Spring 2006

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"The Happiness and the Curse": Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and The Ecological Paradox

By Cliff Boyer, Ph.D. student, University of Oregon

Ecological paradox refers to a fictional motif that recurs with frequency and consistency in American literary naturalism of the early twentieth century. This motif features a character, usually the leading figure of the story but not always, who expresses an intense desire for a more meaningful relationship with the land or environment, or is characterized as having that special relationship. However, his or her behavior then directly contradicts this desire or connection, usually in senseless exploitation of the land or in achieving financial success at the expense of the natural environment.

My first insight into this motif was born out of a reading of Owen Wister's The Virginian, in which the cowboy expresses a keen desire to "become the ground, become the water, become the trees," to "mix with the whole thing" and "never unmix again" (396). Paradoxically, this yearning conflicts with his entrepreneurial activities as a ranching and mining industrial capitalist at the end of the novel. I have found similar examples in writers such as Frank Norris, who portrays several figures in The Octopus that represent this conflict; Jack London's depictions of evolutionary processes and resource exploitation such as mining in the Yukon; and Ernest Hemingway, particularly in his Nick Adams stories, such as "Big Two-Hearted River," where Nick looks for psychic regeneration in a decimated natural environment and further degrades it with his fishing activities. Like Willa Cather, Hemingway exhibits this conflict in his personal life as well, and it is most fully articulated in Green Hills of Africa.

The ecological paradox is a fictional representation that reflects a larger cultural apprehension about resource exploitation and the growing need for conservation, and is exemplified in the often problematic utilitarian conservation policies of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot during the progressive era. Nicolas Witschi points out that the American West, associated with nature as the "great outdoors" of "wide-open spaces, unfettered opportunity, and . . . boundless scenery," may be said to be "a key late-nineteenth-century production of American Realism" (4-5). However, concern for conservation grew as the West moved from frontier to settlement to commercial and industrial playground. Witschi recognizes that realism, "founded on the representation of the West's natural beauty, is in fact keenly engaged with the West's natural resource industries" (11). I argue that naturalism, at least in part, reflects growing cultural anxiety and ambivalence about the practice of personal and industrial resource exploitation.[1]

The ecological paradox is important in understanding Willa Cather's representations of human interaction with the land because many ecocritics have read her as an "ecological writer." The fifth volume of Cather's Studies, titled Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination, is devoted to an examination of her status as an ecological writer who emphasizes interconnections between humans and the natural environment, and features many contributions from leading ecocritics. Cheryl Glotfelty, opens her essay, "A Guided Tour of Ecocriticism with Excursions to Catherland," by claiming that her "own journey to ecocriticism transpired via a series of environmentally preoccupied conference papers on Willa Cather" (28). Glotfelty suggests that "emerging ecocriticism of Willa Cather reveals a strikingly variegated palette of green readings." But she feels it necessary to "warn" her readers "that some of these treatments fault Cather for being unenvironmental" (30). Perish the thought. She argues further that "ecocritics of Cather's work are quickly establishing what might be called a 'canon' of environmental scenes" (33). It is these "canonical" scenes that I believe Cather undermines in instances reflecting the ecological paradox.

Glen Love argues that in The Professor's House, Cather "avoids the one-dimensional approach that reads culture and nature according to the current reigning ideological stance" (21). As my present argument will demonstrate, I agree that Cather greatly complicates her representations of human relationships with the natural environment; however, these complications reveal that Cather is deeply entwined with the ideologies of her time. Love, like other ecocritics, endorses a return to realism as the best means of representing nature ; and he promotes (biological) science at the expense of post-structuralist theory in his ecocriticism. Susan Rosowski states in her introduction to the volume that Love "argues for the role of science in literary criticism" to "reinvigorate it" (ix). Science and critiques of science can "reinvigorate" literary criticism, but I agree with Dana Phillips that because the latest ecological theories emphasize environmental indeterminism and instability, "ecology today . . . might be said to be more like post-structuralism" than the discourse of a "recuperative" and stable realism (580 my emphasis).

