The Psychology of Open Space

What comes to your mind in response to “the psychology of open space?” I tried a web search on that phrase recently and got suggestions for everything I didn’t want: home interiors; office arrangements; urban planning; outer space. When I initially put the words together, I was visualizing the American West, large expanses of land with few structures and fewer people. 

Open space has been on my mind since our recent road trip from Seattle to Cheyenne and back. We traveled through southern Idaho and Wyoming, opting for side roads when feasible. I was dumbstruck by the relief my mind experienced once we were east of the Cascades. Of course, it’s always a relief to get away from the demands of life that pile up at home. But I was surprised at the visceral relief I felt once we left behind the crowded vegetation of western Washington and could actually see the the form of the land. I felt as if I’d been let out of jail. 

Jail? People love western Washington. How could I equate it to jail? I’m sure the pandemic has impacted my psyche along with other constraints of my life. But there is, for me, an experience of freedom when I can see beyond the nearest cluster of trees. Those of you who’ve read of my joy in getting out of the city and around trees, might wonder why I’m down on trees. Yes, it might seem like a contradiction, but it’s one thing to get away from the city, and another thing still to get beyond the trees. And this leads me to the question of what exactly is the psychology of open space.

If open space of the kind I’m discussing has such an impact on me, I wonder if it also part of the politics that dominate the west. I find some aspects of conservative politics understandable, but others, not so much. For example, in rural farming and ranching country, I get why people think governments are mostly intrusive and unhelpful. Yes, roads and bridges can be useful, but laws that limit what a person can do on her own land can only seem irritating (at best) or counter-productive (at worst). Most of these laws are the gift of coastal elites who live in areas where people live cheek by jowl and have a completely different sense of the urgent problems of the day. 

The closest urban dwellers come to understanding rural thinking might be the experiences of small business owners. As the gig economy has ramped up, more people have the experience of the nanny state imposing requirements that seem only to complicate life without necessarily solving anything. But it’s actual business owners who pay rent and have employees who have a real feel for government overreach. Even couples who own a small amount of rental property quickly learn that deep blue cities might lump them in with evil landlords who control massive amounts of residential or commercial real estate and regulate them all into the red.

We spent ten post-retirement years in a rural area (28 miles west to the first traffic light, 100 miles east to the first stop sign). I never quite lost my city sensibilities, but some friends did. The most obvious issue was rural wells. I’d never regarded the rain that fell on my house or the water under my house as MINE! But our new rural friends did, to my surprise. We each had un-metered wells, but when water wars erupted, neighbors were adamant that the county could jolly well keep away from our wells. No meters! But the upside of rural living was that any natural disaster (floods and landslides in our area) were an occasion to set aside feuds and pull together to get to the other side of the disaster, then return to the feuds. And I have to admit that I, who had always regarded government as accessible and something I could work with, began to see it as distant and irritating. 

So. I get part of rural politics. Still, there’s a lot that is confusing to me, and it’s the more personal part. Conservative, rural stances against abortion seem completely contradictory to objections to public health mandates. If you oppose a vaccine mandate on the basis of bodily autonomy, how could you favor forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy? Why doesn’t the woman who surrounds the “innocent life” factor into the equation? 

This seems like a throwback to the notion of original sin, i.e. just by being born, you are now sinful, whereas a minute ago you were innocent. This is one of the bits of Christian dogma that was easy for me to discard. I posit that our systems of justice and healthcare need to assume innocent until proven guilty. 

Meanwhile, I wonder why people can’t equate a public health emergency to a natural disaster. Let’s set aside our differences temporarily and do what we need to do to help each other get through this weird time. Of course we will need to look back at the evidence we gather and ask if we did the right things to address the pandemic, but can’t we just cooperate for a while? 

Beyond vaccines and abortions, I do get part of the loyalty to Trump. (Throw those rotten tomatoes at me! I’m ready!) I don’t agree with that loyalty, but I get it to a degree. If you are working your heart out to raise food for 128 distant people,* half of whom are not doing anything productive; if you are out in the sun and the wind and the rain and the snow planting and harvesting and tending the cattle and the sheep; if you are mostly irritated with government (except for the subsidies), I can see how Trump’s rants against the elites could appeal to you. If you think cattle rustlers and shoplifters should both be held accountable, I can see why chants of “Defund the Police” seem crazy. 

But revolution, or just tearing down the government with no end in mind, doesn’t have much appeal to me. I want a stable government I can tinker with; I think this could appeal to rural residents, too, if they thought about it for a minute. Revolutions bring chaos; massive disruption of markets; subsidies gone; no help for natural disasters; funds for infrastructure gone (could Wyoming’s 580,000 people pay for their thousands of miles of roads by themselves?) We all benefit from a functioning government. Toward that end, could we please just listen to each other for a while without shouting down the first comment we don’t agree with? Please?

*Each American farmer feeds 129 people. https://www.mcall.com/news/mc-xpm-1995-06-07-3031814-story.html

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