Outside, the wind blows a sustained note that sounds at once raw and manufactured. Like a train heading west, an engine carving out the land before it.
The middle states still have many windswept basins and prairie expanses, each one hollowed out before either of the last two ice ages—but now, there are often buildings, windmills, viaducts, and freeway overpasses in the way of the wind. We have built a system of windbreaks in wood, steel, and concrete. These breaks can span acres and serve as testaments to our vast abilities as engineers. We build in frantic bursts; we behave as if our most amazing achievement has just happened. But, Annie Dillard says, “These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other.” We are always achieving the amazing. Our greatest advance (would we pick landing on the moon? or penicillin? or wireless data?), how does it compare to language, fire, the wheel, or the domestication of the horse? Every age wakes up in the dawn of the future. We are always exploding into new spaces at a breakneck speed.
At one time, the soil in Wyoming was rich and deep. Tropical jungles with palms and flamingos ringed vast lakes. The foothills of Proterozoic-aged peaks sank deep into the earth, sprouting trunks of magnolias, figs, and laurels, while spruce and firs climbed the flanks of the granite uplifts. As the glaciers receded in the highlands, the ice left behind valleys to hold water, crushed rocks to cradle shrubs. Yet all this richness was gone by the time the first humans roamed the west. The land dried, hardened, and much of the rich topsoil had eroded, leaving behind a grazeland ideal for bison and cervids—but not primary food production.
Alternately, the tall and middle grass prairies of Nebraska and Kansas to the east still held onto nearly a foot of topsoil when pioneers first settled there. They burned the grass to make room for their farmhouses, their corn and wheat fields, and later, their soy. It was difficult for early settlers to imagine what use the roots of bluestem and gram were, growing down seven feet or more, or the Compass plant, a seemingly unstoppable weed with a tuber and root system reaching more than 15 feet below the dirt. It could take years of chopping down a Compass flower before it would stop coming back in all its useless yellow glory.
They didn’t know, those first and second and third farmers, that it was the roots of these natives, with their netted structure deep below the surface of the land that kept all that soil from blowing away, and that the cyclical death of those long white veins enriched the soil with nitrogen and carbon and cellulose. Years of burns and shallow-rooted commodity crops have sucked all the once-rich land dry. The Nebraskan topsoil that took several ice ages to deposit is now as barren as Wyoming’s. It requires pounds of fertilizer per cubic foot to produce at all.
A Wyoming rancher who would prefer to be anonymous explains to a large group of ecologists, hunters, and federal agency representatives the importance of experience when it comes to managing rangeland. His audience of mostly men, in Carhartt pants and mesh caps, overalls and quilted jackets, has come together to figure out how to feed deer and pronghorn on his and several other large ranches without impacting their businesses. Their lands may look wild or unmanaged to the uneducated observer, but they aren’t. Each landowner manages as best he can. The rancher uses an herbicide called Spike® to kill sagebrush, and a combination of spring and fall burns to keep the grass mix ideal for the needs of his livestock. He also runs two different kinds of operations: “cow-calf” and “yearling.” By moving the two groups of cattle around each season, he can also influence the ratio of edible-to-inedible cover.
He contracts a local commercial pilot to drop Spike by plane over large portions of his 100,000-acre ranch. Its effects last three years.
“So you’re gonna be in a world of trouble if you put down too much,” he growls. Same goes for the burns. Spring burns are best, when the ground is still mottled with snow, because these fires carve out more natural shapes in the landscape. “But if you’ve messed your land up,” he shrugs, either with overgrazing or some other mismanagement, “a fall burn is the way to clear it all out and start over.” He says it takes several years for the land to recover enough from a fall burn for grazing.
In grade school, my best friend’s mother began a ten-year project to make her urban backyard into a “natural” space. She built up small hills and dug gullies, planted trees and native weeds. She paved her trails not with stones, but grass, and she laid them crooked, the way deer navigate the woods. By the time we graduated from high school, it did look like a burgeoning hardwood glen. But only city birds roosted in the trees; no fox or owl hunted, and no field mice or voles, to feed a fox or owl, hid among them.
