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From Cather Studies Volume 5

Biocentric, Homocentric, and Theocentric Environmentalism in O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop

The classical statement of ecological ethics is Aldo Leopold's "The Land Ethic," published posthumously in 1949 as the last part of A Sand County Almanac. Leopold observed that human ethical sensitivity can be seen as a gradually widening circle of beings respected as possessing intrinsic worth. That is, beings within "the magic circle" should not be regarded as mere things to be used as a matter of expediency. Leopold noted that, in the distant past, the circle has expanded from self to family, to clan, then to tribe, nation, and race and on to the entire human race. More recently, some animals (dolphins, porpoises, whales, and primates) were considered worthy of respect. Leopold's proposal is that we enlarge our sense of community to include all animals, then all living things and eventually, to the land itself:

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. . . . The land ethic simply enlarged the boundaries of the community to include soils, water, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from a conqueror of the land-community to a plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such. (203-04)

In two areas, Leopold's position is problematic. First, does that land have intrinsic as opposed to instrumental value and second, what is entailed by "respect"? Leopold's ambiguity is critical at both points. In the first, Leopold is unclear whether we ought to acknowledge that the land actually possesses intrinsic value or that we ought to confer upon it a quasi-intrinsic value. In his second ambiguity, he sometimes translates respect into a wise use of the land, an imperative requiring careful conservation practices; at other times, he shifts his position and urges hands-off preservationist policies. Leopold's ambiguities are clearly connected—if the land possesses intrinsic value, an ethical stance of noninterference seems warranted. He states, for example, "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise" (224- 25). On the other hand, if the land ought to be valued as if it has intrinsic value, another sort of ethical position is dictated. In this second case, because the land has value for us humans, a moderate, wise-use conservation morality is appropriate, "a land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, the use of these 'resources' [soil, water, plants and animals] but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state" (204). Philosophically speaking, the "hands-off" versus "wise-use" debate hinges upon a more basic, metaphysical disagreement—a clash of homocentric versus biocentric world-views. In what follows I will explore Cather's divided alliance: While her deepest environmental impulse, it seems to me, is in favor of a homocentric position of conservation, she also, though less often and with less fervor, sides with a biocentric position of preservation. My examination looks at My Ántonia,OPioneers! and Death Comes for the Archbishop.


Cather assumes as obvious and not requiring argument or justification that the natural world exists to serve human welfare and to satisfy human desires. It is, however, a pristine world that must be humanized, for in its original, natural state, it can be an alien, hostile place where settlers, native as well as emigrants, are unwelcome foreigners: 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) Though Cather's frontier is not the gritty, even malignant, place that Hamlin Garland's hapless homesteaders confront, nonetheless the setting is harsh and the contest with the land is a stern one. Witness Alexandra's father's trials: 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) In My Ántonia those who "struggle with the soil" (116) and fail were ill-prepared (undercapitalized, we would now say), duped by land sharks and unscrupulous merchants, or were physically and temperamentally unsuited to homesteading, as was Mr. Shimerda. But those who are patient and hardworking, resilient and resourceful, can succeed. As Cather puts it in OPioneers!, although "the land, in itself, is desirable," it is "an enigma" (27). But once the key is found and the puzzle solved, the land submits to the human hand that develops, tames, subdues, orders, masters, controls, and improves (all Cather's terms) it.

