The ride is over, kids

Human Nature

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I was a wannabe horse girl as a kid.

Something about horses captivated me. Maybe it was the satisfying clippity-clop of their hooves against the ground. Maybe it was the way their manes and tails flickered in the wind. Or maybe it was the countless hours I spent watching and rewatching the movies “Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” every Sunday, without fail. 

When I wasn’t watching Cloud or Spirit on a television screen, I was lost in thought about what life would be like if I were a horse. I filled entire sketchbooks with poorly drawn impressions of my own family members in horse form, dreamt of alternative horse realities and collected many a horse plushie. 

But I was alone in my fascination with horses. I remember asking my grandpa, who grew up on a farm, whether or not his family owned any horses when he was a boy. Grandpa told me that, yes, his family had owned horses, but to my horror and confusion, he went on to explain his general dislike of them, his ambivalence bordering on disapproval of my own horse-based exuberance. 

In my mind, when it came to horses, anything short of outright adoration was unimaginable. I could scarcely believe that a member of my own family didn’t like horses, but as my childhood memories continue to fade, the reasons for Grandpa’s lack of enthusiasm have become more clear. 

I was born in Lanxi, China, but I grew up in Bend, Oregon, after I was adopted as a baby. Growing up, I had access to experiences, resources and opportunities that enabled me to develop an appreciation of nature for its own sake and nothing else. As a result, my love for horses and the fantasies they embodied existed in a vacuum, devoid of real-world implications or even real-world experiences. 

I was immersed in the dramatic world of nature shows and nature fiction writing, hooked on the anthropomorphized, sensationalized stories of animals I had never once seen in real life. 

But when my grandpa was young, his world was actually filled with real animals. The youngest son of two Japanese immigrants, Grandpa spent most of his youth working on his family’s farm. By the age of 10, he was already driving his family’s truck between fields, where his older brothers were waiting to fill the truck with produce. One of the family’s horses, Babe, worked alongside Grandpa, his brothers and his parents, helping to pull tractors and plows through the fine soil near Portland, Oregon’s Columbia Boulevard. 

Babe wasn’t a pet or a friend or a prized show pony. He was an asset to the farm, tethered to the earth and bound by obligation for his entire life. 

Unlike Cloud and Spirit — the horses and icons of my childhood — Babe never ran wild and free through the Rocky Mountains with bald eagles flying overhead, wind whipping through his mane, triumphant music blasting in the background. This fantasy, one that I lived in as a child and that I still visit to this day, was never Babe’s nor my grandpa’s reality. 

For Grandpa, who worked on his family’s farmland from the age of eight until his family’s internment during World War II, nature was not a place of relaxation, recreation or recuperation. It was a place for work, and horses belonged in agricultural fields, not in dreams. Although it shocked me as a child to learn about Grandpa’s disenchantment with horses, I understand now that the privilege that I took for granted as a child is what fed my enthusiasm for horses and enabled my fascination with nature fantasy. 

Throughout my childhood in Bend, I was fed a steady diet of nature propaganda, inching my way toward adulthood in what felt like one of the whitest, outdoorsiest towns in the nation. This environment, along with the movies I watched, the books I read and the friends I made, all seemed to be nudging me forward on a path to becoming a tree-hugging, bike-toting, beer-chugging nature and animal lover, besotted with the inherent beauty and wonder of the natural world. 

In many ways, I am a reflection of that environment. I remain a wholehearted nature lover who still deeply appreciates and admires horses from afar. But at the same time, I am a reflection of the people in my family and the struggles rooted in lived experiences from their own journeys to adulthood. 

I’m still working on internalizing that dissonance, my childhood fantasies crashing into reality. With this in mind, I am trying to be more conscientious and empathetic in my interactions with and understandings of the environment and the people around me, fully acknowledging the ways my perception of the world has been rose-tinted by the privilege of my upbringing and the experiences of my childhood.

But this acknowledgment doesn’t take away from the value of my childhood nature stories, nor does it change the significance of the farming that sustained Grandpa’s family. I am still finding my place as an environmentally inclined young adult, even as my days of unabashed naivety are over. Horse girl is gone, slowly and continually being replaced by the new me.

Lia Keener writes the Thursday column on the relationship between humans and the natural world. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.