The ecological paradox complicates easy assumptions about Cather's sense of ecology. For example, Crazy Ivar is a character that many ecocritics point to as an exemplar of ecological sensitivity and he is represented in the novel as the only other character besides Alexandra with a profound relationship with nature, especially animals. Patrick Dooley argues that Cather's treatment of Ivar reveals a "biocentric worldview" (71) and situates her as "a hands-off preservationist" (69). Guy Reynolds claims that Cather articulates an "organic modernism" (179) and as one example, he associates Ivar's sod hut with Frank Lloyd Wright's modernist "organic architecture" (175-76) because like other similar buildings in Cather's fiction, it accepts "the constraints of the environment" (176). However, Ivar loses his land because he doesn't cultivate or manage it productively, as does Alexandra with her land, thus demonstrating the complex nature of the ecological paradox.

Not only does Willa Cather often represent manifestations of the ecological paradox in her fiction, her own life illustrates it as well. She was imaginatively and emotionally connected with the West generally and the land of Nebraska in particular, yet she lived most of her adult life first in Pittsburgh and later in New York City. In describing her first reaction as a child to the Nebraska landscape after her family had moved there from Virginia, Willa Cather reveals an ambivalence that seems to echo the ecological paradox in spirit if not in fact: "So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life" (Bennett 140).

Mildred R. Bennett asserts that Cather realized how unfit "for the life in the wilderness" many of the immigrant women she encountered on the prairie were and putting herself in their place, "she became, with them, one with the earth" (139 my emphasis). She may have become "one with the earth" but it was an uneasy alliance. The ecological paradox can be seen as one more ambiguity in Cather's life and work, which, as many of her biographers and other critics have demonstrated, are a mass of ambiguities and contradictions.

Because the ecological paradox seems most pronounced in O Pioneers! I will examine the most telling examples of it in the novel, while extending Judith Butler's argument in Bodies that Matter regarding gendered cross identifications in Cather's My Antonia. Butler locates these identificatory associations in the name: "At issue is how to read the name as . . . a site where the dynamic of identification is at play, and to read the name as an occasion for the retheorization of cross-identification . . . at work in every identificatory practice" (143). I argue that Cather locates another site of gendered identification with the land as well to create what Butler calls a "dangerous crossing" that destabilizes the meanings of the relationships to the land that she represents.

Cather is consistent in representing the land as both happiness and curse in her fiction and she deploys the ecological paradox rhetorically, symbolically and thematically. For Cather the land is the source of everything-including identificatory meaning. Those not intimately connected with the land, usually males such as Carl Linstrum and Frank Shabata, are portrayed as weak and impotent or ignorantly crass-they are cut off from their "source." We are told Carl "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" (6).

Alexandra Bergson, on the other hand, is a refashioned male hero whose strength is derived directly from the land she successfully cultivates: "You feel that . . . it is in the soil that she expresses herself best" (32). Cather initiates an aesthetic eroticism that indicates Alexandra's connection with the land, as evidenced by Alexandra's dreams of her strong, male "Corn God" who would lift and carry her and "took from her all her bodily weariness" (81). At the same time, however, Cather rhetorically creates identificatory displacement and distance, often from the land itself, as complications resulting from the destabilization of accepted gender norms and sexuality multiply in her text, thus rhetorically enacting the ecological paradox.

In the opening of the novel a five-year-old Emil is distraught because his little kitty is stuck at the top of a telegraph pole. The pole itself is phallic and a helpless "pussy" if you will is stuck on its tip, suggesting male dominance and penetration. Alexandra goes for help and finds Carl Linstrum studying "a portfolio of chromo 'studies'" (3), immediately establishing him as a sensitive boy and artist. He is "slight and narrow chested" (3), there is a "delicate pallor in his thin face," his mouth is "too sensitive for a boy's" (4). He is not a stereotypical male heroic figure but Carl climbs the pole (phallus) and rescues the kitty, thus perpetrating heterosexual coitus interruptus by an act that can be construed as homosexual.

This initial impression of effeminacy is reinforced by Carl's disconnection from the land, a source of nurturing strength, and is later evidenced by his impotent inability to be a productive male in his adult life: he leaves the prairie with his family because of their failure as farmers, and they return to the city where Carl apprentices as an engraver and then fails in that profession. He later goes to Alaska in what appears to be a fruitless search for gold reflecting the restlessness of pioneers in search of quick wealth. The narrator says at the end of the novel, "There are always dreamers on the frontier" (119). This restlessness, a trait shared by many in the settlement of the West, indicates a rootlessness that Cather seems to equate with a fundamental disconnection to the land. Ironically, the original sod torn up by these restless settlers was characterized by extensive root systems. Yet Alexandra successfully exploits the rootlessness of many of her neighbors by speculatively buying up and farming their denuded land.