As William James puts it in Pragmatism, reality stands malleable for humans and tolerates, even welcomes, the humanizing touch. For Cather two points need to be emphasized: though it is "the wild land" (O Pioneers! 26), "a dark country" (24) with "wild soil" (49), and "a raw place" (59), after an initial struggle it readily tolerates the human imprint. Second, once humanized, the land becomes vastly more productive and fruitful, at least in so far as satisfying human desires. The natural world made to fit human designs is a recurring theme celebrated by Cather. Here are two of her accounts. In the first, it is sixteen years since John Bergson has died, and Alexandra, her brothers, and her mother have turned a homestead into an estate: They drove westward toward Norway Creek, and toward a big white house that stood on a hill, several miles across the fields. There were so many sheds and outbuilding grouped about that the place looked not unlike a tiny village. A stranger, approaching it, could not help noticing the beauty and fruitfulness of the outlying fields. There was something individual about the great farm, a most unusual trimness and care for detail. . . . Any one thereabouts would have told you that this was one of the richest farms on the Divide. (O Pioneers! 80) In the second account, Jim Burden, recently graduated from college and about to enter law school, has retraced his initial boyhood journey from Black Hawk to his grandfather's homestead. As a ten-year-old he was surrounded by nature: There seemed nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a county at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land. . . . I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. (My Ántonia 7) Ten years later the human had supplanted the natural: The wheat harvest was over, and here and there along the horizon I could see black puffs of smoke from the steam threshing-machines. The old pasture land was now being broken up into wheatfields and cornfields, the red grass was disappearing, and the whole face of the country was changing. There were wooden houses where the old sod dwellings used to be, and little orchards, and big red barns; all this meant happy children, contented women, and men who saw their lives coming to a fortunate issue. The windy springs and blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seem beautiful and harmonious. (My Ántonia 298) The "upshot" of this view, to use Leopold's term, is that the world is considered a commodity—a valuable commodity—but still an instrument in the service of human prerogatives. For Cather, then, homocentric conservation is first and foremost translated into wise-use partnership practices with the soil. Her ecological liturgy rejoices at "the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting" (My Ántonia 342). There is little need to worry about wasteful, shortsighted, foolish or abusive farming. Nature, ever vigorous and resilient, quickly recovers. For example, the narrator of O Pioneers! explains that "that summer the rains had been so many and opportune that it was almost more than Shabata and his man could do to keep up with the corn; [so] the orchard . . . [became] a neglected wilderness" (OPioneers! 138). Or much earlier, when it appears that mother and children will have to struggle on without Mr. Bergson, Alexandra expresses her misgivings: "I don't know what is to become of us, Carl, if father has to die. I don't dare think about it. I wish we could all go with him and let the grass grow back over everything." Carl made no reply. Just ahead of them was the Norwegian graveyard, where the grass had, indeed, grown back over everything, shaggy and red, hiding even the wire fence. (21-22) Some of Cather's characters, however, find wildness and naturalness the preferred state.


Though a biocentric metaphysics that refuses to rank species as higher or lower, or does not recognize some of them as having intrinsic versus instrumental value, is not a dominate stream in her philosophy, Cather gives preservationist ethics flowing from the biocentric view careful consideration. Interestingly she relies on non-Americanized characters to express her biocentric impulse: Ivar in O Pioneers! and the Navajos in Death Comes for the Archbishop. A hands-off preservation policy is for Cather, and the overwhelming majority of Americans, mostly a theoretical stance. This view is generally given the token status of a minority dissenting view, a fact Cather underscores by calling Ivar "Crazy" and by representing the Navajos, exiles in their own land, as exemplars of a life-centered ethic.

Crazy Ivar practices species egalitarianism at least down to the level of animals: he is a vegetarian, "he never ate meat, fresh or salt" (O Pioneers! 46), he won't allow guns near his big pond, saying, "'I have many strange birds stop with me here. They come from very far away and are great company. I hope you boys never shoot wild birds?'" (O Pioneers! 43); he communicates with horses and cattle, and he understands birds. Ivar's regard for the natural—"he preferred the cleanness and tidiness of the wild sod" (O Pioneers! 41)—and his ethic of noninterference are symbolized in his abode. He has made his home in the land without disturbing it. In his earth house: [A] door and a single window were set into the hillside. You would not have seen them at all but for the reflection of the sunlight upon the four panes of window-glass. And that was all you saw. Not a shed, not a corral, not a well, not even a path broken in the curly grass. But for the piece of rusty stovepipe sticking up through the sod, you could have walked over the roof of Ivar's dwelling without dreaming that you were near human habitation. Ivar had lived for three years in the clay bank, without defiling the face of nature any more than the coyote that had lived there before he had done. (39-40) The key word is defile. Though wise-use conservationists celebrate humanizing as improving, empowering, and assisting nature, hands-off preservationists see the same conduct as deplorable. Cather continues her critique of homocentric imperialism in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

