Friday, January 7, 2011

On Winter Skies and the Solace of Open Spaces

In a high school English class, we were once made to read an essay, called "The Solace of Open Spaces" by Gretel Ehrlich. I remember the piece only vaguely and don't want to spoil my memory's version of it by re-reading it today. It was about the great plains of Wyoming - or rather, about the author's reaction to their overwhelming vastness. I have never been to that part of the US and have not seen the landscape she describes. But I recall vividly the flash of self-recognition I experienced when reading her words. The solace of open spaces. Yes, that is how I feel.

Even as a child, I had the habit of wandering, of exploring - in a way that was driven not so much by curiosity or desire to conquer, but by what I can only describe as an emotional response to the act of moving through natural space. As a teenager I spent hours after school walking around the lakes near our house. And when I lived in England as a university student, there were these meadows that began just outside town and went on forever. I would walk through them, then turn around after an hour and lose myself in the views that surrounded me: The meadows stretched endlessly in all directions and the sky was close enough to touch. Just as the author of "The Solace of Open Spaces" describes, the vastness in itself felt sheltering - the outlines of the horizon creating the illusion of a domed structure.

In Boston, as in most cities, there is not much opportunity to experience vastness.  I can cycle to the Harbor to get my fix, but somehow that only reminds me of how far removed I normally am from such a landscape; it is not part of my everyday existence.

And then yesterday, I was crossing a bridge over the Charles River and looked up at the sky. The sky was everywhere. And it was a winter sky - such a surreal, piercing shade of blue can only manifest itself this time of year. The black branches of the bare trees almost looked like bits of lace trim against the satin-white ribbon of the icy river, and the expanse of the sky itself seemed otherworldly. I felt light-headed and comforted at the same time, and the speed of the bicycle, with the icy wind against my face, accentuated the experience. While I know that this is just my way of dramaticising daily existence, I am nonetheless thankful for it. Life in general happens mostly in our minds, and now my mind is filled with winter sky, the sensation of speed, and the solace of open spaces.

23 comments:

  1. You made me feel that. Beautiful! Thanks!

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  2. Gretel Ehrlich is the author of "Solace of Open Spaces." It's a classic of the modern American West. Some of her other titles include "Heart Mountain," a novel centered on a Japanese relocation camp during World War II and "A Match to the Heart" about her true experience being struck by lightning. Great stuff.

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  3. Thanks, Anon.

    MT - Yup. I have read other writing by her, but don't want to go back and re-read that particular essay. I should include the author's name in the post though; will do.

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  4. Beautiful post. I have been to Wyoming, the first time between my sophomore and junior years of high school. The openness was the first thing I noticed (and loved). It changed my perspective on my world back then. Recently I was told of a memory an Aunt has of me when I was not much over one year old, when I was released onto a tennis court. She said I just ran around, and seemed to love the openness of it. That is why I love cycling so much too. It opens up my world, physically of course, but also emotionally and even spiritually.

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  5. Beautiful! I have similar sensations when I'm out riding. I live on a ridge, and have some breathtaking views of the valley below and the mountains in the distance. I often find that I just stop in the road to take it all in. Especially on a clear night, when the stars go on forever.

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  6. I have yet to go to Wyoming, but I have been on the open sea in a 22 ft. boat and I remember the Alamo. That's about all I have to remember about Texas. Talk about yer whole lotta nuttin' but sky. Well, that and the dead armadillos they use as highway mile markers.

    I've also been to Chris Columbus Park which is nice enough, if not quite the same thing.

    Nowadays I'm too far away from the sea and not far enough away from Texas, but I can go to the mountain top and dream; then stay the hell away from Memphis, by golly.

    "what I can only describe as an emotional response to the act of moving through natural space."

    A response too often ignored by campaigners for mass transit, and bicycles too I'm afraid. They get caught up in thinking about moving large numbers of people to and from work, with maybe a trip to the mall in there somewhere, and ignore the innate desire to be able to just move about, in space enough to do it in and the otherwise "pointless" joy that brings.

    Mankind did not move up the Rift Valley, then the Nile Valley, across Sinai to spread across the globe (not only around the equator, but from time to time from pole to pole as well) and then fill it up with skate parks just to get to work or go shopping.

    We just plain like telling the engineer to push it to warp nine, go up to the bow of the ship (hot chick above our station in life optional, but a bit of alright if you can manage it), spread our arms and yell, "I'm the king of the world!" All the while pretending that it is we ourselves doing the moving and not merely being carried along by a ship full of people being transported like cattle above their station in life.

    If a ship is not available we'll ride the roller coaster, and if a roller coaster is not available we'll even ride that damned tea cup thingy, but there is something about moving truly on your own with no energy expended that didn't originate from you (well, ya know, plus whatever it is you killed to get the energy in the first place).

    There is also something about doing it on wheels.

    In the words of one Stirling Moss, one of the great wheeled movers, "Motion is tranquility."

    I have moved as Sir Moss and one thing the car haters will never understand is that there is no "rage" involved. I am not testosteronal, nor am I an adrenaline junkie (actually, I rather dislike the stuff). It's all about the endorphins. Driving at speed is not analogous to a prize fight, it is a form of dance. It is tranquility . . . and BEYOND!

    But then there is that other of moving under your own power. Investing your own energy in potential energy by climbing the mountain, which is an accomplishment, and then releasing it on the way back down, which is "Wheeeeeeeeeee!"

    There are a number of ways of doing that and I've tried a few of them, but nothing does it quite like a bicycle (skiing and hang gliding are alright for the coming down bits, but the going up bits can be a bit of a drag. I guess that's why God invented the gondola).