“I’m doing the best I can,” she’d say. And, “It looks pretty good so far.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has guidelines for prescribed burns. You need to be certified to burn more than 100 acres of your own land. You need to understand growth patterns and animal habitats, seasonal wind and rain patterns—you need to know not just what is happening out there, but what might.
The rancher’s wife has a vegetable garden next to the farmhouse, and he keeps a small orchard in the lee of his large tractor shed—both plots look managed, organized, not like the rest of his land. The rest is rough, dry hills dotted with gray sage, forbs, and entirely too much cheat grass for his liking, but he’s working on that, too. He says that the science and tools at his disposal make his job so much easier than his dad’s was. Spike, especially, is a godsend.
We circumscribe, flatten, carve. We imagine ourselves like the wind or a river—shaping the land—not like a fall fire, blackening everything down to scratch.
Dogs circle the grass, too, flattening out a place to sleep, whether the grass is still there or not.
In the center of what is now North America, when the great inland sea retreated, pulled out to its edges until it thinned and then evaporated, vast plains of smoothed land were left behind. It was the lowest tide you can imagine: when the sea disappeared completely. The ocean left behind fertile layers of sediments, which allowed for a wide variety of grasses, flowers, and shrubs to take root and flourish. A few hardy trees, too, whose saplings could withstand the fierce flatland winds, sprouted next to meandering rivers. Their roots dug down like fat fingers to the water: cottonwoods, red buds, box elders.
There is a vicious wind on the steppe today. I woke up late, but decided to try and get a walk in anyway. Since I cannot see any trees from my window, I was not prepared for the strength of it. It takes very little power, after all, to blow a patch of grass over.
Once I started down the long driveway, however, bits of broken tumbleweed scratched my forehead; the air pushed my breath back into my nose and made me gasp; spit that I thought was secure in my mouth was shoved out and across my cheeks. When I turned onto the county road, the wind at my back pushed me into a jog a couple of times. After only a half-mile, I realized the battle I’d face on the way back and turned around: I had to lean forward and walk like I was climbing uphill.
This is why the grass stays short, why the few trees in the far distance grow twisted and thick and why the horned larks stay low to the ground when they must fly. The wind is the reason the rabbit and badger dens that edge the fields all open to the road, and lie below the pavement line–so they are protected in the lee of the gravel-filled ravine. This is why our progress isn’t so much a moving forward as it is a continual maintenance, as irrigation ditches fill with debris, as sheds are canted, season by season, until they are tipped over. The tumbleweeds stuck in the parallel borders of barbed wire fence write an unplayable score between fence posts. The roar of the wind deafens: a jet engine revving up or a freight train and you with your ear to the track.
Aldo Leopold once heard the “hush of elemental sadness” move through the gloom of a snowy forest. This then, must be something more anguished, a rage blowing against everything in its path.
I remember once being held up by the wind on the Oregon Coast. My grandmother took a picture of me that day, so I know I was wearing corduroy shorts and the multicolored sweater she knit me. Each of the sweater buttons had a different painted picture: a train, a lion, a hot air balloon. This dates me between preschool and first grade–I was too big for the sweater after that. We were at Fort Stevens beach, at the site of the wreck of the Peter Iredale. Back then the grounded ship’s hull still jutted like red-black ribs of some leviathan out around the low-tide line, three stories tall. My grandfather would run to it, chasing the out-sucking waves. I would squeal from a safer distance as he climbed up the rusted girders.
There is a picture of the two of us running along the foamy edge of the water, on some other day. I’m wearing jeans but no shoes. He’s running in navy blue Dickies pants and one of his mesh-backed baseball hats. We both wear flannel shirts as we barrel toward the shipwreck. He is looking back at me, telling me to hurry up, no doubt, to get to the boat before the waves do.
