“Laura lay in bed and listened to the water talking and the willows whispering. She would rather sleep outdoors, even if she heard wolves, than be so safe in this house dug under the ground.” — On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder
When people ask me why I’m willing, well into middle age, to sleep on the ground and miss showers for days at a time just to spend part of my life in the natural world, I have a hard time offering an answer. Why do other people drive on the highway to get where they’re going? Because that’s what they have to do to get where they need to go. Why do people go to their jobs every day? Because it’s what they do. I don’t know.
Alas, though, all of these answers are circular, winding always back to the real question: Why do I need to be in nature? For a long time all I could think was that it must be something from my childhood. After all, that’s where many of life’s answers reside, in that mysterious, gauzy period when our lives still had the tang of newness. Then I read environmental psychologist Louise Chawla’s work on the ecstatic experiences of childhood, which can wire into our young brains an intimacy with nature that radiates throughout life. After that, I felt that I understood a part of it a little better. Still, lots of people have ecstatic childhood experiences in nature, but don’t feel so compelled to go back that they feel ill at ease when disconnected from it for too long.
There are limits to pure memory as a tool for solving the mysteries of one’s past, and sometimes a reminder is useful. Recently I began re-reading the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s iconic series about her pioneer upbringing. It was an improbable thing to do; I’d consumed the series over and over again as a young girl, but hadn’t read one of them since I was about thirteen. My childhood copies of her books had disappeared sometime in the moves I’d made away from my parents’ homes in my twenties. Since then, I’ve felt a mild confusion for the obsessive adult Little House fanatics I’d seen on the web, determined to re-create the conditions of her life, as closely as possible, even in the twenty-first century.
There were two points of entry to my renewed acquaintance with the Little House series: First, I’m into history, as is my brother. It’s one of the things we have in common that we enjoy talking and reading about. When he went through a Civil War phase last year, he tried making hardtack a few times, and was trying several recipes. I remembered where I’d last seen a recipe for hardtack: The Little House Cookbook, a collection of recipes from the books that Barbara Walker published in 1979. I dug out my copy – which I got when I was about ten – and got sucked back in all over again.
Then it occurred to me that my son hadn’t read the series, so I bought a copy of Farmer Boy, the book about the childhood of Wilder’s husband, Almanzo, and we read it together. From there, I began re-reading the other books on my own, starting with The Long Winter, and from there in no particular order.
As I read them, I found myself feeling, as I so often did as a child, that there were two important differences between Wilder’s world and the one I occupied: First, her world seemed infinitely more authentic than the world today. I don’t mean the halcyon aspects of Wilder’s early family life; in any event, the record shows that she glossed over in her writing, or eliminated altogether, many of the grim hardships she and her family had endured. Rather, it’s that human beings in Wilder’s time were still early in their quest to separate themselves from nature. They still had a deep understanding of their subjection to the natural world – the grasshopper plagues, the seven-month long winters buried in snow, the lives of the animals they needed for their survival. They were not yet committed to the delusion that humans could pave over the world without consequence, not yet burdened by the deceit that food magically appears in a grocery store without a history or origin. In short, they had not yet persuaded themselves that people can – or should – try to sterilize the world for their safety and benefit. They lived on the verge of that movement.
Second, and related, is the sheer vastness of Laura’s world. Laura could lead the family cow to the herd across the prairie on a summer morning, watch the sun rise, wander a bit, pick some violets, and go back home by way of the creek, and see little made by a human hand. The entire world seemed to belong to her. This was in stark contrast to what seemed like the constricted space of my everyday world, broken only by occasional forays along the creek behind the apartment complex we lived in, or walks across farm fields. Those places were rare enough in my childhood, and now they are non-existent in some areas. The non-human world has gotten shockingly thin.
My mind reacts to this in two places. My intellect, while very happy about things like modern medicine and control of my reproductive life, cannot help but conclude that humans have made a dire over-correction, trying to run from nature instead of making peace in our connection with it. My lizard brain, on the other hand, just wants to wander in the wilderness among the loons and the bears and the alligators.
So there we are; and if I have to stop showering or sleep on the ground to do it, then so be it.