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Soliloquy For The Fall: Nature Is A Place Where Non-conformists Can Find Themselves

Susan Marsh riffs eloquently on connection to place, loss of place and what's worth saving.

Autumn in the Tetons.  Photo by Susan Marsh
Autumn in the Tetons. Photo by Susan Marsh
Autumnal Equinox
, the intersection in which the season of light bends toward the season of darkness. Though a specific moment in time, we’ve felt it coming for weeks in the Yellowstone region. I find it endearing how poets who live in warmer climates treat this singular event, as though it came as a surprise. Here’s Phillip Larkin: Autumn has caught us in our summer wear. I put my summer wear away before the end of August. Here’s another sweet poem-ette, 

Fall Weather: It is the summer’s great last heat,
 It is the fall’s first chill: They meet. 
–Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt 

The natural world intersects in ways more graceful than what I see in the built environment. 

Seasons pass the baton of time one to the next and rivers unite and flow together, the two becoming one. City streets and wooden boards are joined only where they meet. They never become other than what they were before. True encounters with the authentic wild world, the kind that change me, are the ones I seek this time of year: the weeks when summer turns to autumn, when heavy dew on drying grass turns to brittle frost. The summer-green of aspen fades before igniting into gold and red and amber. The sky fills with the calls of migrating geese and cranes. 

Staying indoors is not an option. Except when it’s a necessity. 

We work in restaurants, shops and offices, sit in schoolrooms and glance wistfully out windows with an ache that wells up from a time so long ago we can hardly name its source. But we’re busy, with much on our minds, and many of us barely intersect with the seasonal rhythms of our home place, skipping along the surface of the water instead of sinking in. 

With people, places, and the wondrous world in which we live, I want to slow down enough to join them. But because of a habitually harried way of being, I hesitate to melt into the moment, as if I don’t remember how. Laying my ego aside like a pile of thrown-off clothing, I try to merge with the world’s living river but I carry too much sediment, slow and sluggish and confined to my narrow banks. The mother stream pulls me along while I drag the bottom. I worry that if I enter the flow I will dissolve, my singular identity washed away. What is this need to stand apart? 

Depending on the circumstance, I can feel both pride and shame in being “different.” Pride is the product of a culture in which individual distinction is rewarded. Shame comes from memories of trying to fit in and often missing the mark. Digging deeper, I find an absence of family-to-place bonding, another aspect of our independent culture. As a trailing member of the baby boom, I’m a product of the age of mobility. The interstate highway system was being built as I was growing up, but its promise of efficiency meant that it would bypass small towns where connections still existed, the pace of life humane, and the store clerk smiled at regulars and strangers alike.

 ° ° ° ° 

I was a solitary child who played in the woods with imaginary friends and make-believe forms of wildlife (regal deer of the Bambi’s-dad sort). 

Real wildlife included robins, banana slugs, and insects that may or may not bite. Beyond playing, I learned. I knew which kind of willow from which to make a strong, straight arrow and when to look for the first spring blossoms of wild plum and currant. I gathered blackberries for pies and the inedible fruits of Pacific madrone and dogwood for winter decorations. Faint trails into the underbrush led to secret hideouts, where I could scrape away for hours with a stick and watch the termites work an ancient stump. Those woods are long gone but my heart remains connected to them and always will be.

