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image, Sol y Sombra, by Mary Anne Maier.

by Mary Anne Maier

Maybe cherished places remain alive inside us even if we have
to move on—our attachment to the earth not thinned, but widened.

— Deborah Tall

Sol y sombra. Sun and shadow.

In my mind I stand transfixed by the vast openness of Wyoming’s high plains. Light infuses this wide western sky from the earliest tease of dawn through the sharpening edges of earth against last light. When I close my eyes, light still dances in the dark as if trapped in the narrow half-spheres behind my eyelids. Searing cobalt skies grow out of the light, so alive with energy that they feel like giants sheltering us. Cliffs and mountains reflect the light, glow red like holy blood. I’ve seen hammerhead clouds a mile deep and stretching to the horizon saturated with light, so filled with yellows and pinks and purples that they’ve leaked into prisms below. Yet if light were all, it would quickly bleach the azure to the scorched-bone blue of lower desert skies: light is the glowing block of marble from which shadow forms the sculptor’s perfect cuts, shaving here, hollowing there, allowing a mound or crag to find its shape. Sagging arms of a lone cottonwood shade sleeping cattle. Cloud shadows skim across the summer plains like wordless prayers.

The openness is the same to me as air to breathe: I am safe in it, free in relation to its vastness, tensing as the walls of a canyon rise or the trees—even juniper bushes—thicken to block the view. I grew up being able to see Scott’s Bluff, thirty miles to the east, and Laramie Peak, a hundred miles to the west, from the same spot on these high plains. When I stand among the scrubby pines and spruce on a sandstone bluff looking out across the prairie, I squint to see forever through the dry, dry air, sure that it’s right past the barely hazy line of land fading into sky. And more than that: at some moments, I believe I’ve seen through time as well as space. Once as just a child, before the dawning of the new age, before Shirley MacLaine located her chakras, I looked out from that sandstone bluff for the first time and knew that I or my eyes or the part of me that is eternally human had been there before, long before, ten thousand years before. I don’t attribute this to some power of my own but to the openness, to the clarity within its vast bowl. I was seeing not merely the same scene again, but the scene revised ever so subtly by time and snow and sun, and by Wyoming’s immutable wind.

The huge silence of the high plains teams with sounds: breezes are as constant as waves among the oceans of sagebrush and prairie grass, whispering through them always. Wind rises and falls (hawks gliding up and down on its endless currents, screeching now and then), sometimes too gentle to even move the rusty arms of the old windmill and other times howling with such strength that the windmill’s squeal is dwarfed by the wind’s own savage moans. In the summer, cattle are accompanied by the stubborn sawbuzz of horse flies—starting, stopping, starting, stopping in rhythm with the slap of tails and twitch of pink ears. Grasshoppers hiss dry heat like rattlesnakes. In winter the bleak lowing of cattle is the lonely response to screaming blizzards filled with snow: haunting pleas lost in whiteness. Only at the coldest, when even the air retreats from the vacuum of chill so that drawing breath is an empty shock, or in the night when the storms have passed after scouring the stars to their brightest—only at these times have I heard the roar of utter silence on these plains.

Coyotes are lean and rangy in this land, as are their prey: rabbits, mice, a vulnerable lamb or calf. Antelope, fast and skittish, noses always reading the wind, flourish. As far as ranch animals have to range for food in this sparse country, their owners have to roam after them, often on horseback and even afoot, pulling them from tight spots, bringing them to shelter to lamb out or calve, following them with medicine and in winter with food. Townspeople have it much easier, of course, but there’s no escaping the elements: hundred-mile stretches between towns (and thus between gas stations) are common out here, and we feel our smallness and vulnerability in this vastness. People who’ve grown up on the open plains try to travel with their tanks as full as possible in the winter, and with candles and blankets and some sort of nonperishable food in their cars, knowing full well that they could easily end up stranded for a day or night or even longer (long stretches where cell phones don’t reach); knowing just as well that a single step away from their vehicle in a blizzard increases their chances of dying a thousandfold. Summers are much kinder, and yet there are untold dirt roads along which the only thing rarer than a shade tree to hide from the scathing sun is another car passing by to find you. But it’s hard to get lost on these plains because you can almost always see a good thirty miles in every direction from the nearest ridge. And the elements, hostile and frightening in their raw power, are even more galvanizing.

I wrote a story in college that ended with a person walking across the prairie toward the base of Bear Mountain, a high sandstone outcropping near Hawk Springs in southeastern Wyoming. The feeling that I was attempting to convey was that the person had reached a place of complete safety with the sandstone cliffs for shelter and the broad plains and sky stretching outward into endless vistas. My professor, from Pittsburgh, thought that I had just abandoned the character to the most godforsaken spot on Earth. I understood then that openness for me is gaping emptiness for others, that the divinity I feel breathing in this place can feel like a ghost wind to those not raised in its potent presence.

I was born here and have returned here in my heart for all the years away. I know the smell of sage, dirt, rock, rain, snow. I know that snow on the ground when the temperature is below zero is more pungent, stinging, than snow in less severe cold. Just before hail the air fills with tart ozone emanating from the angry green-yellow clouds that throw the stones. Rock smells like metal and dirt smells of the ancient history of life. Sand holds the essence of stored sunshine. And the slightest sprinkle of rain on a warm day saturates the air with sage. To describe the depth of the feeling of rightness here is for me like attempting to describe the distance to a perfect planet in another galaxy: I know it’s there, but I’ve never tested the knowledge. Certainty simply rides the scented breeze, catches on grass tips of purest light.

image, The plains.


Mary Anne Maier is a Wyoming native who provides editorial services to writers. She is coeditor of the anthology The Leap Years: Women Reflect on Change, Loss and Love (Beacon Press, 1999), and her essays and articles have appeared in National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Christian Science Monitor, Journal of the American Medical Association, and others.
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