There were no mountains in that place, no waterfalls, no rocky gorges, no vistas. It was a country of low hills, cut over woods, scoured fields, villages that had lost their purpose, roads that had lost their way. -Kathleen Norris
My grandpa bought the 160 acres behind my parents’ farmhouse so that when he came in the November he could hunt turkeys and shoot trophy bucks. But most of the year the land sits quiet under snow drifts. Subdued and still.
Much of it consists of thin woods, slender sprouts and silver-barked birch trees. Narrow deer trails wind like tunnels into the brush off the main trails that were cut and carved out years before I walked them, dark round droppings spilled like berries into the dips and tracks left by delicate hooves.
Gray, gritty brush surrounding the miles of open meadow that spreads itself below the crest of the tree line, opening itself so wide you have to turn your head both ways to take in it all. Rolling in a waving sea of gray-brown prairie grass poking like stubble through the white, the shallow frozen creek cutting through the bottom of the open field, a grove of pines blocking the northwest wind that burrows under coats and into your skin, sharpens the inside of your nose.
It’s a threatening beauty that impresses through intimidation. The starkness of it is enough to knock you back, its sheer endlessness enough to shrink you into humble awe.
I’ve always considered the land best witnessed on horseback, the smell of leather and animal sweat and alfalfa under your seat. I’ve been riding the same horse since I was nine, and when I was home in January, after months of being away at school, I heaved the worn saddle onto his warm black body, thick with staticy fuzz he’d been growing all winter. He is stomping the frozen, hollow-sounding ground and bobbing his high head, eager to be out, to have a purpose again.
When we are on the end of the trail and the meadow is framed between the two oaks that mark its beginning, my right hand is holding the reins under the curl of my fingers, the other is on the horse’s taught neck, his ears spring-coiled forward, twitching at every rustle of wood, every bird and gust of wind. Paused, but charged with the air that tastes deeper and fuller in the bottom of my chest. He can taste it too, and when I lean into him, my hand giving him the full length of his head, he bolts forward in voiceless, touchless obedience, pure willingness; the power in his legs pounding with a terrifying force, striding longer and faster until tears whip the outside corners of my eyes.
I don’t bother faking control, the thought of such only makes me want to cling on for dear life, knowing an animal this wild can’t be held back any more than the wind or the movement in the trees. So I move my body with his, raw energy pulsing into me until control’s no longer the point. We are the ground and we are the air and we are the gruesome aliveness that just simply is. And while the familiar, hear-racing fear spills into me and grips like the abruptness of stepping into January air, it is this that reminds me of how shockingly good and costly it is to feel.