As she looks for Carl to enlist his aid in rescuing the kitty, Alexandra crosses paths with a drummer (another traveling, rootless man trying to make a buck on the frontier) who flirtatiously admires her thick blonde hair: "My God, girl, what a head of hair!" (3). She immediately "stabs" him "with a glance of Amazonian fierceness . . . most unnecessary severity" (3), leaving the drummer stupefied and speechless and seeking solace in the nearest saloon. The violence of her look ("stabs"-she is penetrating him) and the suggestion of female martial strength ("Amazonian fierceness") displaces Alexandra in the middle of an event that is ostensibly rather traditional. It undermines the impression of a helpless female in need of rescue and emphasizes her own strength and potency.

In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus characterizes the Amazons as "hating men" (line 789) and according to legend it was said that they cut off their right breasts to facilitate effective use of the bow and arrow. Thus Cather is furthering the gendered sexual ambiguities she is establishing at the very beginning of the novel by associating Alexandra with women who "hate men" and who at the same time disclaim their femininity by disfiguring themselves to perpetrate violence. Additionally, she is seeking help in interrupting the symbolic heterosexual penetration of the phallus and pussy. She can't and doesn't "climb the pole" to rescue the kitty, and she and Carl conspire to disrupt this act of heterosexuality together. If Carl is characterized with qualities traditionally associated with women-imaginative, sensitive, artistic-and Alexandra displays the (warrior) strength of a male, then this is the first act of "crossing" to occur in a novel in which these dangerous crossings proliferate with a fertility of their own.

Historically, the land itself historically has been conceptualized as female. According to Annette Kolodny, "America's oldest and most cherished fantasy" has been that of "harmony between man and nature based on an experience of the land as essentially feminine-that is, not simply the land as mother, but the land as woman, the total female principle of gratification" (4). In O Pioneers! we are told that "the brown earth, with such a strong, clean smell, and such power of growth and fertility in it, yields itself eagerly to the plow; rolls away from the shear, not even dimming the brightness of the metal, with a soft, deep sigh of happiness" (29). The land here is figured as a strong woman who happily yields herself to the phallic plow for insemination. Cather extends the sensual and passionate relationship between Alexandra and the Corn God to the land itself: "when she [Alexandra] was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil" (80).

It was said at that time that "rain follows the plow" implying that once the seeds of crops were implanted, semen in the form of rain would naturally come to leach the seeds deep into the soil or female womb and would further the process of germination. This idea represented "a new school of meteorology" predicated on divine intervention (Reisner 35) and played an instrumental role in luring settlers out to the plains region of the West, which was thought of as the "Great American Desert" (Reisner 37). It was believed that the act of plowing and cultivating the soil actually caused more rainfall. One early advocate of this perspective, Charles Dana Wilber argued, "God speed the plow . . . By this wonderful provision, which is only man's mastery over nature, the clouds are dispersing copious rains . . . [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden" (qtd in "Rain"). Unusually heavy rainfall during the 1870's and 1880's seemed to confirm these claims. Speculators capitalized on this idea, even if they thought it was nonsense (Reisner 37), so they, like Alexandra, could buy up abandoned homesteads for a pittance once the droughts returned-as they surely did.

A utilitarian perspective that confirms man's mastery over a feminized natural environment, as articulated in the ideology of rain and plow, coincides with the conservation policies being advocated by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot in the early twentieth century. As Chief Forester serving to broaden and enforce Roosevelt's new conservation policies, Pinchot advocated a "wise use" style of forestry, rather than preservation, in which forests were protected and maintained for resource extraction, albeit, in a more sustainable fashion: "the fundamental principle of the whole conservation policy is that of use, to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will serve the most people" (qtd. in Nash 171). Despite his wish that wild lands be saved for the use of sportsmen and hunters, Roosevelt supported Pinchot's policies. Couched in terms of feminine domesticity, Roosevelt argued that "the primary object of forest policy . . . is the making of prosperous homes, [and] is part of the traditional policy of homemaking in our country" (qtd. in Nash 163).

