In one of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, he mentions mountains like crumpled butcher paper, which at the time I believed to be probably one of his more imaginative metaphors, fanciful and untethered to reality. I had seen mountains,* hiked mountains, skied mountains, rode horses through mountains, and they all had pine trees and sundry scratchy shrubs and often snow. They were green and grey and craggy, but not deep brown and not crumpled. Even McCarthy has to stretch sometimes, I assumed, to evoke that godless-wasteland feeling so necessary to his novels.
But then, while we were living in Phoenix, I flew back into the city from the north, crossing a stretch of desert. I remember gasping audibly—mountains like crumpled butcher paper. Those mountains were perhaps the most startling landscape I saw in Arizona, although we saw the Grand Canyon, and forests of Aspens near Flagstaff, and, my favorite, Oak Creek Canyon in the fall. But the fearful vastness of these butcher paper mountains—even from the plane they were all I could see. This land can kill you.
It is, perhaps, no surprise that we left Arizona. There were practical reasons, but there was also the fact that life there seemed always a mirage—temporary, improbable, foolhardy. And of course now we live in West Michigan, the third coast, the promised land, where everything grows.
But my soul will always be Kansan. Not just because it is a modest, quiet place, but because it is the land that I find beautiful. Perhaps only people from the Midwest, by birth or adoption, find it beautiful, but the older I get the more I wonder that I never noticed it as a child.
I was driving with my mother east on I-70 toward Kansas City a few weeks ago, and the many shades of green rolled over me like a flood. The many grasses, the hedgerows planted and then abandoned by farmers long ago, the few trees like sentinels guarding their domain, each its own varietal of green. The darkest greens are the leaves of the trees, and then down to the shrubs and weeds, and finally the pale green of the grass, drawing the eye ever downward to the earth, rooted. This is where we dwell, this is where we stay.
When the wind blows, one can see the nether leaves of every bush and tree, all silver hued and cold; the heightened contrast of green against silver makes each leaf visible, and the effect is of sharpened, quickened senses. Each blade, each stalk, each branch curves into an arc—vital, dynamic. It is very like the sea, I think.
Whenever I see the prairie, I can’t help but think of all the stories of pioneers that I was told or read as a child. I don’t know if other Americans hear these stories in such great number, or if it is just us plain-states children, nestled in the valley of the country. If tales can be believed, each of these pioneers was a saint, strong and tireless and brave. I don’t know if everyone else sees pioneers as the real heroes of the country, or if that’s just us too.
Sometimes I get embarrassed now, thinking of those early settlers. They moved from strength to strength, but I tend more to move from crisis to crisis, each one less worthy of emotion than the last. It occurred to me only very recently that I could perhaps stop living like that, if I wished. It would take time, and I would have to start small, but I might someday be stronger than I am. I could take as a touchstone the vitality and energy of the plains and decide to live that way, looking toward the quiet peace of Providence and saying, this is where I dwell, this is where I stay.
*I remember vividly the first time I saw a mountain. I was quite young, and I was eager to reach the top of the mountain, because in my mind it would be as sharp as a needle, which is how mountaintops looked in my drawings, where they resembled upside-down v‘s. I was devastated, truly devastated, when my mother told me we were at the top. There was plenty of room to park and walk around, and it was not pointy at all. For all I know this was the beginning of my melancholy nature, which tends to expect disappointment.