Driving out to the northeast corner of Montana, I travel a two-lane road with my new husband. We are driving parallel to and about forty or fifty miles south of the Canadian border. The wooded landscapes that were so much a part of my childhood context, understanding and conceptual conditioning are hundreds of miles away.
Approaching this sparsely populated region of the United States, I learn that this is where durum wheat, used in the making of pastas, is grown by a handful of farmers or on large, agribusiness farms. Becoming aware of this fact reminds me of how little we know about food production, as well as the chain of origin, supply and demand regarding the sacred bounty that sustains us all.
Rounding the bend on one stretch of road, the landscape around us changes yet again. We are now in an area with grand, rolling hills and deep gullies (referred to as coulees locally), which possess the few, scrubby trees or shrubs in sight. The only landscape that comes to my experiential mind is that of Scotland. Tall grasses mark the movement of the periodically shifting wind, rippling in wave-like formations across the plane of the earth’s undulating surface.
“It looks like Scotland,” I note in wonder, watching the majestic expanse of land unfolding before us.
“I wouldn’t know,” my husband replies matter-of-factly in response to my spoken observation.
Then, in the distance, I note a rather large group of small, moving animals grazing across the side of one hill. With Scotland still on my mind and in full, child-like amazement, my first reaction comes hurtling out of my mouth, “They raise sheep out here—black sheep?”
If he had not been driving, my husband would have doubled over with laughter. After a few hearty guffaws, he finally responds, “Those are black, angus cows, Julian.”
“Cows?” I ask in disbelief, training my eyes on the landscape again.
Now, I am no stranger to cows—due to circumstances of my upbringing—or to black, angus cows for that matter; but, without the aid of a familiar landscape, dotted with the solo standing of a regular oak, impressive maple or exquisite elm, I realize I am completely without a familiar point of reference or sense of scale.
Thus, a cow—at a very great distance and on a tree-free, large rolling hill becomes a possible “sheep”—due to associations I have made between this landscape and the rolling hills of Scotland. My embarrassment over my geographic gaffe soon passes with the realization that none of my conceptual, geographic conditioning applies here—none of my frames or points of reference are relevant to this new context.
This, my initial experience of the landscape in Montana on that day, ends up becoming something of a touchstone lesson for me, because I realize that—whether I am in the context of a new geographic area, opening to explore a new food, culture or concept—I must work to observe and experience what is directly in front of me, with a great number of open-ended questions, rather than jumping to any premature, internal conclusions or rendering something automatically “like” something else, which it may not be like at all. Conceptual conditioning is just that—conditioning. And, to some extent, all conditioning may be limiting or cause us to become limited.
Consider this the next time you meet a new, unknown culture, person, region, food or people. Open. Bend. Shift. Observe. Consider. Reconsider. An attitude of eyes-wide-open creates a tremendous amount of space, adventure and potential beauty in our individual lives.