When Bishop Latour travels with Jacinto he is tutored in no impact camping: When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand. Since this was exactly Jacinto's procedure, Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, to make it over a little . . . it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything. (235-36) The Navajos' hands-off posture also extends to their permanent dwellings: "They seemed to have none of the European's desire to 'master' nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves. This was not so much from indolence, the Bishop thought, as from an inherited caution and respect" (236-37). Recall Leopold's preservationist imperative that realistically (though grudgingly) sanctions some use of resources, while still maintaining that soil, water, plants, and animals have "a right to continued existence, and at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state" (Sand County Almanac 204). Cather's sense of the Southwest Native Americans' preservationist posture is very Leopoldian. Note especially her last two remarkable phrases: When they hunted, it was with the same discretion; an Indian hunt was never a slaughter. They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it. (Death Comes for the Archbishop 237)

Cather's willingness to endorse a biocentric world view, if only in the lives of two marginalized characters, is clear in her subtle and tellingly precise word to explain why Crazy Ivar has come to live with the Bergsons. "When Ivar lost his land through mismanagement a dozen years ago, Alexandra took him in, and he has been a member of her household ever since" (OPioneers! 83, emphasis added). "Mismanagement" meant that Ivar failed to make the "improvements" that seemed obvious to conservationists and were required to prove up a homestead or tree claim. Instead, Ivar's improvements were to construct a dam and plant green willow bushes to shelter birds. Preservationists would find that Ivar had made the proper sort of environmental impact, especially since humans would be only remotely, if at all, the beneficiaries of his actions.

However, even the biocentric ethic of Ivar and the Navajos is not a pure preservation. The obvious fact of the impossibility of a zero-impact human (or any other sort of) life is the practical Achilles heel of biocentrism. Theoretically and ethically, species egalitarianism is counterintuitive to the point of silliness. "[I]f a biocentric kinship . . . ethic flatly refuse[s] to discriminate among life entities and refuse[s] to rank them," as I note in "The Ambiguity of Environmental Ethics: Duty of Heroism," "[then its] equating wild flowers, mosquitoes, and humans, generates patently absurd moral assessments. For example, if every living thing has an equal status, [committing] an insecticide, a germicide, and a homicide would have equivalent moral seriousness" (52).

A homocentric world-view has serious flaws, too. Cather's critique of human-centeredness, however, is given curious expression. What are we to make of her celebration of first-generation pioneers and her worry about the indolence and spiritual lassitude of their children and grandchildren? While first-generation homesteaders are invigorated and enlivened by the challenge of humanizing the wild land, all that they have achieved—success and security, profit and comfort—seems to lead to a soft and lax character in their progeny. For example, near the end of O Pioneers! Cather has Alexandra Bergson take stock of her very successful farm management, which has made it possible for Emil to not have to farm! Alexandra was well satisfied with her brother [Emil] . . . Yes, she told herself, it had been worth while; 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. (190-91) Perhaps it is the challenge and opportunity of humanizing the land that is worthwhile. Is it the process, not the product, which is desirable?

A homocentric view that treats the land as a commodity to be used for humans runs another risk: economic pressures can quickly and rudely shoulder aside any ethical imperatives dealing with wise use. Initially Cather's vision of Nebraska's fertility being used to feed the world is moral, striking, and positive: "The cornfields were far apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather [Mr. Burden] to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerdas' cornfields, or Mr. Bushy's, but the world's cornfields" (My Ántonia 132). However her prediction soon becomes ethically problematic as she concedes that economic interests can trump moral and environmental considerations: Nebraska's fertile fields and "their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war" (132). Note the economic neutrality of "in peace or war." An economic framework assumes the preemptory validity of human interests and seeks only that they be satisfied, whatever they are. Accordingly biocentric preservationism has serious theoretical flaws, and homocentric conservation is vulnerable to economic pressures. Perhaps a third option, environmental theocentrism, can address some of the shortcomings of both views.


