Facing Main

Why Do We Love the Landscapes We Love?

What is it about these natural features that make us feel utterly at home?

By Maggie Doherty

A big part of me wants to love the desert, but after a few days in the unrelenting sun, brittle air and rocky terrain, I think: This place wants to kill me. Second thought: Where are the trees?

I’m at home on the water, my husband is not. Freshwater seas, churning rivers, and those tannin-rich streams of the Midwest soothe my spirit. I love the ocean, even though I’m less familiar with tides and surf, but the crest and crash of waves is a sight for my snow-blind eyes come March and we escape to the coast. Cole is happiest in the mountains, weather uncertain, snowpack growing.

Give me a forest – any kind (although I haven’t spent much time in a jungle so I can’t confidently make this unilateral decision) and I lean against a stout trunk and think that the world will be just fine if more of us did what the writer Jim Harrison prescribed as “log sitting.” While my spouse and I differ about the merits of water, although I’ve somewhat successfully converted him to river rafting, as two former Midwesterners, our hearts swoon when we wander through those vast and tangled deciduous forests of our youth.

And there’s this valley, which holds natural treasures beyond compare, that captured our imaginations. We both fell in love with Glacier years before our paths crossed skiing in Whitefish.

There are desert dwellers, lovers of the wide-open prairies, and denizens of wetlands who feel alien in the mountains that I adore. I’m curious why we love the landscapes we love? What is it about these natural features that make us feel utterly at home, or, conversely so alien that we just want to run home to where the sun shines a bit less intensely? Some of us are born to landscapes we’ll never leave, like one of my uncles who claims he’ll never ever leave the Midwest or live below the 45th parallel. Others leave behind their birth environments, carving out a new life in a new place where canyons are the siren call.

When I travel, I imagine myself living there, curious if I could get used to flat land, the only topological relief from a palm tree or strip mall. Am I someone who could adapt to the humidity of the south or embrace the horizon of the Plains between gusts of wind? Could I leave Montana, or would I miss it in my bones?

We don’t talk about our relationships with the places we live much, yet I think it’s one worth considering. There’s an intimacy with the soil beneath our feet, whether it’s Utah’s red dirt or the coast’s sandy loam. The way the wind blows across the dirt or the water makes some of us feel so full while others seek shelter. What makes some of us feel comfortable on water? Or those who thrill to scale higher and higher into the clouds, hoping the loose rock beneath your hiking boots holds? I’ve talked with one man who spoke about his home landscape being a place where he doesn’t live but visits annually. Do all of us have a home landscape? I believe we do, even if some of us aren’t as attuned to the larger natural world and its cycles ebbing around us. We know when and where we feel welcomed and the places where we feel like we don’t belong. Or the locations that spark possibility, inspire change or hold fast for many years until we can make that move. I think that the places that call to us are as much a part of our identity as our vocations, family, hobbies, spirituality and friends. Our place in the world is part of the larger ecosystem that comprises who we are, no matter where we are.