peanuts and playing cards. Up and back on different routes, passing from Arizona into Utah or New Mexico, on to Colorado, through Nebraska or Wyoming, and then into South Dakota. For three days we journeyed, straight as an arrow over flat eternities of desert; skirting towering rock formations and deep, layered, chromatic terraces; climbing vertiginous, pine-ridged Colorado peaks and plunging precipitously into cool, deep valleys. After the mountains and meadows of South Dakota, the fecund farmland of North Dakota finally welcomed us into her ample arms, her prairies rippling to the horizon like the gentle swells of an infinite sea.

I will be thankful always to my parents for giving those experiences to me. I am sure no one needed to educate them on the importance of taking their children out into nature.

I had a chance to revisit those vast, dramatic landscapes last August, when my North Dakota cousin Tommy invited me along to ride shotgun in a car he’d bought in Arizona and wanted to drive back up north. Tommy is a  talented photographer, so I’ll retrace that trip photographically with you here. Note that there are no cute and furry creatures—I dislike anthropomorphizing animals. (Though I admit to taking multiple shots of a pair of mountain goats in the Black Hills the year before on a trip with my sisters.)

The famous red rock formations of Monument Valley in northern Arizona. Many classic westerns, such as John Ford's Stagecoach, were filmed here.
The famous red rock formations of Monument Valley in northern Arizona. Many classic westerns, such as John Ford’s Stagecoach, were filmed here.


The photographer and his “horse-powered coach’ outside Moab Utah.


The phenomenal Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
The phenomenal Canyonlands National Park in Utah.


An amazingly beautiful and pristine stream in the Black HIlls of South Dakota.
An enchantingly placid and pristine stream in the Black Hills of South Dakota.


The blogger drining in the beauty and looking like a startled deer.
The blogger drinking in the beauty and looking like a startled deer in a meadow near the stream.


Darn! They snuck in. Moutain goats near Mount Rushmore.
Darn! They snuck in. Mountain goats near Mount Rushmore.


North Dakota: infinite horizons and the subtle music of wheat waving in the wind.

This short tour of the West and the flash that follows were inspired by this week’s prompt from Carrot Ranch: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about wild spaces. Is it a wilderness or a patch of weeds in a vacant lot that attract songbirds. What is vital to the human psyche about wild spaces? Bonus points for inducing something cute and furry.

The post and flash were also triggered by the ache in my heart for those separated from the beauty of nature. The shells and tiny mouse skull in that very top photo were collected by my son, now serving time in a minimum security prison on a drug-related charge. On trips we took to the coast years ago, he was always the one to find unbroken anemones or sand dollars, buffed and scoured sea glass, even a melon-sized moon snail in Washington that, much to the consternation of the park ranger, he began to dig up before he realized the shell was still occupied. Always an avid naturalist by instinct, his world has shrunk to a stark space devoid of all natural grace except wind, flat land stretching to the horizon, and sunlight. Even the stars at night are drowned in the glare of megawatt lights.

But not for long…

Here’s a flash on nature…


He didn’t look back. Not as he walked to the car. Not as we circled back onto the highway. Behind us the towers melted into the horizon.

The road steepened. Pines appeared, grew thick, drank the sunlight. Outside a mountain town we stopped.

Resin and rain keened the air. Wind soughed in the high branches.

I waited while he walked into a clearing. He tilted his head. Palmed the rough bark. Drank the sweet air. When he returned, needles fell from his hair.

“Any place you want to stop?” I said.

“Nah,” he said, looking straight ahead. “I’m fine.”








9 thoughts on “Nature: A Saving Grace

  1. Jeanne, I love this post from its beginning with the little tree hugger to the conclusion with your rehabilitated tree hugger. I love the hopefulness in the words “but not for long”. I can’t imagine digging up a moon snail. I had to “Google” to see what it was. The scenery shared through your photographs is magnificent. Having seen so much of it in movies, the thought of seeing it “in the flesh” is almost incomprehensible. It doesn’t seem any more real than computer generated graphics. Interesting that you talk about your son’s current living quarters being devoid of nature. I wonder how much quicker rehabilitation may occur if quiet time in natural wild spaces (even inside walls if necessary) was made available. My daughter, in a comment on my post, linked to an article about the benefits of green spaces to children’s cognitive development. I think some studies could prove it true in these lifeless institutions too. If someone is looking for a PhD research question, that might be a good place to start.

