Contemplation, unhemmed

This is something I’m still coming to realize in new ways since reading Kathleen Norris’ Dakota a year ago this month: Open spaces, unhemmed environments encourage a contemplative lifestyle much more than spaces where a person’s vision is curtailed by built or natural objects.

I’m not entirely sure why this is though.

Nature itself seems, in theory, to be something that naturally encourages contemplation. However, the dense foliage and hills of the Ozarks — my home for six years up until this past July — just wasn’t as conducive to a thinking life as the prairie’s open spaces. Some of the reason for this might have to do with roots. I was born and raised here, and I’m probably more comfortable (consciously and subconsciously) here than in other geographies.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Norris lived in Honolulu and New York City before moving to a very remote part of South Dakota. It was there she realized how open spaces encouraged a meditative mind, despite her metropolitan upbringing.

So what is it about open spaces or broad vistas that gets a person thinking deep thoughts? As I recall, Norris suggested that the prairies reminded a person of their mortality, in part because of their harsh summer and winter weathers. Corbusier from the Architecture + Morality blog concurs: “In the country[side], we are humbled by nature, which probably explains why [we] refer to going to the countryside as a seach for the ‘simpler things.’ The city does the opposite: it emboldens us. It affirms our innermost yearning to express ourselves and transcend our physical limits.” So humility results in deeper contemplation.

I need to meditate on this discovery.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

2 Responses to Contemplation, unhemmed

  1. Sarah Jane says:

    Oh, Kathleen Norris! Isn’t she wonderful?

    I haven’t spent much time in flat, open spaces, so I can’t really speak to that part of the phenomenon. I do know that the rolling hills of central Kentucky were an inspiration for Thomas Merton’s inspiration, although there’s nothing like open spaces here.

    At any rate, Kentucky receives some of the same harsh weather transitions that you’re describing, including sudden shifts of weather and violent, unexpected storms. I’ve noticed that my own contemplation often grows out of a sense of awe at a particularly spectacular summer thunderstorm, or a gloriously windy fall afternoon. It may be the same hills and fields out my front door, but day to day (and sometimes even hour to hour) they are fresh and unexpected.

  2. Pingback: Music and the contemplative life « The Aesthetic Elevator

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