In O Pioneers! the depiction of the land as feminine is inconsistent. Similar to the destabilization of gender that occurs in the opening scene, Cather inverts this essentialized conception of a feminized nature. Rather than fully portraying the land as female, Cather also characterizes it as a potent and forceful male. The "Genius of the Divide" suggests a strong intellectual and creative force-masculine attributes-that, like the genii of Roman myth, directs the lives and energies of the humans scratching out an existence on the prairie. It is the distinctive and prevailing spirit of the land. It could be argued that the land itself remains conceptually female responding to this male spirit. However, "Genius of the Divide" suggests mind in matter-dissolving the distinction between spirit and the material world and blurring their gendered associations. The narrator tells us, "The air and earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other" (29-30). Furthermore, the "female land" doesn't readily respond to the efforts of other male farmers. In fact, we are told that "Its Genius was unfriendly to man" (8), suggesting that it is hostile to "man" or humanity generically but also maleness in particular. It responds to Alexandra, however, "the great, free spirit which breathes across it [the Divide], must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before" (26).

All of which suggests an interesting set of questions: Is the land and its masculine spirit responding to Alexandra as a woman, indicating a heterosexual attraction that results in the fertile production of crops? Or is it responding to her male persona indicating a homosexual attraction that inexplicably results in fertility? And if this is the case-why doesn't it respond to other male efforts in the context of the novel? Or can it be construed as a lesbian relationship based on traditional figurations of the land and also resulting with a degree of fertility such a relationship ostensibly precludes? Then again-based on traditional feminine conceptions of the land, could the male persona of Alexandra be responding to the feminine soil in another instance of heterosexual interaction? Alexandra's recurring and powerful erotic dreams of the Corn God, an embodiment of the spirit of the land, further complicate these cross identifications.

These are not empty speculations because these complicated identifications actually reflect natural processes: "Plant species exhibit great variability in sexual reproduction and this has significant effects on the genetic constitution of individuals, especially the average heterozygosity or homozygosity that they possess" (Smith and Halbrook 107). For example, more than 400 plant species including many grasses reproduce by creating a somatic cell or embryo within their own body ("apomixis" or asexual reproduction) (Smith and Halbrook 108). Most flowering plants are similarly hermaphroditic or literally bisexual and are called "monoecious" meaning "one house." Monoecious plants can be self-pollinating where no blockage to the acceptance of pollen from itself occurs (Boyer). The reproduction of some plants combines this process of self-regeneration with typical fertilization. Plants are characterized as heterozygous (different alleles at a locus), homozygous (the same alleles exist at a locus), or as hybrids (offspring of genetically dissimilar plants) (Smith and Halbrook 106). Hybridization occurs when there is cross-pollination between individuals of the same species that are from different populations, or cross-pollination between two different species in the same genus ("Genius"?) (Boyer).[2] In this sense Cather does approach an ecological perspective by associating her characters and their ambiguously gendered identities with the diversity of these processes.

That Cather possessed a reasonable degree of botanical knowledge has been acknowledged by her biographers and critics. Indeed, Cather herself claimed that she was entranced by Nebraska's wildflowers, and that there was "one book that I would rather have produced than all my novels. That is the [Frederick] Clemens [sic] botany dealing with the wildflowers of the west" (Bohlke 47). She also heavily annotated F. Schuyler Matthews' Field book of American Wild Flowers (1902) (Rosowski xi). Cather's association with early ecologists such as Charles E. Bessey and Frederick Clements and others while attending the University of Nebraska has been well documented.[3] While this confirms Cather's awareness of biological and ecological processes and methodologies, it must be remembered that early ecological thinking was quite different from our understanding today. To credit Cather as an "ecological writer" from a shallow perspective of "interconnectedness" is to overlook these discrepancies. Even then, there were disputes between Clements with his "organismal" concept of biological communities of species interacting in an integrated whole, and H.A. Gleason with his "individualistic continuum" which stipulated that the relationships among species coexisting in a community are the result of similar requirements and tolerances for survival rather than as a result of common evolutionary history. For Gleason, these relationships were the result of complimentary competitive needs for survival. Current ecological thinking involves elements of both perspectives.[4]

Despite whatever knowledge Cather may have possessed regarding ecological principles, in the novel, the direct response of the land to Alexandra's will encapsulates the moment of epiphany in which Alexandra thematically enacts the ecological paradox. After her father's death, Alexandra travels with Emil to look at farms along the river to find out what has made them so successful when farmers on the Divide usually fail. They are highly successful farms because of the investments made by the mostly absent owners in new agricultural technology and new farming techniques. As she and Emil travel back up to the Divide, however, Alexandra feels a more intimate connection with the land: "For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious" (25).

