September 28, 2022

The lessons the wild Western lands teach us

By Lars Gesing
A Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of sunset at the Grand Canyon near Page, Arizona, along the Northern Rim, a less busy, must-see to do at the Canyon.
The Homeward Journal, Vol. III

The American West for centuries has been a land of hopes and dreams for fortune-seeking people from around the world — myself included. It’s a timeless land of intense beauty and mystery that has maintained this aura that it’s a place where hard work and a healthy does of risk just may be rewarded with the life of your dreams.

Such, I believe, is the allure of this grand stretch of land, one that makes it unique pretty much anywhere in the world in its transcendent meaning to those who wish to call this place home: The American West is the archetype of humanity projecting its most innate desires onto the land. 

What follows are six valuable life lessons I have learned while roaming through these awe-inspiring landscapes, trying to photograph the way they capture the human imagination — lessons about our relationship with nature, our relationship with ourselves and with those we love most.

REIMAGINING OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH TIME.

We have created a culture that is obsessed with a combative attitude toward time. In an age of productivity indexes, the phrase time marches on has become the mortal enemy of our inner peace and a source of great stress in our daily lives. We feel like we are always on the run, desperately trying to catch up with the ticking clock.

With that hopeless chase comes an ever-growing desire for the illusion of slowing down time (a topic I’ve tackled in much greater depth in Vol. II of The Homeward Journal). It is all an effort to gain some semblance of control — when what we are really after is slowing down life. Anything that induces this feeling of being more grounded becomes invaluable to us. This is what makes the American West so special: It’s timeless beauty is the antidote to a life of haste and worry.

A Lars Gesing fine art black and white nature photograph of Dead Horse Point State Park at sunset, a must-see and fun thing to do near the adventure town of Moab, Utah, close to Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park.

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Out West, the canyons and old-growth forests and deserts and riverbeds all provide a sense of permanence in an ever-changing world. Sure, time still marches on all around us. But we don’t feel like it does, if only for a few precious moments or a few days. Our focus shifts, the more we immerse ourselves in the landscape. For once, we are not chasing, we are standing still. We feel a sense of long-lost comfort. 

The out-of-control bad news cycles seem far away when we look at layers of rock shaped by the forces of millennia, not men. The bad news may not be going away. The modern world is too stubborn a place. But, standing at the canyon’s rim, we regain perspective: It can wait. This, right here, matters, too.

As such, the American West is a land that teaches us a way to rethink our relationship with time: to see opportunity in every moment and to grow less antagonistic about our inability to control what surely is life’s most precious resource.

“All things are in motion, all is in process, nothing abides, nothing will ever change in this eternal moment. I’ll be back before I’m fairly out of sight. Time to go.” — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

A Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of the famous Moulton barns on Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at sunrise.

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RECONNECTING WITH OUR MOST INNATE DESIRES.

For centuries, people from all walks of life and all corners of the world have projected their hopes and dreams onto the wild lands of the American West, inspiring notions of great deeds. “People dream in the intensity of the land,” Kerouac wrote in On The Road. 

Consequently, this bold land, full of contrasting notions of life amid the harsh elements, has inspired countless tales of heroism and pushing our boundaries beyond what we thought possible. Today, these stories have become the model for our desires and aspirations as prospectors of our own life’s riches, our own story, our own legacy. It’s a welcome reminder of the person we want to be, the person only we see when we look in the mirror.

All along, the West has taught us the power of our attitude. This land does not discriminate, but it surely favors the bold and those that nurture a spirit of taking a chance on their dreams.

A Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

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REDEFINING RELATIONSHIPS.

The American West is the patria that encourages shared experiences, experiences that turn into memories of a lifetime. 

When the only item on the to-do list is to follow our curiosity, we start to re-connect and build deeper relationships with those who walk the trail with us — be that others or simply ourselves. 

Bound by a shared spirit of curiosity and exploration, what we all search for in these instances is not material but spiritual fortune. We find lasting meaning in our company. Out here, we revert back to an abundance of humanity, to learnt mechanisms of survival in a frontier situation — putting an emphasis on mutual aid, cooperation and sharing. Thrust into this new, old way of being together, we quickly create memories that outshine most others.

As we do, if only we are so lucky, Mary Oliver will ring true for us, too: “We grew into that perilous place: we grew fond.”

A Lars Gesing fine art nature image of two horses not meant for horseback riding trips in Grand Teton National Park near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a great place to see wildlife, at the peak of fall colors. The best time to see fall colors in Grand Teton National Park is usually in late September.