A few years later, I was a restive adolescent who sought to distinguish myself during a time when being cool meant being different. My friends couldn’t wait to walk the new shopping mall or try the new coffee house, but I didn’t want to fit in with that scene. What I most wanted to shun were the changes in my home town of a few thousand nestled between forest and beach. 
Seattle overlooking the south end of Lake Washington and Cascades in distance. Susan Marsh's essays in MoJo always invite us to ponder bigger, more important questions about place. Here's one: In Greater Yellowstone's two largest booming areas—Jackson/Teton counties (Wyoming and Idaho) and Bozeman/Gallatin County, planners and local land developers often blindly reference Seattle and Portland and often with the lament, "if only we could be like them?" They do so, without reflecting on what  those metro areas have given up, lost or had destroyed by growth in terms of their interface with nature. Back in Greater Yellowstone, especially around Bozeman/Gallatin County, there is no unified plan or vision being led by elected officials to protect surrounding wildlands and habitat from the effects of sprawl. This, as the negative aesthetic impacts and financial costs of growth continue to escalate and the latter burden is being placed on taxpayers. If you emulate Seattle and Portland, and do not craft a vision that reflects your own values, does that mean you are then fated to resemble those places? Moreover, if you are a newcomer fleeing such metro areas, then why would you support similar approaches to growth? Photo courtesy coetzee/ Wikimedia Commons
Seattle overlooking the south end of Lake Washington and Cascades in distance. Susan Marsh's essays in MoJo always invite us to ponder bigger, more important questions about place. Here's one: In Greater Yellowstone's two largest booming areas—Jackson/Teton counties (Wyoming and Idaho) and Bozeman/Gallatin County, planners and local land developers often blindly reference Seattle and Portland and often with the lament, "if only we could be like them?" They do so, without reflecting on what those metro areas have given up, lost or had destroyed by growth in terms of their interface with nature. Back in Greater Yellowstone, especially around Bozeman/Gallatin County, there is no unified plan or vision being led by elected officials to protect surrounding wildlands and habitat from the effects of sprawl. This, as the negative aesthetic impacts and financial costs of growth continue to escalate and the latter burden is being placed on taxpayers. If you emulate Seattle and Portland, and do not craft a vision that reflects your own values, does that mean you are then fated to resemble those places? Moreover, if you are a newcomer fleeing such metro areas, then why would you support similar approaches to growth? Photo courtesy coetzee/ Wikimedia Commons
Between fifth grade and high school it had transformed into a cookie-cutter suburb full of paved intersections and increasingly fewer woodlots. Lacking trails or even sidewalks, it was a place designed for automobiles. I was driven to the edge of insanity while sitting in my parents’ yard with my guitar trying to learn a new song off the radio when the noise from SeaTac airport drowned me out. The relatively quiet prop planes with smiling upswept wings yielded to jets whose wing-set looked like a frown. The place I knew and loved was going away. 

My parents escaped their birthplaces, or I should say my father did. Mother went along because she had to, but she longed for her siblings, cousins and aunts, and when she visited them she knelt at the threshold of the old family farmhouse to kiss its weathered wooden floor. 

On my rare visits, all I saw were cornfields, flat ground, and no place to play. I longed for the mountains and beaches of home, but I wasn’t without connection in Ohio. I loved my great-aunt who named a shoat after her favorite baseball player and cackled with delight at her own jokes. I learned about snobbishness from her sister who lived in a fancy house in town and never failed to mention her membership in the DAR. When my mother died she asked that her ashes be buried “in the family plot down home.” I knew exactly where she meant. This is part of my sludge—I have no family plot and nowhere is “down home.” Instead of being raised on a farm that had been in the family 1803, I was a Pacific Northwest girl, my beloved home completely unknown to my ancestors.
Monument Ridge sits high above Bondurant, Wyoming in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and not a hint of sprawl in sight.  Keeping it that way means protecting ranch lands from turning into exurban ranchettes. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
Monument Ridge sits high above Bondurant, Wyoming in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and not a hint of sprawl in sight. Keeping it that way means protecting ranch lands from turning into exurban ranchettes. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
My father’s forebears might have related to my yearning for home. I knew my cousins in Butte, Montana, but by the time I was old enough to wonder about the rest of his family most of them were gone. He told me once his parents were born in the U.S. but the way he said it made me wonder about their parents. It would have been around the time of the Irish famine in the mid-nineteenth century, so maybe they were refugees. Sometimes I feel like one. The Pacific Northwest that I grew up loving is gone. There is no proximity, much less an intersection, between my life and what my home place has become, only a few tenuous threads of communication with old friends, the ones that stayed to listen to the airplanes, brave the clogged freeways, and watch the last of the old-growth forests, salmon streams and agricultural lands disappear. 