I remember these and other trips to Oregon beaches because of all the pictures my grandmother took. She walked up and down the sand and focused her lens on eolian shapes in the dunes, or smoothed driftwood arched like animal backs. And me; she took dozens of pictures of me walking, jumping, engrossed in arranging mussel shells in the sand. My grandfather usually sat in the car. Did he read, I wonder? But Iredale beach was an exception, and I never understood it until I learned in high school that Fort Stevens and its half-buried ship hull had been shot at by Japanese submarines during World War II. I imagine that he liked the feel of that salt-roughed steel under his hands, the steel that had withstood enemy fire.
My sister remembers being ignored by my grandmother on trips like these, years later, when she herself was just past toddler-age. While I was “left to my own devices,” I don’t think it felt lonely. In each of our memories, then, of my grandparents and the Peter Iredale and whichever summer it was when we were each young, we imagine a slightly different world. One of us is abandoned, the other, independent. We fill this feeling as a shape; it becomes a world, and we people it, and put ourselves in the center of it.
We build and maintain our interior landscapes as carefully as any architect or rancher: trimming out details that seem unimportant, highlighting what nurtures our visions of ourselves. We do the best we can.
That day of the buttoned sweater, the wind blew so hard that I couldn’t build anything. My long blond hair kept getting in my mouth. I experimented with the strength of the wind; I threw things into and with it: feathers, stones, handfuls of sand. I was still small and knob-kneed then. When my grandmother took a picture of me leaning into a gust, I still had my feet on the sand. After she’d looked or walked away, I kept testing. Only once did the wind blow so hard that it lifted me up, off the ground, for a moment. Then, just as fast, the cold arms of it let me go and I fell on my knees laughing like a loon.
I’m much too heavy to be picked up now, even by this wind. But still, I collect small pieces of gravel as I walk, drop stones into the gusts, test the wind’s strength. If I lived here long enough, and the wind continued to blow this hard, I could remake the road, one dropped stone at a time. And if I could do that, I might imagine my road more lovely, being shaped as much by the wind as by human hand. It is in our nature to love what we’ve made, and to push against what has made us, into new spaces.
The horizon rolls away from me like waves with each step I take toward it. I can imagine, below the pavement and the fence posts and the stunted grass, great forces heaving and shifting against the surface. The line between ground and sky is indistinct, broken by the unlikely tree, the lonesome silo. There is something unreachable about that line, between what is and what it might grow into.
At the far edge of the horizon: trees, a silo, a brief spiral of dark birds that vanish behind a barn.
We try to make sense of the land, even as it changes beneath us. We survey and map even as the valleys deepen, and salt-rimmed ripples are buried beneath packed sod, dried bones, old roads. The course of something is being changed with every irrigation ditch and power line, but what? We circle and shape the land in our image, but our circles are imperfect: they loop toward the horizon as moths to a flame. Our structures strain up into the sky’s possibility.
This country road doesn’t bend, and my approach should be a surprise to no one. But the wind drowns out all sounds and pushes my scent far behind me. This must be how I manage to startle a black-tailed jackrabbit from his den. He, too, has dug down, carved out his shape in the soil as a wall against the wind. My shadow cannot be stirred by the wind, and so it passes across his burrow.
The rabbit mind must hold the cry of winter and the deliverance of spring in a balance which might be called memory: it knows dog shapes, the perfume of thistle, the rumor of owl’s wings beating through the air, and the churn of tractors. It knows how far to dig, what hours are safest to be out. It knows the hunting, scraping outline of man. The rabbit mind knows before and after—one calls for stillness, the other speed and distance—and is unburdened by wondering.
In a flash, he climbs the grass hill above his front door and bounds through the barbed wire and across the field before my gasp has finished leaving my mouth. He doesn’t stop leaping until all I can make out of him are his white ear spots. He turns back once, to see if I’m following. I’m standing right where I was when he fled, but he continues to run. The ground unrolls under his feet as he jumps over its cracks and folds until he’s nothing but a gray blur against gray grass. Only then does he look back once more, just to be sure.