It’s been late in coming, but 2016 is finally giving us a real, honest-to-goodness cold snap, even if it’s already the middle of February and it’s only going to last for three days. I look out the window at the sunshine glistening off the pristine snow and marvel at its beauty. When I go outside and breathe in the cold and seriously crisp air, I feel invigorated. There is drama in living in the cold. I love it.
Of course, I also love spring, summer, and fall. I couldn’t imagine living where I couldn’t experience all 4 seasons. Needless to say, that’s largely because that’s what I’m used to. That’s my world.
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel all over the world. I know from personal experience that there are landscapes of remarkable beauty, grandeur, and indeed awe to be found everywhere, and also of enormous diversity. I love visiting, admiring, and absorbing what is compelling about different landscapes. But these other landscapes are not my world.
Without thinking about it too much – or at all – the landscape in which we grow up plays a role in defining who we are, just as do language and culture, your friends and family, and your personal experiences. Landscape is part of what gives us our identity. It helps define our sense of place.
I happen to have always lived in places of similar landscapes: New England, Eastern Canada, and England. New England comes by its name honestly (as does Nova Scotia, or New Scotland). Four seasons. When it’s not winter it’s green, not brown. Its mountains for the most part would be considered hills by people who live in truly mountainous parts of the world; they’re very old and more worn down, hence lower and more rounded than the majestic Rockies, Alps, and Andes (not to mention the Himalayas). These are gentle landscapes. Verdant landscapes. Dotted with lakes, rivers, and coastlines. And unless you are on a hilltop or at the edge of a large body of water, your vista is likely to be impeded by hills, stands of trees, and meandering roads.
It hit me when we were driving across the Prairies of Canada some years ago how different it would have been to have grown up in open spaces. Driving across the Prairies, or the corn fields and wheat fields – and deserts – of the U.S., the roads run straight and they run forever. One drives along under huge skies, through endless fields of grain. Flat fields of grain. The scale of the farming is an order of magnitude greater than farming in the east, maybe several orders of magnitude! Individual farm houses are separated from each other by miles and miles. The first time I drove through the Prairies, I remember thinking that I now knew where the expression “The Big Sky” came from. You just can’t see that much sky in the east; it’s impossible. And then I thought about the sense of disconnect I’d always read about between western Canada and the east – meaning Ottawa (aka the federal government) and Toronto (aka the center of big business). It dawned on me for the first time that, regardless of whether the interests of westerners really were well represented or not, the disconnect just by the influence of landscape would be huge. How could people who were raised and live under the huge Prairie sky, worrying about issues that are in large measure landscape related, believe that easterners (i.e., the federal government) understand their needs.
The role of landscape in defining who we are particularly hit me after visiting Pond Inlet in northern Baffin Island this past summer. I have been trying to put my thoughts down on paper about Inuit issues since that visit, but the complexity of their issues continue to challenge me. However, there is no doubt in my mind that, as brutally challenging as their traditional life as hunters on the ice and tundra was, their landscape has played a defining role in every aspect of their culture and spirituality over the millennia. It would be impossible to imagine someone who was raised in the Canadian Arctic, regardless of privation, not missing the cold, the frozen sea, and the mesmerizing open vistas. It is their world and it is a large part of who they are.
The first time I was ever given pause to consider landscape as part of identity was when I read a book my cousin Ellie insisted I had to read. In fact, she took me to the bookstore when I was visiting and bought it for me. It was The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway. Jill Ker Conway is a remarkable woman who was brought up on a sheep farming station in the outback of Australia (the epitome of remoteness) and, after many twists and turns that are well worth reading, ended up as Smith College’s first woman president.
When Jill Ker Conway made her way from Australia to England for the first time, her reaction to the English countryside made me sit up and take notice. As someone whose first landscape was one of vastness and dryness, and also as someone whose British-based education in Australia extolled British literature and the English countryside as the standard against which all else is measured, her reaction was not positive. She found the English countryside, contrary to what she had been taught, to be small and confining; she realized that the vastness of the Australian had its own beauty that was every bit as worthy. And it had played an important part in forming who she was. The reason this epiphany of Jill Ker Conway took me by surprise was because, of course, the English countryside is not very different from what I’ve always known. It took a drive across the Prairies for me to have my own eureka moment.
Morale of the story: For those of you who are currently experiencing this rare 2016 cold snap, embrace it. It’s part of your identity!