As a child on my family’s Kansas farm, I often whiled away entire mornings stalking a mother cat until she led me to her hidden litter of newborn kittens, or burrowing into my mother’s lilac bushes in pursuit of a baby cottontail. Of an afternoon, I might circle the pasture rattling a grain bucket until, in utter triumph, I managed to slip a rope around one of my horse’s necks, or I would sit in a low place in the farmyard where, after a recent rain, the earth had dried and shrunk into a jigsaw puzzle of thin, cracked clay. I would remove the pieces and drag my fingers through the smooth silt beneath. On spring evenings, I would stand at the yard fence, breathing the sweet scent of green wheat and watching stars blink on one by one.
Just as my father had predicted, when I hit my teen years, I went from chasing horses to chasing boys. Shortly after I graduated from high school, one of those boys asked me to marry him. We took off for San Francisco without a backward glance. It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that, eight years later, the boy and I were divorced. It may surprise you, however, to learn that the only cure I could find for the loneliness that set in after the divorce was to leave the city and go camping in the Mojave Desert.
There I could be outside again, surrounded by immensity, but also held in the physical embrace of the earth itself. I dragged my toes through warm sand, immersed myself in whatever clear water I could find (whether in a stock tank or mountain spring), rolled down dune faces, and took deep grateful breaths of sage-scented air. For the first time since childhood, nature ignited my curiosity and fired my drive. Only now the field of exploration was much larger than the quarter-mile radius around my family’s farmstead knoll. What, I wondered, lay beyond that mountain?
After following a jeep trail for hours across ravines and over rocky summits, discovering water trickling out from a granite wall to form a pool among marsh grasses excited me as much as finding a litter of tawny kittens hidden among grain bags in a musty barn loft had excited me as a child. The sight of soft pink sand dunes at dusk aroused as much tenderness in me as when I was a child holding a trembling bunny in my trembling hands. In this way, I rediscovered the joys and sorrows of physical experience outdoors. It was good to be in my body again. I’d been living in my head for far too long.
In my lucky farm childhood, I didn’t play with plastic toys or watch that much TV. Instead, I had many primal, unfiltered experiences with the elemental things of the earth—dirt, stars, grass, fur. I’ve described those experiences here because, since then, on the plains, as in so many other places, the earth has suffered at the hands of humans. How can we not feel, in our own flesh, the damage done to the places we bonded with physically, as children? It is through sensory experience in childhood that our most fierce loyalties are formed.