Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Theology Thursday #9: The Gift of Perspective

The Rocky Mountains cast a long shadow.

It's a special kind of shadow. It's a rain shadow.

Because of the effect of North America's generally west-to-east prevailing winds and the tremendous capacity of the Rockies to precipitate moisture, a wide, dry swath is cast from approximately Billings, Montana to Alexandria, Minnesota in the north. In the nation's midsection, it's not as wide. There, the mountains cast a shadow from about Denver, Colorado to Topeka, Kansas.

The lack of moisture - some parts of eastern Montana only receive twelve inches of precipitation per year - prevented trees from taking root. Because of the lack of trees and the region's proclivity to suddenly catch fire and spread for miles, we have what we know as the Great Plains.

One gift of the Great Plains is the prairie. Diverse grasses and a multitude of forbs thrive in the semi-arid environment.

The other gift is far sight. A person can see the horizon on the prairie.

When I lived in North Dakota, one of my friends would often tell me that he hated visiting the mountains or a woodsy state like Wisconsin or Eastern Minnesota. He said to me that it bothered him that he couldn't see the horizon. "You can't see the weather that's coming," he remarked. I can see his point; it's nice to see what's coming.

Although I hated the wind in the Dakotas (it sucks the life out of you, literally) I loved how far you could see. There's a reason why they call Montana "Big Sky Country." The gift of the prairie is that you can see where you came from and where you are going. In fact, early settlers noticed this. They would tell stories - no doubt these weren't exaggerations - where a family in an oxcart would put out a campfire in the morning, travel all day, and then when they would retire for the evening, they would see their own fading campfire smoke on the horizon where they had camped the prior evening.

The size of the shortgrass prairie is daunting. On our family's land we used to own near Killdeer, North Dakota, I would walk through the restored native prairie and feel so small. It was a good thing, because I often get so wrapped up in the everyday worries and stresses and forget the truth that I am not the center of the universe.

Far sight is the gift of the Great Plains. It is a gift that I hope to take with me in my new life in urban Minnesota. As a believer in a larger purpose of life through what we metaphorically call "God", I believe that far sight - wisdom, sagacity, erudition - is something towards which I do not naturally gravitate. In fact, I think it's a rare person who naturally has far sight. This is especially true in a person's youth - my father tells me he was once as wild as I am, but he has better perspective in his years. However, as a believer, there is a source of far sight beyond the horizon of our own understanding.

What is this source?

I think it has something to do with the collective wisdom and history of a faith community. The natural source of this for Christian communities is in scripture. I write this with some hesitation, however, because the usual tendency for short-sighted people is to take scripture's witness out of the context in which it was written. That is to say...times do change, so I realize that scripture isn't the whole of far sight.

Another source is found in the silent meditation and compassion of the soul. I have never been so entranced with the prairie as on a July summer evening when the wind, finally, is silent. It doesn't happen very often. When it does, it is amazing. Finding time and space for silent reflection is one key to finding perspective in our everyday troubles, in our petty worries.

The point is, we have the land to teach us how to live. Wisdom, I find as I grow older, is found in many places. Far sight exists, because there is land where the horizon is free. I hope that place remains, because it has something to teach us.

O the gifts we have to learn from the prairie!


Carol said...

I will always love the prairie and all that it meant to us--diversity, joy of the earth, simplicity but complexity. I do love the city, but part of the prairie will always be inherent within me...

Kari said...

I just got back from visiting my aunt who turned 95 last week. She lives in western ND, in Richardton now. My Mom grew up in Marshall, ND--which is about 17 miles north of Richardton and had 8 inhabitants at the height of it's population :) Since childhood, I've visited there often. Even though I've never lived there, when I see the rolling hills and grassy buttes, it feels like I'm headed home. On the other hand, driving around the backroads of the area headed to rig sites I felt overwhelmed by the vastness and lack of human presence--I'm a Minnesotan after all. A long time ago, I read about a distinction between prairie people, forest people, and mountain people. I am a prairie person (the density of the trees in northern MN and the streets of an Italian mountain city taught me that), but one who needs a few trees and some people, too. I fear for the prairie in the wake of the oil boom.