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REDISCOVERING OUR WILDNESS.

The American West is a land that invites us to get on the move. Like tumbleweeds, our soul needs to roam. In an age when more and more of us live stacked neatly next to or atop each other, venturing out into the wilderness is a journey of spiritual reconnaissance. 

Wilderness, the untidy, energizing edge of all living systems, is, as Roderick Nash writes in Wilderness and the American Mind, not so much a physical space as it is a state of mind, “a perceived rather than an actual condition of the environment.”

As such, wilderness is merely the gateway to what it is we really seek out: wildness. It’s the journey from the physical to the spiritual plane. In the face of sprawling civilization, wilderness has earned a new appreciation as the land that takes us to the hidden place we long to revisit: the wild parts within us.

The timeless beauty of the American West calls our inner wild child with bountiful opportunity — and, to quote Richard Mabey, “The benediction of the wild is to see opportunity in the briefest of openings, the narrowest of windows.”

Much of the American West has to be seen to be believed, and even then, we may not trust our eyes. A land that quickly redefines wonder is a place that allows us to see our deepest imaginings. “The West is a place where the tangible and the mythical become the same”, Abbey wrote in The Journey Home. This is the place where our wildness lives fully, waiting to be discovered yet again.

A Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of Canyonlands National Park. Buck Canyon Overlook is one of the best places to see the sunset in Canyonlands National Park. If you are wondering how far is Canyonlands National Park from Moab, Utah, or Arches National Park, the answer is just a short drive.

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FINDING HEALING SPACES.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “whenever I was in need of regeneration, I walked toward the Southwest.” Later on, he repeatedly referred to this primal instinct as westing.

Sitting at Walden Pond in the woods of Massachusetts, Thoreau wasn’t the only one who gazed westward, longing to heal his body, mind and soul. The desire to regain lost health was actually a primary driving force of America’s early westward movement, writes the historian H.W. Brands in Dreams of El Dorado. “People of means traveled to spas, which afforded temporary relief to the few. Oregon, by contrast, promised relief to many. To be sure, getting to Oregon was a challenge, but once there, the health-seekers hoped, the equable climate, the salubrious winds off the Pacific and the dearth of endemic diseases would do what nostrums and medical men couldn’t.”

To this day, the West is a patchwork of healing spaces. But don’t mistake it for being gentle. Rather ruggedly, it grabs us by the shoulders instead and shakes us awake, yanking us out of the trance of our modern ways. It may be tough love, but it is love nonetheless — the pure kind, free of false pretenses, the kind that heals the soul, the part of our body in most dire need of attention. 

“What do I love about the West? The majesty of the landscape, the breathtaking beauty punctuated by the serenity really taps into a profound sense of spirituality, renewal and healing!” — Nancy P., on my Facebook page


A Lars Gesing fine art nature image of the Ralph Lauren Double R ranch near Ridgway in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, with Mount Sneffels in the back, during fall color season. The best time to see the fall colors in Colorado is usually late September and early October.

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LOVE FLOWERS BEST IN OPENNESS AND FREEDOM.

Spend any amount of time in the Desert Southwest, and you’ll likely come to appreciate it not just for its oddity of form and shape, but for its value as a country without clutter. The generous gift of space bestowed upon the land here, as well as the relative absence of encroaching humankind, puts an emphasis on the singular form. 

During most of our other days, mental and physical clutter clouds our vision. But here, amid the strange and unfamiliar, we are oddly at ease, the shimmering desert light allowing us to see more clearly. Why? 

In the absence of clutter, our tired eyes begin to refocus on the glorious singular detail of what’s right in front of us, as we take the time to appreciate it for its unique beauty. Gather enough of these details, and you’ll start to make sense of the bigger picture eventually. 

Out West, we learn to see again. A land set in stone sets therapy in motion. With our vision renewed, we quickly come to cherish simplicity as pure alive-ness.

And so, as we watch the horizon and the vacant skies above stretch to infinity, space takes on a new meaning for us, and we finally realize what Abbey knew along: “Love flowers best in openness and freedom."

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About The Homeward Journal

I believe that the timeless beauty of nature is the antidote to a life of haste and worry. That’s how The Homeward Journal came to be. It is a collection of writings that are part romantic naturalist essays in the tradition of Muir, Abbey and Oliver, and part expert advice on how to create awe-inspiring nature-based interior design that celebrates what you love most. At its heart, every piece in The Homeward Journal explores the one feeling we all share: How connecting with the beauty of nature elevates both our spirits and the spaces we call home. Start exploring my artwork here.

Connecting With Nature