I haven’t been there since spending a week in 2006 to handle my mother’s estate. Not expecting the degree of sprawl that had taken over since my last visit, I sobbed all the way in from North Bend, once a one-donut-shop town at the foothills of the Cascades, now a suburb of Seattle from which most residents commuted to work in the big city. I thought I was going to die trying to merge onto the jam-packed freeway in an intense rainstorm, and worried about rolling backward into Puget Sound as I tried to extricate myself from my parking spot on the steepest hill in the city. The comfort I once felt in the place I grew up had turned to sheer terror. 
The Pacific Northwest that I grew up loving is gone. Not expecting the degree of sprawl that had taken over since my last visit, I sobbed all the way in from North Bend, once a one-donut-shop town at the foothills of the Cascades, now a suburb of Seattle from which most residents commuted to work in the big city. 
Until she became too old to travel, my mother went to Ohio to visit, where she would find the same old farmhouse with its double row of black walnut trees lining the entrance drive, the same foot-worn planks of the enclosed porch that she always knelt to kiss. Even after the hogs, kitchen garden and draft horses were gone it looked pretty much the same, and so did the countryside around it.

 ° ° ° °

It’s hard to count the number of stories I’ve heard from people who grew up in the East, West Coast or Midwest and who found home in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I have lived here for most of my life, but it will never replace a five-acre woodlot as the heart’s deep habitat. I’m as bonded to the locale of my first-of-autumn ritual, wandering through the aspens on a ridge near Bondurant, Wyoming, as to anyplace I can think of. I’ve spent more time there in all seasons than most places I’ve ever been. But—is it home
An aspen stand, whose shoots stem from the same source, represents one of the largest organisms in the world. This group of trees growing on wild public lands, and offering shade for creates from elk to grizzly bears, connotes a different feel from one in a big city. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
An aspen stand, whose shoots stem from the same source, represents one of the largest organisms in the world. This group of trees growing on wild public lands, and offering shade for creates from elk to grizzly bears, connotes a different feel from one in a big city. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
Can I pretend it is? In Jackson Hole I take comfort in my placement within the Columbia River watershed, the northwestern quarter of the Lower Forty-eight a sort of home range. Since leaving Washington, I’ve lived in Utah, Oregon and Montana before moving to Wyoming, so why not? 

I’ve been, in our mobile society, selectively mobile, choosing each place for its proximity to wild mountains. In each of my temporary habitats I’ve gotten to know the land, weather, birds and plants. I dug deeply into their dirt even as I knew I would someday move on. I like to think I’ve done more than simply intersect with places I remember with great fondness. Yet when I think of my mother’s family who occupied the same farm since Thomas Jefferson gave it to them, I have a glimmer of understanding of how it must have been for her, isolated from home for most of her adult life. 

How much more do native people, the ones who haven’t been forcibly displaced to a distant reservation, connect to their home ground? They are part of it in a way I can only imagine, and they don’t limit their connection to a single farm on which only the human dwellers matter. 
 How much more do native people, the ones who haven’t been forcibly displaced to a distant reservation, connect to their home ground? They are part of it in a way I can only imagine, and they don’t limit their connection to a single farm on which only the human dwellers matter. 
In Emily Benedek’s heartbreaking account of the so-called “Joint Use Area” in Arizona, she tells the story of how the ever-insightful U.S. Congress passed a law [Public Law 93-531, the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act of 1974] dividing two million acres between the Navajo and Hopi. Anyone living on the wrong side of the line had to move, and one Hopi woman who was facing eviction lamented, “The wind won’t know me.” Her sorrow encapsulates the difference between her life and mine.

I may come to know the wind in places I love, but the wind will never know me. But I do my best to know that wind, to love those mountains, and dwell deeply within their shelter. We may only intersect briefly with places and people before hurrying off on our busy way but in spite of our mobile/consumer culture we still seek to join. The encounters of a lifetime, whether brief or sustained, are more than a simple intersection. 

There is always a mixing like that of a river, inviting us to open our hearts and linger. Wherever we are on planet earth we are part of everything else, whether it feels that way or not. No different than any other element of creation, we are able to be both distinctive and humbly joined as part of a greater whole. When we realize that truth, we can’t help wanting to stay, deepen, and give back.
Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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