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.

Dedicated To My Cousin Charla

On our recent road trip to Cheyenne, we visited Olivet Cemetery to find the graves of my grandparents and my cousin Charla. My grandparents lived interesting lives that spanned from about 1880 to 1960. While at the cemetery, I realized how little I knew about my grandparents lives. Where did they meet? What took them from Nebraska and Kansas to Arkansas where my mother was born? What inspired them to move to Pine Bluffs, WY, then Egbert, then Cheyenne? So many questions I would ask them if I could. 

I knew I was fortunate to live close to them growing up. I could walk or bike the four blocks between our houses and join my grandmother in making doughnuts or noodles. I could go out back with my grandfather to tend the vegetable and flower garden. I could eat extra homemade rolls for dessert at our Sunday dinners. Two of my grandparents died before I was born, but the two I had nearby were a treasure.

Still, it was my cousin Charla’s grave that prompted most of my thoughts that day – and still. Charla was born just three months after I was; she died a mere eleven months later. I have a picture with her in a family album, but she didn’t appear in many pictures. Charla was the daughter of my mom’s sister, and I can imagine their excitement at the prospect of having babies so close together. I wonder how Aunt Clara and Uncle Ken first reacted when they learned that Charla had Down syndrome. 

When Charla was born, in the mid 1940s, it was common for doctors to advise parents of a baby with Down syndrome to not even take their baby home. It’s hard for me to imagine such a thing. Just place your newborn in a state institution and move on? Well, as the lone picture in my album attests, Charla did come home. But she didn’t stay long. According to my mom, the discussions about what to do with Charla ripped fissures in the family that never fully healed. My grandfather was adamantly against placing her in the institution. Others were torn. At some point, my aunt and uncle took Charla to the state “school” for the retarded in Lander, WY, where she died some months later. 

I only learned of this when I was in my 20s, teaching a class of special education kids that included two children with Down syndrome. I was talking with my mom about the kids in my class when she said, “I thought kids with Down syndrome didn’t live long.” Well, I said, some do. It depends on how many health problems they have. If they have major heart defects, or other issues, they might not live long enough to go to school.

“Your cousin Charla had Down syndrome,” she said, then proceeded to talk about how difficult it was for the family to decide whether to keep her at home or place her in the institution. My stories about the completely charming Down’s kids in my class must really have been painful for my mom, but those two kids were, in fact, completely charming. We talked a while about how Down’s kids were faring in the late 1960s, how some did live into adulthood and needed continued support, but not unlike my other kids who’d entered school in special ed and would need support. 

A few years later in my teaching career, a colleague had a baby with Down syndrome. He had major heart defects, and they opted for heart surgery to give him a better chance of thriving. He didn’t survive the surgery, but we were all saddened that he didn’t. By this time, we knew that, with a good heart, a baby with Down syndrome could life a good life.

Over the course of my life, the question of what to do about babies with Down syndrome has often surfaced in discussions about abortion and how much to invest in saving infants with serious health problems. For many years, doctors did not advise procedures such as heart surgery for infants who were clearly not going to be “normal,” and many parents agreed. Today, parents might well opt for maximum care regardless of the limitations their babies might face going forward. I’ll confess, I have mixed feelings about all of this, and I’m glad I haven’t had to face such decisions. 

Prenatal genetic testing and the option of abortion have reduced the numbers of kids with Down syndrome. My feelings on this are less mixed. Again, I’m not the parent who would face the challenges of having a child who might require more parental responsibilities than normal. But not all differences are bad, and the differences of people with Down syndrome are not all onerous. I think here I’m being selfish, though. I wish my cousin Charla had lived. I wish I’d had a cousin my age. I wish my aunt hadn’t grieved every time I visited her (not openly – she was great, and perhaps it was just my grieving knowing that my cousin died so young). 

We have learned, in the years since Charla was born and died, that people with Down syndrome can be happy, contributing members of society. This has been brought home most dramatically for me in the BBC series Call the Midwife, which features Daniel Laurie as the adopted son of shop-owners Violet and Fred Buckle. I love Daniel’s character Reggie, and I love the way he has been incorporated into the series. Daniel, who is not the only actor with Down syndrome, is living proof that a good life is possible for people with limitations that most of us think we couldn’t bear. 