This is the moment of ecological paradox in which the character feels an intense "yearning" for a close connection with the earth. It also underscores the passionate eroticism that characterizes her relationship with the land. Alexandra stares out over the land until she is nearly "blinded" by her tears. But the insight that Alexandra carries away from this experience, and what she has observed along the river, is that she and her brothers must buy up as much land as possible from failing farmers who wish to sell. By using the land for speculation and enlarging the amount of land she actually farms by employing new agricultural technologies that would increase production, Alexandra feels that they will improve their chances for success. Of course, it was the work of farmers such as Alexandra, replacing the deeply rooted sod with high yield mono-cultural crop production, which eventually led to the Dust Bowl a few decades later.

Cather's own attitude toward the land is evident in an article she wrote, "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle," for The Nation magazine in 1923. She describes the trek of "the first courageous settlers" who "came straggling out through the waste with their oxen and covered wagons" (237 my emphasis) and who broke the sod to be used in constructing their homes. She points out that some of these homes "lingered on until the open range was gone and the grass was gone, and the whole face of the country had been changed" (238). This is not a melancholy outcome for Cather, rather she mourns the passing of those early pioneers and celebrates their success in subduing "the wild land" and breaking up "the virgin prairie" so that now "the whole state is a farm" (238). The land however, proves to be both happiness and curse because "too much prosperity" has brought with it "the ugly crest of materialism" of easy wealth and consumption (238). The early settlers achieved "a moral victory" because their material prosperity "was wrung from hard conditions" and was "the result of a struggle that tested character" (238).

Alexandra's character is tested and she is morally victorious. She moves from a deep emotional attachment to or intimacy with the land to treating the land as a commodity for capital investment and implementing the latest technologies that further production at the expense of the soil itself. Her desire moves from one that is vaguely erotic to one in which desire is satisfied with material success. Furthermore, Cather implies that the land encourages and supports this emotional transition, Alexandra's later success validates it. Thus, Cather can be seen as fully implicated in the ideologies of progress and taming the wild land that were articulated in notions regarding manifest destiny and the mastery of nature. The idea of "taming" the wild land itself, which Cather fully endorsed, blurs the distinction between male enterprise and feminine domesticity and indicates a cultural "dangerous crossing." Alexandra, as conquering female hero, embodies it. Ecocritics who are quick to characterize Cather as an "ecological" writer representing interconnection between humans and nature often seem to ignore the problematic paradoxes that undermine such a perspective.

 1. For a full discussion of realism and representations of nature, see Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge and London: Belknap, 1995. For Glen Love's views regarding realism and science see Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment. Charlottesville and London: U of Virginia P, 2003. (Go back.)
 2. My thanks to my wife and partner, Lynda Boyer, MS, a professional botanist and restoration biologist, for providing much of this information and suggesting the cited article, "A Plant Genetics Primer: Basic Terminology" by Steven E. Smith and Kandres Halbrook. (Go back.)
 3. Susan Rosowski's article, 'Willa Cather's Ecology of Place," Western American Literature 30 (2000): 37-51, is especially helpful in providing background information regarding Cather's association with Bessey and Clements. (Go back.)
 4. For information regarding the history of ecological thinking as it was developed at the University of Nebraska, and the scientific disputes between Clements and Gleason, see Ronald C. Tobey's Saving the Prairies: The Life Cycle of the Founding School of American Plant Ecology, 1895-1955. Berkeley: U of California P, 1981. (Go back.)

Works Cited

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Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1951.
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---. "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle." The Nation 37(1923): 236-238.
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Phillips, Dana. "Ecocriticism, Literary Theory, and the Truth of Ecology." New Literary History. 30 (1999): 577-602. "Rain Follows the Plow." The West: The Geography of Hope, Episode Seven (1877-1887). PBS.org. 2001. Oregon Public Broadcasting. 3 Oct. 2005.
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