NEAR THE TOP OF THE Beloved Things list are landscapes that make me feel small. Deserts, mountains, beaches, redwood forests, prairies — anything requiring a wide perspective with which to take it all in, and which likewise reminds me of my true place in the Universe.
Part of the reason is that I have lived in a valley of one sort or another for most of my life. Valleys can’t help but breed insularity; when you can see the borders of your world, you can get the idea that the world is a small one and that the people inside it are the only people there are. It’s dangerous to think that way. It can lead to prejudice and a form of tribal exclusivity that’s not healthy for growing minds.
But big landscapes are the antithesis of that. We live in an unimaginably huge place — on a cosmic level, one that’s getting bigger all the time as the Universe continues to expand — and anything that reminds us of that inescapable fact should be cherished. Our planet is small, compared to all that (after all, it’s only 8,000 miles across) and we humans are even smaller, with our brains sub-microscopic on that scale. “Don’t believe everything you think” is a glib aphorism, but it’s also good advice: with a brain that small, how can it take itself seriously? Better to inject our beliefs, hunches and opinions with a healthy shot of agnosticism. Intuition will only take us so far; and there’s a lot farther to go than we can possibly imagine. As the Grateful Dead sang, “Small wheel turn by the fire and rod / Big wheel turn by the grace of God / Every time that wheel turn ’round / Bound to cover just a little more ground.” Bon voyage!