If California had Muir, and southern Utah had Abbey, and New England had Thoreau, it’s fitting that Indiana has me, a dilettante blogger. Similarly, the landscapes of my home state can’t compete with the Sierra Nevada or the gritty wildness of the desert Southwest. That’s why I’ve spent so much time going away, looking elsewhere for the natural world, for wilderness, for experiences. I’m not sorry to have done that (and still do it). If I hadn’t come to nature in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula or the gator swamps of south Florida, I never would have had my tuning dial set to notice Indiana’s more subtle wild spaces. I’m no Leslie Knope, devoted to her birthplace in the fictional Pawnee, Indiana, utterly convinced there is no better place in the world. Unlike the Deputy Director of Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department, I left home the day after I graduated from college, and didn’t come back for five years. When I did, I stayed another six and then left again for four more.
When I came back again, it was all but involuntary. Divorce had propelled me back to my hometown after several years in Oregon and the Idaho/Montana area. I felt like an exile cast out from the west and its bears and elk and mountains so big they had their own climates, and lost in a vast plain of strip malls and cornfields. I was stuck, hemmed in by circumstance. This was a rough pill for someone who had sworn she would never cross the Mississippi River with her worldly goods again.
But I’m a photographer, so I started looking around. I began to notice the rhythms of the place as it revealed itself to me. I didn’t just grow up here, I grew into myself here after an adulthood hopping around the country. Every soul leap forward since then has been reflected in the seasonal shifts of a place whose natural sense I had written off entirely.
My time in Indiana, even when I was a child, has been punctuated by the urge to get out and see things I can’t see here, smell things I can’t smell here, and feel things I can’t feel here. When I wanted to smell the pungent odor of pine or feel warm air on my skin in winter, I simply left. I’ve never had to stay here for a long time without getting away to another of my homes.
That’s changed this year, forcing me to sit with my surroundings. And perhaps predictably, I’m beginning to see them. Wilderness in Indiana does not exist on a vast scale, but a tiny one. A set of extension tubes or a macro lens on a camera can take you straight into the Indiana wilderness. Mushrooms, butterflies, and insects live there, but no bears, cougars or wolves.
If I am going to be here, then I want to be here in the way I know how to be somewhere, absorbing the nature of it, and in the case of my home state, being forced to open my eyes to the beauty and subtleties I’d long since passed over for wilder spaces.
John Muir stopped in Indianapolis for a period of time before moving on to California. He worked at the harness factory downtown, and one day he was blinded by a tool he was using. He spent the rest of his time here quivering in fear that his injury would rob him of his sight permanently. It didn’t. And when he regained his sight, he got up and walked to Florida.
It seems wry to note that those with their dials tuned into the natural world tend to lose their sight here, and regain it only for other places. My eyes may have been opened by other places, but they are open. And for the time being, they are here.