Charla, you were born at the wrong time. I wish you had lived. I really wanted to know you. 

Take a Road Trip!

Want to get out of your Covid funk? See some sights? Prod some memories? Get emotional? Feel inspired? My advice: Take a road trip.

When I was a kid, the family car was mostly used to get to the grocery store, piano lessons, church, etc. So every month or so, my dad would say, “It’s time to get some cobwebs out of the engine.” And we’d take a short road trip. Happy Jack Road was a favorite. Or back to Pine Bluffs, where my mom grew up. Or out to the Veedawoo picnic grounds. Short, but useful for many reasons, but most important, we were all in the same space for a few hours, away from common temptations that sent us in different directions.

My husband and I just returned from two weeks driving from Seattle to Cheyenne and back. I’m exhausted, but really glad we did it. We decided that we are going to visit each of our home towns this summer, and I picked late May to early June as the most likely time to see a tinge of green on the Wyoming praries. We took the route through southern Idaho and Wyoming, which we hadn’t done in decades. It was spectacular. I can’t imagine a better place to be a geologist: everything you want to see is right on the surface. And, best of all, Apple says my screen time was down for the duration of the trip.

Our camping gear went unused except for one night in Oregon when the weather was perfect. Every other day the weather was dicey. We had thunderstorms, days of solid misty rain, and lots of wind. So we were glad we were not explorers who had no options. Because of Covid, we stayed away from sit-down restaurants, opting for drive-throughs or take-out and eating in our rooms. We wore masks indoors, but saw few others doing so. Good news: no one gave us any grief about it. I guess if you’re spending money, you’re not going to get insulted.

I won’t put all of my observations into this one post, but I’ll hit a few highlights today.

One: things looked good for the most part. Of course, the wind did the job of the street cleaners in most of the towns we drove through, but I was surprised at how clean and prosperous things were. Naturally, all the towns had some empty storefronts, but they were holding their own. No ghost towns. I think it helps to be so far from big cities; some services have to be available to people without driving an hour or more. 

Two: The landscape is stunning. I have rather dreary memories of all that open space, but perhaps my recent experience cooped up in Seattle listening to freeway noise and looking out at building after building prepped me for enjoying the vastness of the American West. On our way to Twin Falls, the highway crossed a slim, but deep canyon of a tributary of the Snake River. We turned off and paid $7.00 to wander through a state park with short trails that led us to places where we could look into the cut made by the river. The landscape looked flat and monotonous, yet here was this deep narrow canyon cutting right through it. Surprises like that appeared every day. 

Three: The Snake River is amazing. Headwaters are in Wyoming, south of Jackson and the Tetons, but its route to meet the Columbia on the Washington/Idaho border goes all over the place. I began to comprehend the discussion about the “lower Snake River dams” as we could see that there are also some upper Snake River dams that support the expansive agricultural plains in Idaho. 

We followed the Payette and Salmon rivers north from Boise to get to Grangeville in the middle of Idaho. Again, absolutely stunning scenery. Steep hills, green at this time of year, rushing river due to all the recent rain. The road was so winding that I could do without winding roads for a long time going forward. But awesome.

Four: Agriculture. I’m convinced that we need to find a way to help city folks understand Big Ag. Small, organic farms capture our imagination, and people tend to feel quite proud when they can feed themselves on mostly small, organic ag products. But Big Ag (and Big Organic) feeds most of us, and we need to understand it better. I know people who won’t eat beef because they think cattle spend their entire lives in feed lots. Those folks need to drive around WA, ID, WY, MT. More cows than people scattered all over the landscape, living free. Yes, most go to feedlots before slaughter to pack on the pounds faster. But cattle growing up on the range are making food from land that cannot be used for crops. In any event, cattle are complicated, we need regulations to monitor antibiotic use and other issues that affect our health, but practices are evolving in a good direction, and we should celebrate this.  

There is so much we city folk don’t understand about Ag in general, and Big Ag in particular. I’m sure we could do it better; I’m sure farmers and ranchers don’t always know best and grumble at any and all regulations. But I’m also sure that they love their work, love their rural lives, and wish we trusted them just a bit. More later on all that.

I’ll quit for today. Please share any thoughts you have about “the West!”