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Background Image woman standing in tall grass prairie

Big Idea: It's Time to Reconnect with the Earth

by Leslie VonHolten, writer and executive director of Symphony in the Flint Hills. 

When my heart is heavy, I go to the river. The water pulls my eyes, and then my mind, into its motion, and I feel a stillness take over. Nature reminds me of my place in the scheme of things, which then helps my perspective. If I am a small part of this immense world, then my problems are also small. 

When my soul aches, I also go to literature. I believe in the power of naming your demons, and in order to wrestle your woes, you must first identify them. Poets and writers give me the language I need. They also show me that there is no problem new to this world. 

So last month when a friend was quarantined on an Air Force base in California, and then schools closed and jobs were lost, and we knew a pandemic was upon us, I went to the river. My daughter’s high school graduation was canceled, and I grieved. She had fought hard to be at this place in her life. 

It was Jim Harrison’s poem, “The Theory & Practice of Rivers,” that gave me comfort. A short epic written in grief, Harrison meanders through both tender and hard feelings alike. Just like a river. This stanza was what I needed:

“It is not so much that I got
there from here, which is everyone’s 
story: but the shape
of the voyage, how it pushed 
outward in every direction
until it stopped:
roots of plants and trees,
certain coral heads,
photos of splintered lightning,
blood vessels,
the shapes of creeks and rivers.”

I would never call this a beautiful poem. It flows heavy, and at times mean. But it comforts me because of its scope. Rivers flow, shapes form. The earth moves. My daughter is healthy. We count our blessings. Life goes on.

In the humanities we often lean on history for our roadmap forward. Our ancestors’ struggles put ours into perspective, and their strength and endurance echoes within us. Naturalists also do this, looking toward deep time to see our connection to an encompassing earth. In Horizons, Barry Lopez defends the fight to preserve indigenous languages, not because it’s a good academic exercise, but because language carries with it an ecology and geography specific to a place, the land or sea around it.

Interconnectedness. That is the driving force in most nature writing, and now more than ever I see it today. By staying at home, self-quarantining, and risking our jobs and our lives—or the opposite, working the front lines—for the common good, we are demonstrating a conscious interconnectedness. 

Interconnectedness. That is the driving force in most nature writing, and now more than ever I see it today.

Fortunately, nature writers have done the trail building for us. In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams braided the stories of women and cancer in her family with bird migrations at the Great Salt Lake. N. Scott Momaday’s poems guide us beyond the gravity that plants our feet to the earth to consider our ancestors and heritage. Ornithologist L. Drew Lanham writes so we may see ourselves “magnified in nature.” Wendell Berry has been beating this drum for years—place, food, nature, community, responsibility, joy. 

Today, joy can feel hard to muster. But the one thing we can do, most of us, is find a square of outside nature and consider the interconnectedness we are all demonstrating with our bodies during this pandemic. The river flows, birds fly, beavers build. Your fears and anxieties are real, and they have their place. With literature as your guide, let the earth help carry your burden.

About Leslie VonHolten

Leslie VonHolten is a writer and executive director of Symphony in the Flint Hills, a nonprofit that works to heighten appreciation and knowledge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie.

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Outdoorsy nature-lovers are traditionally portrayed as a monoculture (white, thin, straight). Fortunately, there is an online movement to open outdoor experiences for all people. My favorite Instagram feeds:

  • Diversity In Adventure (@diversityinadventure) is based in Utah and works to unite people of all identities via the outdoors.
  • Unlikely Hikers (@unlikelyhikers) brings “Diversity + Representation + Community + Body Liberation” to the outdoors. 

These views do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities Kansas, its board of directors, or staff. 



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