Though Lily appreciates modern technology, she remains intimately connected to the natural world. The novel presents nature as both destructive and nourishing, a force that at once dictates life on the ranch and grants characters freedom from meaningless or harmful societal rules and bureaucracy.
Lily learns to respect nature from a young age. The Caseys live in a dugout for the first few years of her life, where the natural world literally falls through their dirt ceiling from time to time. As ranchers, their livelihood is intimately linked to the land and they are at the mercy of storms, droughts, and floods. The terrain around Salt Draw is particularly harsh and unforgiving, leading Dad to insist that only the toughest among them can survive there. Lily continues to appreciate the power of nature as an adult when she and Jim work on their own ranch. The two are “true aficionados of the weather” and listen intently to the forecast every morning on their long-range radio. Lily says, “With water so scarce and severe storms so dangerous … we lived and died by those forecasts.”
Indeed, water is particularly important throughout the novel. Living in the desert, Lily has seen people fight, and even kill, over access to it. She considers tap water an extravagant luxury, and eagerly offers glasses of it to guests at her house in Ash Fork. Jim’s feelings about water encapsulate the book’s conception of the natural world on the whole: “Without it we'd die, but it could also kill us, and that was why we loved it, even craved it, but also feared it. Never take water for granted, Jim said. Always cherish it. Always beware of it.” The message is clear: nature should be both loved and feared.
Though Lily at first enjoys the novelty of living in Phoenix, she eventually feels “penned” in by its paved streets, tall buildings, and endless rules. For the first time in her life she does not like her job; because she is teaching at a large high school, there are “more rules for teachers than for students” as well as mountains of paperwork. She similarly hates all the restrictions of driving on city roads. When she goes to take more flying lessons and confronts even more regulations, she remarks that “city folks” have “chopped up the sky the same way they had the ground.” Jim also hates sitting behind a desk for his job in Phoenix and feels especially uncomfortable with being a step removed from labor for the first time in his life. Lily notes that in Phoenix, Jim “missed the sweat and dust and heat of ranching, the smells and hard labor. He missed the way that ranch life forced you to study the sky and the land every day, trying to anticipate nature's intentions.”
The monotonous constraints of city life, the novel thus implies, separate Lily from the kind of hard work she so deeply values. By distancing her family from the natural world, living in Phoenix also chips away at their sense of personal freedom. They are most at ease when able to live by the laws of nature rather than man. Lily, Jim, and their children are akin to the half broke horses of the novel’s title—wild at heart, not yet broken by society’s rules, and craving the freedom and visceral experience only nature can provide.
Connection to Nature ThemeTracker
Connection to Nature Quotes in Half Broke Horses
The windmill still lay toppled over the caved-in house, and the yard was strewn with branches. Dad was always going on about the easterners who came out to west Texas but weren't tough enough to cut it, and now we were folding our hand as well. Sometimes it didn't matter how much gumption you had. What mattered were the cards you'd been dealt.
Most of the other girls came from rich ranch families. Whereas I was used to hollering like a horse trainer, they had whispery voices and ladylike manners and matching luggage. Some of the girls complained about the gray uniforms we had to wear, but I liked the way they leveled out the differences between those who could afford fancy store-bought clothes and those of us, like me, who had only home-dyed beechnut brown dresses. I did make friends, however, trying to follow Dad’s advice to figure out what someone wanted and help her get it, though it was hard, when you saw someone doing something wrong, to resist the temptation to correct her. Especially if that someone acted hoity-toity.
The problem with half-broke horses like these was that no one took the time to train them. Cowboys who could ride anything caught them and ran them on fear, spurring and quirting them too hard, taking pride in staying on no matter how desperately they bucked and fishtailed. Not properly broken, they were always scared and hated humans. A lot of times the cowboys released them once the roundup was over, but by then they'd lost some of the instincts that kept them alive out in the desert. They were, however, intelligent and had pluck, and if you broke them right, they made good horses.
A distinctly malodorous aroma arose from the hole, and for a moment I missed my snazzy mail-order toilet with the shiny white porcelain bowl, the mahogany lid, and the nifty pull-chain flush. As I sat down, though, I realized that you can get so used to certain luxuries that you start to think they're necessities, but when you have to forgo them, you come to see that you don't need them after all. There was a big difference between needing things and wanting things—though a lot of people had trouble telling the two apart—and at the ranch, I could see, we'd have pretty much everything we'd need but precious little else.
"Just you remember," I said, "that this is what could happen when an animal gets freedom. Animals act like they hate to be penned up, but the fact is, they don't know what to do with freedom. And a lot of times it kills them."
Cars were supposed to mean freedom, but all these people stuck in traffic on one way streets—where you weren't even allowed to make a U-turn to get the hell out of the jam—might as well have been sitting in cages. … Nothing had ever made me feel as free as flying and I was only a few hours away from getting my pilot’s license so I decided to take up lessons again. The airport had a flying school, but when I showed up one day, the clerk passed me an entire sheaf of forms and started yammering about eye exams physicals, takeoff slots, elevation restrictions and no-fly zones. I realized that these city folks had boxed off and chopped up the sky the same way they had the ground.
As Rosemary climbed into the car, Rex patted her behind like he owned it, then got in beside her. They were both still laughing as Rex gunned the motor the way he always did.
Jim put his arm around me and we watched them take off up the street, heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses.