Source File: cat.cs005.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 5

My Ántonia and the National Parks Movement

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt issued proclamations establishing Muir Woods National Monument (California); Grand Canyon National Monument (Arizona); Pinnacles National Monument (California); Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota); Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument (Montana); and Wheeler National Monument (Colorado). Also, in 1908, Jim Burden had a reunion with Tiny Soderball in Salt Lake City. We don't know whether they went to Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, but it too was proclaimed a national monument in 1908. In 1909 Congress passed An Act to Create the Calaveras Bigtree National Forest, authorizing the acquisition of lands in California to protect stands of Sequoia washingtoniana. Early that same year President Roosevelt issued a proclamation establishing Mount Olympus National Monument (Washington), and later in 1909 President Taft issued proclamations establishing Oregon Caves National Monument, Mukuntuweap National Monument (Utah), and Shoshone Cavern National Monument (Wyoming). In 1909, conservationists appointed by Roosevelt found their momentum checked by conflicts with Congress and Taft appointees. As a result, conservation became the subject of national debate, pitting the utilitarians, those who wanted to reserve land for subsequent, profitable use, against the preservationists, who were more anxious to preserve natural resources for aesthetic, recreational, and spiritual reasons.[1]

The rate of park and monument creation slowed but did not stop under Taft. In 1910, Congress passed the Withdrawal Act authorizing the president to withdraw public lands from entry and reserve them for "water-power sites, irrigation, classification of lands, or other public purposes." And, to protect the logging industry, Congress reaffirmed its ban on the creation or enlargement of national forests in six Western states. However, also in 1910, Congress established Glacier National Park (Montana) and President Taft issued a proclamation establishing Rainbow Bridge National Monument (Utah). In 1911, the first of four National Park Service conferences convened at Yellowstone National Park to explore the need for a National Park Service (the others were held in 1912, 1915, and 1917); participants included officials of the Interior Department and the Forest Service, the owners of park hotels and camps, and representatives for the railroads. Perhaps Jim Burden was there.

When Cather began writing My Ántonia in 1916, conservationist momentum received a second wind under Woodrow Wilson. That year Congress passed the National Park Service Act, creating the National Park Service and housing it, significantly, within the Department of the Interior.[2] The Park Service was created expressly to "promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations . . . by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Commercial logging and recreational hunting were prohibited, and grazing was sharply controlled. The passage of the National Park Service Act was a victory for the preservationist side of the conservation movement (An Act to Establish).

In 1916 Congress established Hawaii National Park and Lassen Volcanic National Park (California). President Wilson also issued proclamations establishing Sieur de Monts National Monument on Mount Desert Island, Maine, and Capulin Mountain National Monument, New Mexico—these are located, coincidentally, in two of Cather's favorite states. Northeast Harbor, where she stayed later in her life, is the tip of Mount Desert Island. Three years later, in 1919, Lafayette National Park (renamed Acadia National Park [Maine] in 1929) was established by Congress. In 1917 Congress established Mount McKinley National Park (Alaska) and at the National Park Service conference that year attendees explored the role of the parks in American life. In 1918, the year My Ántonia was published, Congress approved a Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which implemented a 1916 Convention (between the United States and Britain, acting for Canada) for the Protection of Migratory Birds, and established responsibility for international migratory bird protection. The next year Congress established Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona) and Zion National Park (Utah), while PresidentWilson issued a proclamation establishing Scotts Bluff National Monument (Nebraska).

The era of My Ántonia was one of national landscape preservation. But national-parks creation is no coincidental context for the novel. Among the book's points of genesis wasWilla Cather's trip to Mesa Verde National Park in 1915. In addition, Cather was subtly influenced by the public debate over preserving natural lands—especially since some of those landscapes, in Maine, New Mexico, and Colorado, for example, were in places to which she would often return and so would have wanted unchanged. The forty years between 1880 and 1920 are known as the "formative years" of American environmentalism (and ofWilla Cather), and the first decade of the century is described by one historian as having been seized by a kind of "national panic" for conservation as a result of the closed frontier (Worster 7). The era is marked as well by the cultural work of writers intent on making conservation a matter of public spirit and national policy. We may want to include Willa Cather within this environmentalist, intellectual awakening.

The "panic" phase of the conservation movement culminated in a conference of governors held at the White House in 1909, where President Roosevelt proclaimed that "[t]he conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our National life" (qtd. in Blanchard, "Introductory Statement"). A joint statement by the governors echoed Roosevelt and declared that the "conservation of our natural resources is a subject of transcendent importance, which should engage unremittingly the attention of the Nation, the States, and the People in earnest cooperation" (193). Speakers at the conference included scientists, policymakers, legal experts—the roster included William Jennings Bryan, whose statement might have been ghostwritten by Jim Burden: [L]ast September I visited the southern part of Idaho . . . I had been there ten years before. I had looked upon these lands so barren that it seemed as if it were impossible they could ever be made useful. When I went back this time and found that in three years 170,000 acres of land had been reclaimed; that where three years ago nothing but the sage brush grew they are now raising seven tons of alfalfa to the acre, and more than a hundred bushels of oats; when I found that ten thousand people are living on that tract; that in one town that has grown up in that time there are 1,910 inhabitants, and that in the three banks they had deposits of over $500,000—I had some realization of the magic power of water when applied to these desert lands. (204, emphasis added). The similarity to Jim Burden's rhetoric of progress is striking. We might say that Bryan saw those Idaho farmlands as "one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia" or the cornfields of Nebraska (My Ántonia 132).

Bryan's sentiments reflect the conservation movement's initial, utilitarian motivation: to protect American resources from irresponsible or wasteful development and reserve them for responsible and profitable use. Gifford Pinchot, America's first professional forester, the head of the Forestry Division in the Roosevelt administration, a staunch utilitarian and arguably the founder of United States conservation policy, outlined three "great facts" about conservation in 1910. "The first great fact about conservation is that it stands for development. There has been a fundamental misconception that conservation means nothing but the husbanding of resources for future generations. There could be no more serious mistake." Conservation, in Pinchot's definition, means "first of all the recognition of the right of the present generation to the fullest necessary use of all [natural] resources. Conservation demands the welfare of this generation first, and afterward the welfare of the generations to follow" (42). Secondly, "conservation stands for the prevention of waste" (44). And third, "[t]he natural resources must be developed and preserved for the benefit of the many, and not merely for the profit of a few" (46). These three principles, efficient use, minimization of waste, and maximum distribution of profit, or effect, remain central to government policy today. They are as well, curiously enough, central to Cather's aesthetics, where the efficient use and elimination of wasted words produce the maximum effect of meaning. However, Cather seems less utilitarian than aesthetic in her thinking about landscape and language.

On the side of the preservationists, foremost among its principles was that preservation meant not saving everything, but selecting some aspects for preservation (the most striking, notable, or emblematic) and allowing others to go to market development. Some critics today take issue with the aesthetic principle by which the preservationists advocated national-park creation and maintenance. Alison Byerly labels it "part of the picturesque legacy" that "has had a crucial effect on public land management policies. It has taught us to value nature," she asserts, "but the criterion for evaluation is the quality of the aesthetic experience a landscape provides." She refers to the paradox whereby we experience the natural world only after constructing it, "by constructing an aesthetic image of the wilderness that allows us to avoid confronting its reality" (Byerly 53-54). Byerly is right, of course, and that was the point, just as the aim of art is to select and simplify, in Cather's words: "finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader's consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page" (On Writing 102). The creator of a national park does much the same thing, deciding how much forest can be allotted to the logging company while preserving the spirit of the whole for the citizen's aesthetic experience of the wild. Deep into a national forest, one might thus experience the inexplicable presence of the trees not standing, the millions of acres that have been cleared and developed around the preserve for the good of that same civilization that possesses the "unaccountable predilection of the one unaccountable thing in man," as Cather once described the aesthetic impulses of humanity (On Writing 19).

Liberty Bailey, in The Holy Earth (1915), argued that "[o]ur relation with the planet must be raised into the realm of spirit; we cannot be fully useful otherwise.We must find a way to maintain the emotions in the abounding commercial civilization" (2). Bailey's work was part of a larger movement among naturalists to redefine the American's sense of the land, away from profit making and toward spirit making. Establishing an aesthetic appreciation for wildlands, in other words, was a crucial and quite consciously advocated concept among naturalists in Cather's era. A decade earlier, Nathaniel Shaler, in Man and the Earth (1905), linked environmental awareness to Darwinian evolution, suggesting that the "esthetic sense is the result of a natural process of development" (181). Shaler argued that human beings are stewards of the planet, who "have been sorely hindered by ancient misunderstandings" and so now need to be "reconciled to their great house and eager to help its order" (232-33). Dallas Lore Sharp, in The Lay of the Land (1908) praised the new "back-to-nature" trend in national magazines. "And this desire to know Nature is the reasonable, natural preparation for the deeper insight that leads to communion with her" (124). Sharp quotes Charles Kingsley and anticipates Jewett's remarks to Cather: "'He is a thoroughly good naturalist,'" says Kingsley, "'who knows his own parish thoroughly'" (214).

This was the milieu into which Cather offered My Ántonia— one where policymakers and technocrats, capitalists and intellectuals, were grappling with the right relation between human beings and nature. At issue was the question of how to preserve the American wilderness experience as an art form, how to transform carefully selected wildlands into sites of heightened experience, valued by virtue of the capitalist sacrifice of profit represented by preservation. Preservationist aesthetics reflect Cather's own aesthetic principles as well. In "The Art of Fiction," Cather suggests, "Any first-rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it" (On Writing 103). Any first-rate park, say, the Grand Canyon, must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good canyons sacrificed to highway bridges. Natural resources might thus be understood as the national imagination, out of which crystallize its first-rate landscape experiences.

Not since the beginning of the frontier era had so much public energy gone into the question of human life and its environment; but here, in the decades following the close of the frontier, leading to the publication of My Ántonia, the question took on a new urgency.[3] Conservation commissions met at the state, national, continental, and international levels. In 1908, the National Conservation Commission conducted an inventory of U.S. natural resources, and issued its three-volume report in 1909. In 1910, Commissioner Charles Van Hise called for "a profound and wide campaign of education which must begin at the universities, in national and state organizations, and must extend from them through the secondary and primary schools to the whole people. There is no other question before the nation of such fundamental importance to the distant future of the country" (13). Hise cites Supreme Court decisions that recognize the state as possessing "a standing in court to protect the atmosphere, the water, and the forests within its territory, irrespective of the assent or dissent of the private owners of the land most immediately concerned" (363). And in 1911, Mary Huston Gregory made a connection Cather would have appreciated, when, after listing "the many special beauties which are among the world's wonder-places," she asserts that "[t]o these must be added the relics of ancient civilization, the homes of the Cliff Dwellers, the work of the Mound Builders, and such fragments as still remain of the occupation in various times and places of certain Indian tribes, and of the Norsemen and the Spaniards" (303).

Jim Burden is emblematic of the conservation debate. He is both a legal counsel for the railroads (and so he profits by land development), and he is a preservationist, someone you can count on for funding "big Western dreams" (xi) of uncovering secret canyons and lost parks. It's Jim's "interest in women" that sparks this narration, as we know, and just as the nation has set apart certain landscapes to allow its citizens to enjoy nature, Jim "set apart time enough to enjoy [his] friendship" with Ántonia (xii). There's an equation at work there: Jim's connection with Ántonia does for him what the nation's connection to its landscape does for its people. The parallel evoked is an aesthetic experience, which for Cather is serious and vital business. After all, the "gift" in the portfolio is a novel. The novel, as it emerges from the nationalparks era, is an aesthetic projection of the will to preserve. What Jim gives Cather when he gives her his manuscript is indeed a gift—something worth saving.

Jim remembers very little about his initial ride into the prairie: "I do not remember crossing the Missouri River, or anything about the long day's journey through Nebraska" (5); "I do not remember our arrival at my grandfather's farm" (8). However, once he becomes accustomed to the landscape, his memories sharpen and subsequent days are not so lost. "I can remember exactly how the country looked to me as I walked beside my grandmother" (15); and "All the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first glorious autumn. The new country lay open before me" (27). From this point on, every incident of significant memory for Jim Burden will be preceded and framed by an account of the natural world, some natural occurrence or setting preserved within the narrative.

"One afternoon we were having our reading lesson on the warm, grassy bank where the badger lived. It was a day of amber sunlight . . . I had seen ice on the little horse-pond that morning, and . . . we found the tall asparagus, with its red berries" (36). So begins chapter 6, the scene where Jim and Ántonia come across the grasshopper, living past his season, "as if he were waiting for something to come and finish him" (37), whose song ("a thin, rusty little chirp" [38]) in turn reminds Ántonia of a woman she remembers, Old Hata, with her "cracked voice" (38). Both memories—Jim's of the reading lesson and Ántonia's of Old Hata, are preserved within the contours of the natural world.

The snake-killing episode, which alters their relationship, opens, "This change came about from an adventure we had together" (41) and then, before getting to the narration of events, Jim provides a thick description of landscape by way of preface, or perhaps, acknowledgement: "There had been another black frost the night before, and the air was clear and heady as wine. Within a week all the blooming roads had been despoiled— hundreds of miles of yellow sunflowers had been transformed into brown, rattling, burry stalks" (42).

Sometimes the seasons are keyed to significant recollections: "While the autumn color was growing pale on the grass and corn- fields, things went badly with our friends the Russians" (48); or "the debt grew faster than any crop he planted" (49). Seasons also envelope narrative points in time. "The first snowfall came early in December. I remember how the world looked from our sitting room window as I dressed behind the stove that morning" (60); "As soon as the snow had packed hard I began to drive about the country in a clumsy sleigh" (61). The day Mrs. Shimerda and Ántonia come to visit is similarly contextualized: "The week following Christmas brought in a thaw, and by New Year's Day all the world about us was a broth of gray slush, and the guttered slope between the windmill and the barn was running black water. . . . One morning, during this interval of fine weather, Ántonia and her mother rode over" (85); and later, "The big storm of the winter began on my eleventh birthday, the 20th of January" (88).

You will recall how Jim's memories of Mr. Shimerda are inextricable from his consciousness of winter. "There, on the bench behind the stove, I thought and thought about Mr. Shimerda. Outside I could hear the wind singing over hundreds of miles of snow. It was as if I had let the old man in out of the tormenting winter, and were sitting there with him. I went over all that Ántonia had ever told me about his life. . . . Such vivid pictures came to me" (98). Shimerda's grave, finally, is in itself an attenuated national park, a patch of preserved landscape, "with its tall red grass that was never mowed" (114) but was instead consciously preserved, untouched by roads and unsurveyed by the development companies, set aside to allow tired drivers a chance to wish him well.

Consistently, in "The Shimerdas," Jim's memories are acknowledged and made possible by memories of the landscape, in turn housing Jim's memories: "One Sunday I rode over [to the Shimerda's] with Jake to get a horse-collar which Ambrosch had borrowed from him and had not returned. It was a beautiful blue morning. The buffalo-peas were blooming in pink and purple masses along the roadside, and the larks, perched on last year's dried sunflower stalks, were singing straight at the sun, their heads thrown back and their yellow breasts a-quiver. The wind blew about us in warm, sweet gusts. We rode slowly, with a pleasant sense of Sunday indolence" (122-23).

In the town setting of "The Hired Girls," however, Jim's experience with the landscape is limited to an upstairs window where "we could see the winding line of the river bluffs, two miles south of us," a view he refers to as "compensation for the lost freedom of the farming country" (141). Nonetheless, this glimpsed landscape fuels memory. For example, Jim recalls teasing Ántonia as she prepares a cake one "crisp autumn evening, just cold enough to make one glad to quit playing tag in the yard, and retreat into the kitchen" (154). He recalls just when the dancing pavilion arrived: "It must have been in June, for Mrs. Harling and Ántonia were preserving cherries" (187). Even his pre-college exercises in rote memorization are closely associated with that glimpsed landscape: "Morning after morning I used to pace up and down my sunny little room, looking off at the distant river bluffs and the roll of the blond pastures between, scanning the Aeneid aloud and committing long passages to memory" (224). Ántonia, about to tell the story of the tramp who jumped into the thrashing machine, acknowledges first that: One day it was just awful hot. When we got back to the field from dinner, we took things kind of easy. . . . I was sitting against a straw stack, trying to get some shade. My wagon wasn't going out first, and somehow I felt the heat awful that day. The sun was so hot like it was going to burn the world up. After a while I see a man coming across the stubble, and when he got close I see it was a tramp. (171)

The hired girls are memorable because they literally embody the landscape—their bodies have worked it and it has in turn graced them with figures and spirits that Jim can recall with ease: "[O]ut-of-door work had given them a vigor which . . . made them conspicuous among Black Hawk women" (192). Jim's de sire to maintain a constant, unchanging vision of Ántonia, then, parallels his own era's efforts at land preservation. "Her warm, sweet face, her kind arms, and the true heart in her; she was, oh, she was still My Ántonia!" (218). Remembering Ántonia is an act of preservation, both for her sake and for Jim's. Like an American visiting the Grand Canyon, what Jim wants from Ántonia is perpetual wildness and youth. " Ántonia seemed to me that day exactly like the little girl who used to come to our house with Mr. Shimerda" (230).

While a university student, Jim becomes cognizant of what until then had been subconscious: the connection between landscape and memory. "Mental excitement was apt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it" (254). When one of those figures, Lena Lingard, appears before him, he articulates Cather's preservationist trope in the novel, aligning his twin desires to memorialize Ántonia and to be the first to memorialize and thus preserve the Nebraska landscape. "It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry ofVirgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry" (262). If there were no landscapes like those preserved in national parks and on land reserves, there would be no nation, no historical sense, no experience of wildness, and no spirit of American identity— there would be no country into which to bring his Muse. He brings this connection with him when he returns to visit Ántonia in "The Pioneer Woman's Story" and finds that he remembers "the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces" (298). To Jim the experience is one of recognition: the knowledge of who he is, embedded deeply in the contours of the landscape.

Jim's reunion with Ántonia awakens him to his past and to his own memories of youth. In the same way that a national park evokes within us the origins of America as wilderness, as frontier, as the material out of which a country is made, visiting Ántonia in "The Pioneer Woman's Story" leads Jim to feel "the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there" (313). And as he leaves, recall, he believes "that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass" (314), preserved forever by the face of Ántonia and the conformation of the land. The preservation of "My Ántonia," furthermore, is a gesture toward remembering the significance of all the girls, especially those like Tiny Soderball and Lena Lingard, whose lives have developed so well as businesswomen. By preserving Ántonia, Jim memorializes them in the same way that a national forest preserves all forests behind the civilization. If Ántonia had had a good marriage to Donovan and disappeared into middleclass life, then all the girls would have been forgotten and the Muse would have never entered the country.

After his visit, Jim is off to law school to learn how to serve the railroads and other commercial and utilitarian purposes. Nonetheless, the space of twenty years cannot lessen the power of Ántonia to bring him back. Her eyes are worth preserving: "I had seen no others like them since I looked into them last, though I had looked at so many thousands of human faces" (321). In her orchard Jim is restored to his own youth. Like an urbanite at Yellowstone, Jim feels that "[e]verything was as it should be: the strong smell of sunflowers and ironweed in the dew, the clear blue and gold of the sky, the evening star," so that early days return to his mind. "I began to feel the loneliness of the farm-boy at evening, when the chores seem everlastingly the same, and the world so far away" (336). His experience in Black Hawk is quite different, as we would expect, as town is the site of development and progress. "Most of my old friends were dead or had moved away. Strange children, who meant nothing to me, were playing in the Harling's big yard when I passed; the mountain ash had been cut down, and only a sprouting stump was left of the tall Lombardy poplar that used to guard the gate. I hurried on" (357). Tocounter this assault on memory, Jim leaves town and wanders "out into the pastures where the land was so rough that it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks. Out there I felt at home again" (358). Progress has no memory, though life, as we live it, is constructed out of a fleeting present and continuously expanding recollections. Without memory, significance cannot construct. Cather wrote My Ántonia in the era of the establishment of national parks, when the frontier's closure meant that the wildness of open lands, if it were to continue to form the soul of the nation, had to be preserved. Bringing the Muse into her country at this time meant explaining, on aesthetic grounds, why we must preserve the landscape and reserve significant portions of it as monuments to what it was that formed the national psyche and spirit.

When Jim leaves town for his origins, he finds that the road that brought him from Black Hawk to his childhood home "had been ploughed under when the highways were surveyed," except for a half-mile or so. Nonetheless, the preservation of this half-mile is enough: "I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness" (359). In 1910, Gifford Pinchot claimed that "[t]he success of the conservation movement in the United States depends in the end on the understanding the women have of it" (101), and women's organizations played an important role. Cather employed her understanding by showing how one young lawyer's consciousness could be changed by a woman's representations—hers, and Ántonia's—changed for the better, as far as his effect on land policy may proceed. In 1921, Cather told the Lincoln State Journal she had "made a plea for the preservation of the native trees. . . . Farmers say that cottonwood draws moisture from the fields. I am not asking them to plant more, but to let stand those great trees that are dear to the pioneers" (40). How can we convince people of the value of preservation? Cather's contemporaries—scientists, governors, presidents, jurists, naturalists—argued for the education of Americans about the value of preserving lands from finite development.

In My Ántonia, Cather models a preservationist aesthetic by constructing a work of art in which her protagonist's capacity to remember his own life is inextricable from the landscape of his childhood and the figures with whom his childhood was entangled. A major portion of his own past, Jim admits, consists of what " Ántonia's name recalls to me" (xiii). And if it were not for these preserved places—preserved by Ántonia's choice to stay on the land—Jim would quite literally have no memories; he would have lived no life and may have remained, perpetually, crossing the country by train. His initial blanks—"I do not remember crossing the Missouri River or anything about the long day's journey through Nebraska" (5); "I do not remember our arrival at my grandfather's farm" (8)—might then extend as a kind of horror throughout his experience, like some Muse who can't find the country calling her name.

Jim Burden was "an obscure young lawyer" (x), a railroad man, known for his interest in "hunting for lost parks or exploring new canyons," an interest as strong as his "interest in women" (ix)—both of which interests, in women and in lost canyons, are identified, by Cather, as "Western and American." Before starting My Ántonia, Cather visited Mesa Verde, not quite a canyon, but lost for some time. David Harrell claims that "this trip to Mancos and Mesa Verde in August 1915 was not just a stimulating excursion but also the major step along the way toward the composition of one of her finest narratives," The Professor's House (35). More immediately, Cather's visit to Mesa Verde in 1915 provided her the direct inspiration for a novel she began right after the trip, one with aesthetic, not factual or contentsimilarity to Mesa Verde National Park. It was her visit to the ruins of Mesa Verde—or more accurately, her visit (when she quite literally got lost in the park), as Jim Burden, someone who "means action" (xi) when he travels—that awakened Cather to a connection with deep cultural currency in the second decade of the twentieth century, that between knowledge of the landscape and the human capacity to remember.

Traces of Cather's Mesa Verde excursion may be found on the pages of My Ántonia. Cather wrote about her trip to the Anasazi ruins in an essay published in the Denver Times in 1916. "In the morning you take another train for Mancos," Cather wrote, describing the trip to Mesa Verde, "a friendly train with invariably friendly passengers and a conductor who has been on that run for fourteen years and who can give you all sorts of helpful information" (Rosowski and Slote 82). Jim Burden's description of his train ride from Chicago to Black Hawk is quite similar: "[W]e were under the protection of a friendly passenger conductor, who knew all about the country to which we were going and gave us a great deal of advice in exchange for our confidence" (4). As Cather approached Mesa Verde in 1915, she noted how it "stood as if it had been deserted yesterday; undisturbed and undesecrated, preserved by the dry atmosphere and by its great inaccessibility" (Rosowski and Slote 84). The prairie landscape, in turn, preserved its meanings for Jim, and he notes how "The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things" (ix). Of the Cliff Dwellers, Cather wrote: "The great dramas of the weather and the seasons occupied their minds a good deal, and they seem to have ordered their behavior according to the moon, the sun, and the stars" (Rosowski and Slote 85). They must have known what Jim Burden knew, that "[t]he pale, cold light of the winter sunset . . . was like the light of truth itself" (167) because "[o]n the farm the weather was the great fact." In the winter, in Black Hawk, "the scene of human life was spread out shrunken and pinched," like some mummified old corpse (175). "Certainly it is the human record, however slight, that stirs us most deeply, and a country without such a record is dumb, no matter how beautiful" (Rosowski and Slote 85). Cather wrote this first of Mesa Verde, and then, a year or so later, of Nebraska: "There was nothing but land: not a country at all," (7) until Jim Burden emerges with his preservationist ideals: "for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country" (256).

Cather's experience at Mesa Verde had a profound effect on the shape of her fiction and on her aesthetic sensibilities.[4] But one thing she may have realized right away: The preservation movement of the early twentieth century (Mesa Verde was established as a national park in June 1906—just one month after Tom Outland leftWashington, by the way) applied not only to ancient ruins but should properly inform as well the way we think about the landscape we live in now.[5] Mesa Verde—the national park, the Anasazi use of landscape, the American act of preservation— is writ large in the structure and form of My Ántonia. In its historical context, the novel suggests that while we may want to restore and remember the ruins of ancient civilizations, and preserve our frontier heritage by setting aside wilderness landscapes, we also must work to insure that the past we are making now survives future development. All that is left, once the human beings have died, is the landscape they created. "All of our landscapes, from city park to the mountain hike, are imprinted with our tenacious, inescapable obsessions," according to Simon Schama. "So that to take the many and several ills of the environment seriously does not, I think, require that we trade in our cultural legacy or its posterity. It asks instead that we simply see it for what it has truly been: not the repudiation, but the veneration of nature" (Schama 18). All use is veneration: what human beings do with the landscape, from cliff dwelling to plowing to (yes) pavement, is veneration in the sense that it is done to further civilization. Neither utilitarians nor preservationists can claim to represent nature's preference, when both utilitarians and preservationists are inextricable from the natural environment they embody and inhabit. When Jim acknowledges "all the human effort that had gone into" the "flat tableland" of Nebraska, transforming what was once a wild landscape into a patchwork "broken up into wheatfields and cornfields" and changing "the whole face of the country" (298), he creates an aesthetic experience of the latest American land-dwellers and their way of inscribing a civilization into the landscape. Mesa Verde Park saves not so much the Anasazi—they're long gone—but saves the idea that landscapes embody the past. Preserving landscapes, in turn, is remembering: it is the aesthetic expression and the physical behavior of memory itself.

In preparation for her visit to Cliff City, Willa Cather read C. C. Mason's 1914 report "The Story of the Discovery and Early Exploration of the Cliff Houses at the Mesa Verde." Mason was among the first modern Americans to come upon the Anasazi ruins. Mason describes finding four skeletons in Cliff City: "The skull of each of the three older people had been crushed in, and between them on the floor was a large stone ax, the blade of which just fitted the dent in the skulls" (qtd. in Harrell 50). Cather provides an identical detail in casting the death of Mr. Shimerda, when Jake testifies that Krajiek's axe "just fit the gash in the front of the old man's face" (93). That's evidence of a (Merrill) Skaggsian literary conversation, either between Cather and Mason, Mother Eve and Mr. Shimerda, or the mysteries of Cliff Dwellers and the equally awesome experiences of early Sod Dwellers in the Nebraska prairie lands. In any case, to know these landscapes is to look squarely into the face of such mysteries; one can miss them no less likely than one can dodge an axe to the forehead. The aesthetic experience of Mesa Verde stimulated Cather's thinking about her own Nebraska childhood. It led her to return to materials she had explored in O Pioneers! but without the interest in land speculation or triumphant female farmers and unconsummated love affairs. What Jim Burden gave Willa Cather when he presented his manuscript to her was something he saw in Ántonia that Willa Cather had not recognized before her visit to Mesa Verde. The realization may have effected so profound a transformation that she imagined she had become another person as a result.

