Friday, July 06, 2007

Environmentalism and the American West

As I might have touched on before, I am now living in New Mexico. For personal reasons, and also because of the crappy state of affairs in my homeland of Michigan, I left last month. Still trying to get things going out here, but I have faith.

Last weekend, my sister and I went out horseback riding with a friend of hers. Now I'm a city boy through and through. I love the idea of riding horses, but this was the first time I've been on one since I was in high school, which is a long long time ago.

I made it through the day in one piece. I got tossed once at the very beginning, but that was it. We didn't go much faster than a walk, since the horses hadn't been out in a while and were a bit more feisty than we wanted. The host lives on a few acres, close to a state park, so we rode on over to the lake there, and then back. About 6-7 miles round trip.

As we rode back, I remember sitting there looking around me. We were out of sight of the lake and the people there, far from any roads, and with only a few houses in view. Off a bit to our left was a small herd of wild horses, maybe a dozen or so. And I realized for the first time ever, on a really deep, primal level, the attraction of The West.

It's hard to imagine if one hasn't ever been there. Sitting on a horse, in the middle of an open area. A short distance to the right was a small mountain range, or at least some good sized hills. In all other directions, just open ground. Fairly flat, but with some rolling terrain. The only sounds were the horses and the wind. You could see for miles, I guess, but there was very little to look at. Yet there was a sense of freedom, which made me long for a place that has more space yet. Somewhere like Montana, a place I've only seen a bit of. Someplace where you can just sit quietly on a horse and ride for miles without having to deal with another person.

And I recall thinking that I was At One With Nature in a way that the Gores of the world probably don't really grasp. I understand that there is pollution and that I'm not seeing the world in a perfectly natural place. But still, I felt a peace that one doesn't get in the city.

And if you have the chance to sit on a horse, alone with your thoughts in the open spaces of the West, you understand that this really is a privilege. It's not something that can be faked. And you find yourself wanting to protect it. I had a piece of gum in my mouth, and after a couple hours of riding, it was hard and completely tasteless. I wanted to get rid of it, but how? I didn't feel like swallowing it, and there were no trash cans nearby, but when I thought "I should just spit it out", I couldn't do it. It just seemed so.... indecent. Perhaps "immoral" would be a better word. I knew there was little chance anyone would ever step on it, but it still felt wrong. So I kept chewing that rock hard piece of gum for a couple more hours. I didn't feel any sense of triumph or morality over it. It just felt like it was the right thing to do.

I never felt that sense of nature in Michigan, even when out in the woods or on a lake. Much of it, I guess, is the scale. Michigan, even in the most pristine areas, is either wooded or built up. So it's rare to be able to see more than a couple miles at any time. Out here, it seems sometimes that you can see forever. If I ever get the chance to visit Montana for more than a few hours, I suspect it would be like that- after all, it's called The Big Sky Country for a reason.

In the end, it opened my eyes a bit. I'm not generally a person that throws my trash out on the side of the road by any means, but I'm not a fanatic about the environment either. Nor do I worship nature. But I do understand why so many people over the millenia have done so. It's amazing.

Well, it's time to bring this one to an end. So here's a thought, from a favorite song. This is from a New Mexico native, the late great John Denver (though he didn't actually write it. The composer was Kent Lewis). Still, it's kind of a pleasant thought that ties in with how I feel. The tune is called "Song of Wyoming", and here are the final few lines:

"... wakin' up on the range,
Lord I feel like an angel
Feel like I almost could fly
Drift like a cloud
out over the badlands
Sing like a bird in the tree
The wind in the sage
sounds like heaven singin'
A song of Wyoming for me
A song of Wyoming for me".

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