Our Turn at this Earth: The Beauty of Dry Places

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“Our Turn at this Earth” airs every Thursday at 6:44 pm CT on KANZ (High Plains Public Radio).



As Plains farmers, my parents had to stay focused on very practical concerns. Our livelihood depended on carefully preparing the soil, then planting, nurturing and harvesting crops. But the impractical whims of the sky often interfered with my parents’ practical efforts. My ancestors had chosen a marginal and often ruthless climate in which to ply their weather-dependent trade.

I spent many summer evenings standing on the balcony of our big old farmhouse with my father, scanning the western sky for signs of advancing rain. I loved rain as much as he did—because of the spring it put in his step, and because of the life it never failed to awaken in my mother’s flower garden. But even as I inhaled the delicious scent of wet earth after a summer rain, I also gloried in the return of sunlight to the treeless and often cloudless expanse that surrounded our farmstead.

This was the paradox of farming in a semi-arid region. We almost always wanted and needed more rain, but the place’s beauty depended on receiving not too much of it. More rain, and trees would have obscured the circular horizon, putting us ill at ease, for a plainsperson who cannot see far is never content. More rain, and the grass would not have been pale green, emanating serenity, but too vivid for eyes trained on pastels.

I discovered to my dismay after leaving Kansas as a young woman that skies in moister climates lack the ethereal, pale blue transparency that so perfectly complemented the buffalo grass prairies of my youth. While I found San Francisco and the seashores to the north and south of it beautiful, the weeklong winter storms seemed to me to last forty days and forty nights. Only when I began venturing into the California deserts did my plains-bred sensibilities reawaken.

Jagged Mojave Desert mountains were not grassy plains, but they surrounded valleys as broad as the Kansas county where I was raised. As I explored the mountains’ cactus-strewn crags, I recalled the Arickaree Breaks, the wild lands that had begun just a few miles north of our farm in the northwest corner of Kansas where I grew up. Once again I could follow the flights of kestrels and red-tail hawks above the curves of sandy creek beds.

And once again I smelled the magic that rain brought to dry earth, this time mixed with the intoxicating scent of damp sage. Best of all, from the impractical point of view of this farmer’s daughter, the place was too dry to be farmed. For this reason, the variegated plant life remained intact. I could see for miles again, but over land bearing few if any scars.

Standing on Mojave Desert mountainsides above vast plains, I felt as if I were looking out from the center of my true self. Sometimes we must leave home to find ourselves. In my case, I discovered that the self I’d been in search of all those years had been created by the place I left.

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