“As we settled into our new town, population nine hundred, in the heart of the Sandhills, I wasn’t able to overcome the feeling of foreboding for the terrain: sparse grass, lots of sand, a few stunted trees, abandoned farmhouses, virtually no breaks in the endless expanse. There weren’t any vistas. Back then I began to plot my escape.” – Judith Simmer-Brown, Acharya in the Shambhala tradition, in the article “The Joy of the Lonely Dancer” in Buddhadharma magazine, Spring 2006
What is it about two people which can make the same experience, the same place, so fundamentally different?
The Sandhills of Nebraska are vast, wild, and above all, free. It is a place were the ocean forgot itself and sank beneath the dunes of what was once a great inland sea. It remembers every now and then, when the great spring thunderstorms wake it and it bubbles up into wet meadows, marshes, and springs. The grass lives there, and tames the restless nature of the sand, which always wants to follow where the wind blows. It waves in the wind in homage to the rhythmic patterns of water, long since gone. The rain comes in the spring and turns it bright green. The sun comes in the summer and burnishes it to a sharp golden gloss. The snow comes in the winter and protects it under a thick white blanket. And all year round the cattle roam much as the buffalo once did.
To Acharya Simmer-Brown, what in her youth seemed to represent emptiness, loneliness, and hopelessness, to me represents infinite possibilities, limitless beauty, and all-encompassing freedom. Standing out on those wind-kissed hills, listening to the grasses speak in their rustling language, I could envision the blue mountains to the west, far beyond my sight, the hot deserts to the south, and the endless plains of Canada to the north. To the east was home, the rolling fields of eastern Nebraska, nestled up to the Missouri River, and the great cities sprawling cities which live on its banks.
The Sandhills were not home for me, but they are my history. My mother and father both grew up there, among the ranches and small towns. My grandparents still dwelled there, and numberless kith and kin. They were my summer playground, where I could walk just over the rise of the hill, down the next vale, and be totally and completely alone. No sound but the wind. No sight but the grass. No companions but the birds and prairie dogs.
The lonely child who travels through
The fearful waste and desolate fields,
And listens to their barren tune,
Greets as an unknown and best friend
The terror in him, and he sings
In darkness all the sweetest songs.
-- Chögyam Trungpa, from “The Silent Song of Loneliness” in Mudra: Early Poems and Songs
The wondrous child who travels through
The golden hills and speaking grasses,
And listens to their verdant tune,
Greets as a well known and best friend
The joy in her, and she hears
In starlight all the sweetest songs.
-- Monica Sanford, “The Song of the Sandhills”