I think I’m moving out soon, leaving my parents’ home in rural Nebraska. I’ve been here for the past six months on what feels like borrowed time, but still, it’s hard for me to decide to finally leave. These prairies and canyons, they are deeply, firmly my home. (I didn’t understand that until I went to college and instinctually developed a fierce loyalty to the Great Plains.) I’m afraid this is my last time living here. I’m sure I’ll come back to visit often, but I don’t know if it will ever be home again.
And I’m not sure how to deal with that knowledge. How can I knowingly walk away from something, a place, that has shaped me, that holds my roots, that has nourished me for years?
For the last six months, I have meant to capture the essence of my prairie home in writing and photographs—anything so that I can take it with me. But I haven’t quite been able to; all attempts have been futile.
A year ago, I read Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. In it she tells of her time in Wyoming and the way that landscape has shaped her understanding of the world. Although we live in different states, many of her words feel true for my home as well. She writes, “As soon as we lay our hands on [the frontier], the freedom we thought it represented is quickly gone.”
Maybe that’s why I can’t quite put into words or encompass with a picture the soul of the Sandhills. One can’t capture freedom, wildness, space, expanse.
The impossibility of describing the prairies is put beautifully in this excerpt from “Prairie Letters” in the September 1854 edition of Putnam’s Monthly,
But now, before you can fully understand the story…you must have some good idea of a prairie. But how to give you this, I know not. There is no describing them. They are like the ocean, in more than one particular; but in none more than this: the utter impossibility of producing any just impressions of them by description. They inspire feelings so unique, so distinct from anything else, so powerful, yet vague and indefinite, as to defy description, while they invite the attempt. Nothing but the ocean compares with the prairie, in its impression on the mind; and like the ocean, it is impossible to tell in what its distinctive character consists; unless it be their vastness, the want of anything on which the eye can rest, and say that there the prairie or the ocean ends.
So I may not be able to capture this place and take it with me, but what I can take with me are the things I have learned here. Ehrlich writes, “The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile: to be tender is to be truly fierce.” I too have learned the art of accommodation. Growing up here has taught me patience and resilience, fortitude and grit. I have come to understand that if you want a job done, sometimes you just have to buckle down and do it, no matter how long it takes or how dirty you get. Along the way, I have also learned the necessity of being soft and open to wonder, believing in the goodness of your neighbors.
Knowing that I will carry all these intangible things with me when I go is enough, I think. I have the lessons of the prairie rooted in my soul, even if I can’t capture the totality of its tangible qualities. And that’s enough; it makes it just a tiny bit easier to leave this place.
What experiences have you had with leaving your home and trying to capture it?