Literature and the Environment Ecocriticism Essay

Pages: 5 (1738 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Biology

O, Pioneers and the Natural World

Willa Cather (1873 -- 1947) is perhaps best known for her earthy novels focusing on life in the Great Plains. Cather spent her formative years in Nebraska where she broke the mold of the time and insisted upon a university education. By her early 30s, she was managing editor for McClure's magazine where she continued to astound readers with her works about the magic still surrounding everyday people. She was later criticized for writing about the plight of some of the downtrodden rather than helping to exact change in their lives. Cather preferred relationships with women, but did not see herself as a lesbian separatist. Many modern scholars interpret her works through the lens of lesbianism, but "Cather did not label herself a lesbian nor would she wish us to do so, and we do not know whether her relationships with women were sexual. In any case, it is anachronistic to assume that if Cather's historical context had been different, she would have chosen to write overtly about homoerotic love"(Sharistanian, 2006, xiii).

Plot Summary -- the novel, "O Pioneers," was written in 1913 while Cather lived in New York and Pittsburg. It is a simple, straightforward tale of the Bergsons, Swedish immigrants in the farm country of Nebraska right at the turn of the century. The heroine of the story, Alexandra Bergson, inherits the property upon her father's death, and devotes the rest of her life to making the farm viable, successful and something of which to be proud -- all at a time when many other immigrants have given up on the land and leaving for "greener pastures." Interspersed with this tale of humanity and nature are two romantic relationships, one between Alexandra and Carl Linstrum and other between Alexandra's brother Emil, and the married Marie Shabata. As typical with Cather, the major themes, told through the story of regular people who are often at odds with nature and must do extraordinary things, are expectations of love and marriage, feminism and the role women had to take in the farming areas, isolation, humanity's bargain with nature, and the idea of working with, not against, Mother Nature in order to succeed.

Major Themes - in numerous critical essays, Cather scholars claim that people are not really the central characters of her works- but instead nature, the land, the ecosystem take on that role. In O Pioneer, for instance, nature is real, it is honest, non-judgmental, and clearly unpredictable; but it is the attempt of each character to either worth with nature or attempt to tame nature in order to make a livable arrangement for themselves that outlines their worth (Fromm, n.d.). For Cather, the Nebraskan prairie is pristine, amply suited to fairly provide for humans as long as humans respect the sanctity of the earth -- to not take more than necessary, and to have some reverence for working the land.

This idea of creating civilization in the wild contrasts Cather's characters -- Alexandra has a reciprocal relationship with nature: they understand and try to work within the confines of nature; Lou and Oscar try to impose their own will upon the land -- attacking it, disrespecting it, and constantly wishing it was different, or something else; while Fran Shabata and Emil's personal flaws are expressed, too, in their attitude towards nature -- acting out of necessity, they work the land out of "obligation," not out of love or respect.

This theme of respect for nature is also reflected in the manner in which Cather connects the ethos of morality to attitude towards work and nature. Alexandra become morally superior because she not only works hard, but works intelligently with respect for her fellow human beings and nature; others work only because they have no other option, and therefore receive no satisfaction from that work. What is it, though, about this bond with nature that so pervades Cather? Certainly, she is not advocating total preservation of the land for natural habitats and no human interaction, nor is she a strict utilitarian, believing the land is there simply for the profit and benefit of humans. Instead, the natural world must be wooded, coddled, and stroked into being so that the human work is an extension of nature as opposed to something disinterested (Love, 2003).

For Cather then, the assumption is that prior to human encroachment, nature was in balance, a pristine world, and only upon the human invasion did it become descriptive as being alien, inhospitable, or unkind:

The little town behind them had vanished as if it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of the prairie, and the stern frozen country received them into its bosom. The homesteads were few and far apart; here and there a windmill gaunt against the sky, a sod house crouching in a hollow. But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber waste. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy's mouth had become so bitter; because he felt men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be left alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness. (O Pioneers! 21)

However, that is not to say that nature is completely benign and open hearted. It is more that humans are not wise enough yet to be in tune with the rhythms of nature, or to understand the way nature works -- that our insistence upon putting a field there, a barn over there, or blocking a stream or natural outcrop are what put nature out of balance. The land constantly tests the individual, and only if the individual is found to be worthy does the land give up its bounty:

In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression upon the wild land that he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man. . . . Bergson went over in his mind the things that held him back. One winter his cattle had perished in a blizzard. The next summer one of his plow horses broke its leg in a prairie-dog hole and had to be shot. Another summer he lost his hogs to cholera, and a valuable stallion died from a rattlesnake bite. Time and time again his crops had failed. He had lost two children, boys, that came between Lou and Emil, and there had been the cost of sickness and death. Now, when he had at last struggled out of debt, he was going to die himself. He was only forty-six, and had, of course, counted on more time. (O Pioneers! 26)

Some see this agreement between the individual and nature to be homocentric -- the pride Alexandra feels when she knows that the farm will be left to future generations fully functional and at one with the world. It was the respect and world-view of Alexandra who, keeping the appropriate respect for the land, created this juxtaposition that both allowed nature to flourish and the Bergstrom's to pass on a legacy:

Alexandra was well satisfied with her brother [Emil] . . . Yes, she told herself, it had been worthwhile; both Emil and the country had become what she had hoped. Out of her father's children there was one who was fit to cope with the world, who had not been tied to the plow, and who had a personality apart from the soil. And that, she reflected, was what she had worked for. She felt well satisfied with her life. (O Pioneers! 190-91)

Too, Cather mirrors the need for balance with nature in her description of the plains, of the seasons, and of the why the rhythms of the land work in congruence to help people like Alexandra succeed where so many fail. It is interesting to note that this idea of flowing with the land and in creating structures that mirrored the flow of the land was also something that would become integral to Frank Lloyd Wright's works and William James' taxonomy of the mind. In fact, "if we want to think about Cather and the 'ecopoetics' of her writing, we need to position her alongside some of these thinkers in order to understand what was specific to her culture and its historical moment. For Cather's fiction is often concerned with the representation of the psychological processes of the self as it connects and interacts with the environment…. As a kind of Midwestern pragmatist" (Reynolds, 2003).

It may be true that Cather would not call herself an environmentalist, or even a nature writer. Instead, what is likely is that she would acknowledge that place is central to her work, and that the flexibility of taking an approach to telling… [END OF PREVIEW]

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