At the fourth National Parks Conference in 1917, Herbert Quick, member of the Federal Farm Loan Board, issued a call for American authors to write about American natural settings, "to fill the literature of the United States . . . with the beauties and the graces and the charms and the grandeur of the national parks of this country." This, Quick argued, "would be the finest thing in the world for the people of this country, because," as Jim Burden might have said, "as a matter of fact, a man sees in nature what he takes to nature. A man brings back from the journey nothing more nor less than what it gives him." The national parks, like the national literature, declare "that the time has now arrived when we must make our own legends, and our own superstitions" (Interior 130). Today, the American ecologist and philosopher David Abram, at the forefront of contemporary ecocriticism, has much the same argument: "Our task . . . is that of taking up the written word, with all of its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land." The "we" in Abram's words is us, critics and peddlers in literary studies. "Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the things themselves—to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches" (Abram 273). Reading land out of the language of Cather's novel requires that we ask again what it was that Cather sought to preserve in My Ántonia. In 1918, Jim Burden gave Willa Cather what the nation was busily giving itself through its frenetic efforts to preserve as much of its wildlands and natural wonders as was possible given the equally frenetic demands of American capitalism and corporate expansion. In Jim Burden's legal portfolio was Cather's revelation ("the old pull of the earth") of the autochthonous quality of memory. The era Cather lived in was consumed by the connection it sensed between the American landscape and the nation's vitality—its history, its economy, and its future. In Congress, in commissions, and in literary expression, the nation was groping to remember, despite rapid expansion and world war.

From our perspective, and with our charge to write language back into the land, we can see that the culture of national-park creation was one that desired above all the preservation of its own memory, and so inscribed its sense of the past into landscapes to rival the ruins of ancient civilizations. Of the Anasazi, Cather wrote, "They seem not to have struggled to overcome their environment. They accommodated themselves to it, interpreted it and made it personal; lived in a dignified relation with it. In more senses than one they built themselves into it" (Rosowski and Slote 85). She may as well have described her own era, as the nation accommodated, interpreted, and assured that emblems of its national wildlands would be available forever as sites of personal experience. Jim's gift to her contained the landscape, the open expanse, and the grounded revelation of Willa Cather's environmental imagination. In more senses than one, she built herself out of it.


 1. Information on the conservation movement taken from public documents linked to the American Memory Project chronology may be found at, "The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1860-1920." (Go back.)
 2. Hays describes a division over national parks policy, between those who wanted them protected as sacred places and those who wanted them open to grazing and lumbering. The debate took tactical form when Congress deliberated on whether Parks should be with the Department of Agriculture or with the Interior Department. The result was a victory for advocates of nature aesthetics. See Hays, 1959. (Go back.)
 3. "The passing away of the great frontier of the West came as an unpleasant shock to many Americans. . . . Even as late as the 1870s, it had been possible to believe the nation would never run out of timber, minerals, or open lands. The fact that wonderlands such as Yellowstone were not officially discovered until early in the decade only reinforced this conviction. Yet within the space of a few years this belief no longer seemed tenable. . . . the close of the frontier lent a new sense of urgency to protection programs" (Runte 59). (Go back.)
 4. For a fuller exploration of this relation, see Swift and Urgo. (Go back.)
 5. See H.R. 5998, An Act Creating Mesa Verde National Park (June 29, 1906). Consequently, when Tom takes pottery with him when he leaves Mesa Verde in the winter of 1906-07, he is guilty of the misdemeanor outlined in Sec. 4 of the act, carrying a maximum fine of $1,000 or one year in prison, "and shall be required to restore the property undisturbed, if possible." Perhaps that's why he went into the army. (Go back.)


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