    1. I thought the very thing, Norah, about the complete lack of natural stimulation in prisons. And yes, it would be a great research question! I imagine a community garden where inmates could get their hands dirty and feel the satisfaction of cultivating and nurturing life. Seems the benefits would ripple out. As for kids, I wanted to go into another theme of the time children now spend on social media, at the expense of being outdoors. Those vacations loom large in my memory, but so does my own backyard at the time, a scraggly square of stamped down Bermuda grass and dog turds but with a wonderful mulberry tree. And then there were the canal banks with their giant cottonwood trees and Eucalyptus, North Mountain park with its desert trails. I ache for the kids when I see them in my local park wired to their devices. So, thanks for generating even more thoughts on nature. We could have a real symposium about it!

  2. Thank you for this delicious journey with you! Reading your post is like drinking cool, sweet water from a spring. How your trips have evolved yet anchors remain the same throughout each one. The pictures are beautiful. And mountain goats! Babies! (or kids?) Cute and…oops! Uh, majestic creatures with fur. Your flash is touching and I hope happens for the son who once dug into his natural world. Perhaps that will be key to healing. Knowing wild places exist, especially when denied their grace, can offer hope.

    1. I think you must have a clone Charli. That or you never sleep. Thanks for your thoughts. I sometimes think I ought to just do a flash for your challenges, and save the long posts for another day. But taking your lead, I love the way the prompt gets your mind rolling with different ideas and images that come together in a reflection before they come to fruition in a flash. My flash is a little scene I play over in my head until the time comes that my son can walk away from that place. Until he can take a road trip and feel the vast beautiful world again. Oh, and see all the cute, furry “wildlings” too.

  3. Oh Jeanne, what a wonderful post. This: ‘Almond Joys and Paydays, Juicy Fruit and Spearmint gum, Planters peanuts and playing cards.’ Brings back wonderful memories of the road trips I took with my kids in America, and their childhood favourites (although Juicy Fruit was also my childhood favourite growing up in England, and that’s a story I will tell one day!) I envy you your wonderful road trips though, I always wanted to visit more of Arizona, especially the places where John Wayne slung his guns and kept the peace (I grew up on westerns, naturally…). I love the capture of your America through your delightful photos – love the ‘startled deer’, ha! And the one of you with your siblings, it’s just so gorgeous, what cuties all of you! Your early life epitomises my idea of the American dream in ever evocative description you write. But I choked up when I read about your son and the shells and the sand dollars and mouse skull…and then your flash. Oh Jeanne, power is in your every word. Beautiful, moving, heart-wrenching. To have nature exposed to us at such a young age is a priceless gift. You son will taste that beauty again…and you can take great hope in that <3

    1. How unforgivably late I am in responding to your comment Sherri. But how I appreciated it. I feel that you and I are two sides of the same coin, sisters separated by a continent and a “big pond.” I loved the western vistas and experiences I was exposed to as a child, but also thrilled to the culture and history of the land that gave me my mother tongue. My later teens were spent vicariously rambling across the moors and walking the streets of small English villages and riding trains in London…. Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, the Romantic poets. I loved British literature (English literature!) long before I did American literature. So cheers to the West and to England! Both nourish our spirits and give us good fodder for our stories!

  4. Beautiful and moving flash, Jeanne, especially in the context of your previous one.
    Loved your photos. The classic one of Monument Valley reminded me of my trip there and how exciting it was to see something so familiar from the movies in the flesh – I mean in the rock! Funny how we think of distance differently here in the UK. Lots of kids would struggle with a three-hour road trip in the back of the car, never mind three days!

    1. Ahhh Anne, wonderful to know you have visited my lovely state. People who have not been here think of it as something to get through on the way to California. But its variety and relative openness have always energized me and filled me with the same feeling I get when looking at the stars (which by the way is wonderful in the dry desert out from the cities. The Milky Way can make you dizzy!) And thanks for the comment on the flash. The theme I have followed in the last two posts is one at the top of my mind these days. As for distance, that did seem different to me when I lived in England. The idea that I could get from one end of England all the way up to Edinburgh in one day seemed remarkable to me. But that was by train 🙂

  5. Of all your poetic “flashes,” this one is my favorite, for the compelling story that seems to hover just beyond the picture frame. You have so many stories to tell! And I love reading them…

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