    I've often thought we misnamed ourselves. We are not so much man the thinker as we are man the bored and restless. Man the itchy footed, always seeking new places with new vistas full of greener grass. Man the mover seeking tranquility, which must be just over the next horizon, 'cause it just doesn't seem to be here for very long.

    Why is a bicycle not like a vacuum cleaner? Because it moves.

    And do we move? Are we not men (flower pots for hats highly optional)?

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  7. Living in New Mexico for five years was long enough to get me hooked on a big sky. Being able to see nearly 180 degrees of blue just seemed to be the way things should be. Things are more crowded in California, but wide open spaces are still within cycling distance, thankfully.

    Nicely written post... thank you

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  8. Sir Moss? Slaps himself silly for the gaffe. Damned colonials don't know nuttin'.

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  9. As others have said, just beautiful! I come here for your writing, and I'm glad you write about something I enjoy. You should write a novel.

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  10. I think this is partly why I have a fascination with clouds (http://pin-hole.tumblr.com/tagged/clouds). They seem to emphasize the vastness of the expanse of sky - to decorate it and create depth and balance.

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  11. Velouria said...
    "Life in general happens mostly in our minds" How very true.

    Nice thread. Yes, very nice indeed.

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  12. kfg: nicely written.

    -beany

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  13. One of my best experiences of the solace of open space was riding across the Nullabor plain in Australia. A section of the road about 400 kilometres long had been closed because of flooding for 10km at the western end, but I got through by carrying my bike over the flooded section and had the whole place to myself.

    I was riding at night to avoid the heat, the empty road stretching out before me without a bend.
    At 2am I pulled off the road to rest. I stood there with my bicycle, watching the stars climb slowly off the horizon, burning steadily without a twinkle in the dry cool air. Lifting my eyes up, I followed the tapestry of the galaxy, glowing so bright and majestic. At the opposite horizon the stars would set, not a twinkle anywhere.

    I was alone, not having seen another human for all
    the previous day, but I did not feel lonely, I was part of the galaxy.

    After a drink of water and a bite to eat, I mounted my trusty companion, and we set off down the empty road, without a sound except the quiet whir of my chain which pulled me and my few possessions towards another dawn.

    John I

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  14. Upon Westminster Bridge

    Earth has not anything to show more fair:
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty:
    This City now doth like a garment wear
    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
    Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
    The river glideth at his own sweet will:
    Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
    And all that mighty heart is lying still!

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  15. Very nice V. You expressed so eloquently why the majority love bicycling. To be out in open spaces and not confined. Nothing makes me feel more alive.

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  16. Thank you everyone for recounting your experiences. What a romantic, sentimental bunch we are : )

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  17. Beautiful writing here today!
    I grew up in "fly over" country, the part of the midwest that looks like endless flat checkerboard farms when viewed from an airplane. On the ground, the flatness is actually gently undulating fields that stretch from horizon to horizon in all directions. I loved to explore that vast open space as a kid, riding my bike into vast 360 degree panaromas of green crops, blue skies, and white cotton candy clouds. When I moved to New Haven and Boston for college and graduate school, I always felt hemmed in by the limited sight lines of the urban environment. I simply couldn't SEE as far as I was used to, producing a nagging claustrophobic feeling of being crowded in by buildings and signs and streets and cars that obscured the natural environment. There is a majesty in vast open space. I still seek it out as an adult, riding off on my bike and sometimes feeling fourteen years old again. Thanks to V and several commenters for the evocative posts on the solace of open space.

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  18. I have the same claustrophobic feeling you describe, especially in downtown areas with very tall building and narrow streets. The odd thing however, is that I was born in a small city and spent part of my childhood there, only moving to a more spacious natury area later. I guess some of us were just meant for a certain kind of landscape and not another.

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  19. And the next very natural move for man is into outer space. When, in the 60's, we were headed into outer space for the first time, where every rocket launch was a major event and each manned one filled with excitement and just a touch of fear, the idea of moving into space to the Moon and certainly to Mars by this time, was a no-brainer, man did indeed seem to be moving "forward". But, we now know the Space race was mostly political and also for military reasons. Once the "race" was over everyone went home and began spending money on more important things (to governments), like wars, give away programs and such.
    But, my love of space, of astronomy and traveling through space to distant worlds did not end there. My Mom gave me a telescope in 1965 and I have had one ever since. I began writing up my observations starting in 1965 and have continued, writing my last one a few days ago. They are my journals of my adventures with my telescopes.
    I love to travel through time and space with my telescope. I have looked at things as close to earth as man-made satellites and Apollo 12 about half way to the Moon and as far away as a distant galaxy a Billion light years away, as that galaxy looked a billion years ago.
    My bicycle "Crazy Horse" (Sam Hillborne) is my earth vehicle which I ride through space staying as close to my natural surroundings as possible.

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  20. No matter where I'm riding, I find the "solace of open spaces" (which you describe beautifully) in my mind. If we're not free in our minds, where else can we be free?

    I admit, though, that I do favor long stretches of open coastline.

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  21. Velouria, I've stumbled onto an wonderful winter clothing item that you should look into for yourself and to share with your blog friends.

    http://www.buff.eu/en/USA/

    watch the video to see just how versatile this little gem is !!

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  22. Walt - I make those! Here's one as a scarf and here it is again as a hat.

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  23. Wonderful post. I love getting outside everyday and noticing these landscape details. There is something truly humbling about a sky that stretches on forever, or the brightness and quality of the light that happens only during the winter. Or the color of the light in the south of France vs San Francisco, or the East coast... I could go on. :)

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