Even Crazy Ivar is not a complete hands-off preservationist. He does, however, carry out Leopold's ambiguous imperatives of both a moderate, benign use of resources along with leaving some resources with a "continued existence in a natural state" (Sand County Almanac 204). Ivar is able to manage this delicate balance because his fundamental commitment is religious. And, though he is a nature mystic, Cather takes care to establish the biblical basis of his faith. We first meet him when young Emil, Carl, and Alexandra, approaching his earth-home, find him reading his Norwegian Bible. Years later, now living at the Bergson home, Ivar deals with the news of the double murders of Maria and Emil by sitting inside his barn/home "repeating to himself the 101 Psalm" (O Pioneers! 245).

Ivar's ethic of "harm no one," even animals and birds, holds that all life is sacred, especially "wild things . . . [because they] are God's" (O Pioneers! 43). He tells Alexandra, "Listen, mistress, it is right that you should take these things into account. You should know that my spells come from God, and that I would not harm any living creature" (88). Likewise the world view and moral stance of the Navajos and Hopi is theocentric. In Leopold's terms, these Native peoples see themselves as plain members and citizens of the land community. Accordingly they adapt themselves (not vice-versa) to their environment, accepting "chance and weather as the country did . . . it was the Indian's way to pass through a county without disturbing anything, to pass and to leave no trace, like a fish through water, or birds through the air" (Death Comes for the Archbishop 235-36). Abstractly described, both Ivar and the Navajos measure their lives against a moral standard of stewardship.

An ecological ethic of stewardship implies that the current landholders are not the owners but only its latest tenants and that it is always with an eye to future generations that wise-use and preservation practices are to be evaluated. An important and persistent theme in Cather's works is how, paradoxically, the future delimits the present and defines the past. These examples illustrate the point. First, a missionary's work can only come to fruition in the future, a theme symbolically underscored by all the attention that Bishop Latour lavishes upon his orchards. Second, My Ántonia begins with a journey through the unbroken wild prairie following a barely discernable trail and the novel ends with Jim Burden stumbling upon the same trail: "I had a sense of coming home to myself and of having found out what a little circle man's life experience is" (My Ántonia 360). Jim Burden leaves Ántonia surrounded by her children and bountiful farm amply provisioned to face the future and ready for the transfer to the next stewards of the land. Cather closes the book with the pastpresent- future circle: "Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, incommunicable past" (My Ántonia 360). Third, Cather could scarcely be more explicit about ownership, stewardship, and the future than in O Pioneers! "You [Alexandra] belong to the land," Carl murmured, "as you have always said. Now more than ever." "Lou and Oscar can't see those things," said Alexandra suddenly. "Suppose I do will my land to their children, what difference will that make? The land belongs to the future." (272)

Cather's religiosity is neither apologetic nor proselytizing; for her, religious faith is simply a given of human experience. She does not chafe at its demands and she is grateful for its consolations, both of which are future-orientated and geared to a gentle, liveand- let-live, appreciate-your-place lifestyle where humans pause and settle for a while but do not dominate.

To conclude, Grandma Burden is an apt spokesperson for Cather. On his first day in Nebraska, Jim and his grandmother dig potatoes in the garden. Jim wants to linger a little longer at the edge of the wilderness, so his grandmother explains about the snakes, mice, and badgers: Well, if you see one [a snake], don't have anything to do with him. The big yellow and brown ones won't hurt you; they're bull-snakes and help keep the gophers down. Don't be scared if you see anything look out of that hole in the bank over there. That's a badger hole. He's about as big as a big 'possum, and his face is striped, black and white. He takes a chicken once in a while, but I won't let the men harm him. In a new country a body feels friendly to the animals. I like to have him come out and watch me when I'm at work. (My Ántonia 16-17) Jim Burden, in this new country where humans have not yet made homesteading improvements, finds God's presence so obvious that prayers are redundant. On his first night, on the way to his grandparents' farm, he looked around: "The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night; here, I felt, what would be would be" (My Ántonia 8).


Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Knopf, 1927.
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. Ed. Charles Mignon and James Woodress. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! 1913. Ed. Susan Rosowski and Charles Mignon. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992.
Dooley, Patrick K. "The Ambiguity of Environmental Ethics: Duty or Heroism." Philosophy Today 30 (1986): 48-57.
Leopold, Aldo. Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford UP, 1949.