Top

Out of Her Element

Writer Jennie Dorris thought she left the wilderness behind when she chose city life, but nature continued to guide her.

Illustration by Tracy Spadafora

I learned two things that summer about driving in Yellowstone National Park: First, there were no guardrails as you zipped along the edges of the canyons. Second, the shadows in the valley might be hiding a herd of buffalo, so you needed to keep your foot hovering over the brake. That wide-open feeling of freedom and danger was just what I needed.

I was 19 then and had just finished my first year at a competitive liberal arts college. I thought myself ambitious at the beginning of my freshman year, but the top-of-the-heap struggle for internships or a byline in the student paper left me nauseated and full of self-doubt. Yellowstone’s yawning valleys and stomach-dropping canyons let me stop comparing myself, instilling a fierce confidence. I took that feeling back to college and started a magazine from scratch, publishing young voices from around the world.

The next summer found me wearing a short, shiny black dress, scarfing down Chinese fast food in New York City. The student magazine I had started grew successful, and I earned a prestigious internship. I was meeting with an editor, one who I’d mistakenly assumed would treat me to lunch at a white-tablecloth spot like the ones I read about in the New Yorker, so I had put on the nicest dress I owned. Instead, we ate our food on plastic trays in the glare of fluorescent lights, and she told me about life as a young editor in New York: how she made $24,000 a year, lived outside the city, and had to rely on monthly checks from her parents to make ends meet.

When I left the food court, I had to walk all the way out into the middle of the street before I could look up and see the sky. I had heard the pride in the young editor’s voice as she described working herself tired. I knew that feeling, what it was like to end the day with nothing left to give. It fed a new hunger inside me, and I soaked up this energy, standing on the asphalt in my little strip of sunshine.

At graduation, I could feel myself pulled between the mountains and the city. I chose to head west to Colorado, where I’d climb the Flatirons and watch the sun set on Boulder, the red earth glowing around me before dusk. I started a new project, a concert series weaving together music, writing, and art. But as the decade wore on, the raw, open freedom of the West gave way to that tight hunger of the city. Was there more? The beauty around me had inspired a balanced lifestyle, but my ambition had grown beyond balance.

So I swung back to the city—this time, Boston, where I was attracted to the academics, the think tanks, the culture. I moved so that I could compare myself with the people I thought were the best. But a high-achieving city is one built on precedent, so my ambition and I had to head to the back of the line. My confidence crumbled. I spent empty days staring in confusion at a city that rams its cars into each other, jabbing middle fingers in the air. It would take nine months before the line started moving—finally, I was being considered for a couple of prestigious jobs.

And then something strange started happening. As the July heat settled into the city, my husband and I ran north to Maine to camp for a weekend. We stripped our tent of its rain flap to seek the breeze, sleeping in little more than a transparent net. Normally I feel fearful facing the dark woods, but this time I saw a cluster of tall pine trees to the side of the tent. I watched them glow under the moon, and I felt irrevocably that they were saying, “We’re standing with you.” The next day I rode my bike to the ocean, and it was talking too, a calming murmur, washing away my irrational anger at the city. My mind felt its first flickers of freedom again.

Nature followed me back to the city—it sat with me as I blistered in the sun, trying to weed out the ivy strangling our rosebushes. I found one place where the thick, woven strands of the vine had been successful—it had dragged down the rose’s thorned branch, splitting it from its base and drying it out to an ugly, withered brown. As I clipped the branch, I could hear nature’s warning voice: “This is you.”

It was me. For a decade I had been in my element, nature murmuring all around me, quietly boosting my confidence and laying open my creativity. Here in the city, nature was sparse, but it was shouting.

While I had been so busy concentrating on winning a job, another career path had emerged so gradually that I didn’t see it at first. By the time I noticed it, it was laid out in front of me. I had published a story that more and more people were encouraging me to turn into a book. Doing so would take a leap of faith—faith in myself.

For the first time I realized I might have a choice. So I thought I would see whether nature had an opinion, too. I drove out to the Cape and breathed in the salt, waiting. But the ocean was quiet—it was a humid day, hazy, and the waves lapped lazily, retreating into a low tide. What I didn’t know was that the humidity would increase, producing a huge thunderstorm as I drove back into the city. The clouds gathered and condensed into a huge, thick screen, and the lightning flashed ferociously behind it, over and over. Nature was finding a new way to illuminate what had been right in front of me all day.

I chose to quit chasing the fancy full-time jobs that would make me feel justified in my move, the jobs that would prop up my confidence. I chose to write a book, and I chose to believe that it would succeed. I had seen myself in a new way—not as someone who had failed to fit into a city’s infrastructure, but as someone who had gotten lost while wandering after validation. Nature had always been my context, and here I needed it more than ever to flash a light straight through me, to show me who I always had been. —S&H