Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Prairie Summer Companion

This past summer I lived on the prairie. (Seeing as how Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up in Walnut Grove, a town about a half-hour drive from where I lived this summer, I'm fairly confident "prairie" is an accurate label). For some reason or other, this fact is something I've been reflecting on lately. Maybe it's the time that's passed since the summer, or maybe it's the new desktop image I've got set up on my laptop (that'd be the picture), but for some reason or other, I've been thinking about the prairie.

The experience of living on the prairie is a stark contrast to the type of living I'd done before. Even when I was at college (on what is easily one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation - (Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota for those of you unfamiliar with my undergraduate history)) in a rural area, it wasn't the same as life on the prairie.

On the prairie, life is slow. It isn't just slower than city or suburban living - is is simply slow. But somehow, the pace just fits. Maybe that's because on the prairie people are tuned into the natural pace of life. Life itself has a pace - birth, growth, death - and that pace is intimate to the "industry of the prairie"; Farming, with it's planting, growing, and harvesting, is inextricably tied to the pace of Life.

But farming doesn't just happen on the prairie, and farming alone doens't capture exactly what it is that is unique about life on the prairie. One of the other hallmarks of prairie life is that you can see for miles in every direction. There's a special visibility, with few trees or hills or buildings to get in the way. Horizon in every direction. You can see the sun come up all the way, and go down all the way. You can watch a storm move in from miles away - you can watch lightning strike ground 3 fields over, and see the rain sweep across the swaying crops. My wife and I even witnessed a tornado forming and touching down. Such visibility is a powerful experience. It's more than metaphorical - it's a real sense of seeing the long term, the wide scope. Too frequently in our lives we focus on the immediate; we can only see what is right in front of our eyes, and we have no view of what is right around the corner. But on the prairie, everything is in front of your eyes, and you're forced to shift focus; from the immediate to that which stretches across the horizons. Living with that, day by day, helps forge a powerful new way of reflecting on the world.

But for me, there was something even more meaningful about living on the prairie. My friend's father, a Lutheran Minister, hit it on the head with his dissertation, which I was fortunate enough to read back in my days at SJU. If I can recall correctly, he was reflecting on St. John the Baptist's life in the "wilderness", and the Minister analogized life on the prairie (in his case the Great Plains of North Dakota) to life in Biblical wilderness. There are some striking parallels. They're both distant from urban centers. They're unspectacular. The two are largely devoid of "high culture". If you're going to live there, you're going to work to eek out an existence on the land. On first blush, they both appear almost barren, but upon closer reflection actually have a deep and delicate ecosystem, teeming with life. And, possibly most relevant, they both provide ample opportunity for meditation.

Living on the prairie, life was quiet. You have the time and space and silence one needs to be alone with their thoughts. Those are resources which are scarce in city living; Although you can "think" just fine in the city, it's tough to "meditate". Life on the prairie though, makes meditation a whole lot easier. You can avoid it if you want to - there's always some way to occupy your time, some distraction to get lost in. But on the prairie, when the silence strikes you, you're more comfortable with it, and you welcome it in.

This summer my wife and I had to drive 40 minutes to and from work every day. It was quite a long drive, over what isn't widely regarded as the most scenic of terrain (Though I maintain that the prairie often provides a wonderful experience of minimalist beauty). Frequently, when I had to drive, with Laura sleeping in the passenger seat, I would leave the radio off - a behavior you wouldn't find me duplicating too often if I had been in the city. The reason was that I was somehow more accepting of the silence - I treasured it. The opportunity for reflection, for meditation, was so much purer. Through silence I came to know myself better, and I was more prepared for what faced me when I got to work, when I got home, when I got back to the city.

As I'm sure the Minister's dissertation observed, like John the Baptist, Jesus also knew the value of meditation. It strikes me as appropriate to highlight this now, with Lent fast approaching. Before He took up His cross, Jesus entered the wilderness for 40 days. In that time He sacrificed, He prayed, and He meditated. And only when He was ready did he return to the City, and complete His task.

For some - like my friend's father and John the Baptist, the wilderness is home. For me, a summer on the prairie was a glorious retreat before my return to law school. For Jesus, the wilderness provided the silence He needed to prepare for His death on the cross. And I think in that, there's a lesson for us all to learn. Meditation has real value. Too often we get caught up in our daily lives - especially those of us living on the East Coast, embedded deep in city life. So I'd encourage everyone to take some time - to take some silence - to meditate. We do it so rarely. But if you can, take the opportunity - especially this lent - to be alone with your thoughts, and alone with your God.

Hello, darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again


Kajsa said...

Thanks for this, it's nice to think about meditation and quiet spaces. Also, I've been reading about copyright law all week and it just about killed me. I hope all your law school work isn't that dry!

joel. said...

Barely a paragraph into this post, I thought, "Hey, I've got a great piece of writing about this very subject!" Lo and behold, a few paragraphs later, you specifically reference that particular piece of writing. Now I know why you said I'd enjoy this post. I think I'm about due to read Dad's thesis again. I've been through it a handful of times already and it's great to reread on a regular basis.

Anyway, while everything you said resonated with me and a lengthy response would only result in me repeating what you've said, I wanted to comment on one particular item...

Before I installed the CD player in the old Buick, the drive home to (and back from) ND would get very quiet at those points between major cities. Radio stations would lose strength and eventually disappear altogether, leaving me in meditative silence. I found that I enjoyed this silence and eventually started turning off the radio completely for considerable stretches of I94. Contrary to one's instincts, time seemed to go faster—and I KNOW I was being far more mentally active.

While I rarely drive without music now, I've started taking those bounts of silence into other parts of my life. If it wasn't for the Olympics being on right now, the TV would be off and I wouldn't be listening to music, either. The silence is refreshing—just like standing on a small rise on the plains observing nothing in particular for miles and miles in all directions.

Great post, great photo. The plains still feel like home to me and as much as I love Minneapolis, I do miss the "emptiness" of rural America. That connection to the earth never leaves someone who's grown up there, and it's an instinct that even a city boy like yourself can acquire.