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Today I’m going to reflect on a passage from Willa Cather’s achingly beautiful novel, O Pioneers! (1913), a title inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem. The Library of America offers a short description of the book in case you’re not familiar with it:
O Pioneers! is the story of a young Swedish-American girl, Alexandra Bergon, who is left to manage the homestead farm when her father dies. Although she must contend with the shiftlessness of two brothers and the brutal murder of a third, her instinctive identification with the forces of nature helps bring the land to abundant fruition, and she finds her own happiness in a kindred spirit––an engraver, gold prospector, and fellow dreamer.

Here’s the passage for reflection:
Although it was only four o’clock, the winter day was fading. The road led southwest, toward the streak of pale, watery light that glimmered in the leaden sky. The light fell upon the two sad young faces that were turned mutely toward it: upon the eyes of the girl, who seemed to be looking with such anguished perplexity into the future; upon the sombre eyes of the boy, who seemed already to be looking into the past. 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 sombre wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.

I grew up in Colorado, a state that divides between the Rocky Mountains on the western side and the the Great Plains on the eastern side. Because I’ve driven the roads that traverse Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois, I’m acquainted with the land that Cather describes above. This passage haunts my imagination whenever I’m on Interstate-70 in the middle of Kansas, where “the great fact” of the land continues to assert itself, which is easily forgotten back in Denver where another fact dominates: society. For the Nebraskan homesteaders in Cather’s novel, the challenge was to leave a “mark” on the land when the land overwhelmed “the little beginnings of human society.” For myself, the challenge is to be marked by the land when the overweening ambitions of society have domesticated its “sombre wastes.”

Herein lies a contrast between the modern project to mark on the land, where man tries to humble the wild, and what we might envision as a postmodern project to be marked by the land, where the wild humbles man [1]. Is it even possible, I wonder, for the wild to humble us when we’re no longer residents of the wild, when the magic of our technologies and the potency of our knowledge make us feel closer to God than the beasts? Is the fact of the land a fact anymore? If there’s any hope for us to cooperate with the land rather than conquer it, then we must undergo “its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.” In short, we must undergo a reverse homesteading, in which the land does not leave us alone.

A move from Los Angeles to the Flint Hills of Kansas would surely induce a panic attack for the “bobos” among us, so here are modest proposals to get marked by the land this summer: canoe in the Boundary Waters between Ontario and Minnesota, trace the steps of the Anasazi Indians in Zion National Park, or pitch a tent at the foot of El Capitan in Yosemite until the “country [receives you] into its bosom.”

[1] “The ideals of the thinking self knowing itself and of the mechanistic universe opened the way for the modern explosion of knowledge under the banner of the Enlightenment project. From Francis Bacon to the present, the goal of the human intellectual quest has been to unlock the secrets of the universe in order to master nature for human benefit and create a better world. This Enlightenment quest, in turn, produced the modern technological society of the twentieth century. At the heart of this society is the desire to rationally manage life, on the assumption that scientific advancement and technology provide the means to improving the quality of life. Whatever else postmodernism may be, it embodies a rejection of the Enlightenment project, the modern technological ideal, and the philosophical assumptions upon which modernism was built” (qtd. from Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism).

Cross-posted at Mere Orthodoxy

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