Finding Space

Vacations, for me, are about finding space. I mean this literally. If a trip doesn’t include time spent in at least one of grassland, salt-marsh, range land, moorland or desert then I’m not getting what I need from it. Wide open skies in a huge blue bowl above me; views that go on for miles, the song of birds somewhere in the air.

So when BD’s cousin Liz and I went west for ten days we spent some of the time in the Rockies (almost obligatory when showing a visitor from Scotland the west of Canada) but we spent more of it in the prairies. I have no idea why I need space the way I do. I grew up in flat farming country, mostly untreed, and I carry the genes of generations of fen and salt-marsh dwellers. Is that enough to explain it? All I know is that places that others find bleak, or boring, are the places I love the most.

This love of grassland is the only part of Lena, the protagonist of my novels, that I took directly from myself. Her reaction in the excerpt below was mine, the first time we drove east from Denver and looked down on the High Plains.

Two days later, in mid-morning, we rode up from the bowl of a grassy valley between two ridges of land. We urged the horses up to the crest. As Clio came abreast of the larger horses, I reined her to a stop and looked out. I gasped.

Beyond this final ridge, the land fell away quickly in a series of declining hills. A sea of grass extended far beyond sight toward the horizon. From this height, we could see the roll of the land and the sweep and ripple of the pale, sere grasses. The sky soared above us, and the boundary between land and air looked like a hazy blur on the distant edge of vision. As I gazed at the space and enormity of the grasslands, an unrealized tension eased. I felt an inner expansion, the loosening of constraint. I could live down there, I thought, suddenly, fiercely, wanting it. I could lose myself in that land, below that sky, in all that emptiness.

This time we flew to Calgary, and drove from there, and I felt exactly the same way again at the point the land changes from the mountains to the grass and cereal lands of the prairies. I’ve walked on a few of the world’s great open spaces – the Tibetan Plateau, the Kalahari, the moorlands of northern England and Scotland, the tundra of the Canadian Arctic and the snowfields of the Antarctic – and my reaction is always the same.

BD is good about this. Papua New Guinea? he suggested, to look for birds. (It’s forest.) You go, I said, I’ll go to North Dakota. Peru? he tried, another time. He went; I spent the week in Texas birding the salt-marshes. I’ve spent my time in the forests of the Amazon, and Malaysia, and northern Canada, and I have wonderful memories. I don’t regret those trips, but thinking about them doesn’t soothe my soul the way the memories of sky and wind and space do.

What speaks to you, soothes your soul, loosens your constraints?

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