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From Cather Studies Volume 5

Willa Cather

The Plow and the Pen

Environmental imagination is not a term that lends itself to precise definition, but most of us recognize it when we encounter its symptoms. It is there in Gary Snyder's lifelong exploration of connections between the human soul and natural systems. If we were discussing Faulkner, we would consider his deep rootedness in the mountains of the rural South. We would find environmental imagination hard at work in the writings of John Muir or Henry David Thoreau, and in the rich naturalism of Loren Eiseley. What such writers share is a profound love of the natural world and an active curiosity about its complex processes. They generally feel that a person cannot know who they are without also knowing where they are and what dynamics govern the natural world around them. Characteristically, they see the natural world as possessing high integrity and value within itself that is not dependent upon people's uses of it. They are also likely to see nature as a source of wisdom and understanding, and as a means through which the human soul can best fulfill itself. They love natural processes, they seek to know them intimately, and they find their best art and thought through immersion in places of natural power.

Clearly, there are many kinds of environmental imagination. The writers I have just mentioned are examples of authors for whom participation in their natural scene is a high priority. There are others who see nature as a challenge to be met, and from them we get novels of adventure and conquest. Still others perceive natural processes as the means for humans to fulfill themselves. For these authors, the land is an instrument for the revelation of human character and purpose. As people change their land, they fulfill themselves.

The question before us is how, or whether, Willa Cather is at home among such writers. The best places to look for evidence are in her novels in a Nebraska setting, for there the land and its character clearly play a major role. These books include many vivid descriptions of prairie landscapes, complete with the seasonal changes that provide suffering and joy to their inhabitants, together with the chancy opportunity to earn a living. The prairie ecosystem is the setting upon which these stories unfold. The Nebraska prairie also acts as a character in these novels, interacting with all the human characters and influencing their lives in powerful and subtle ways. The land is often referred to as if it were a person. Although Willa Cather made many forays into distant times and geographic settings for her novels, the Nebraska prairie at the end of the nineteenth century seems to me to be the center of her artistic spirit.

The first section of O Pioneers! is titled "The Wild Land." Here and there are homesteads and sod houses, "But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes . . . the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness" (21). The wildness of the land, despite its savage beauty, is a negative quality to be overcome, not a positive attribute to be learned from. What is most noticed about the wild land is the lack of human influence: "Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening" (25).Wildness in this context simply means, "not yet cultivated."

The instrument of cultivation, and the symbol for human civilization, is the plow. In the early stages, "The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings" (25). In the course of the novel, it is the plow that converts the land into a source of wealth and status and becomes a central image of the human spirit triumphant. The wild land is an impediment, "like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces" (27). Wildness is "unfriendly to man," and taming it for human benefit is the central story of the novel.

Only one character is shown to value wildness as a positive quality, and others regard him as slightly daft. Crazy Ivar loves the land the way it is, and makes no attempt to farm it. His home is dug into a clay bank, "without defiling the face of nature any more than the coyote that had lived there before him had done" (40). He lives beside a pond with his neighbors the ducks and geese. "He understands animals" (37), says Alexandra, and he earns his living by doctoring horses and cattle and hiring his labor to farmers. No guns or killing are allowed on his property.He sees his land from the perspective of the birds that migrate above it: "they have their roads up there, as we have down here" (45). It is from Ivar that Alexandra learns that "Hogs do not like to be filthy" (47), and she modifies her practices to help them keep clean. Although Ivar is an isolated oddball in this farming community, he proves to be durable and plays minor but significant roles throughout the novel. Ivar's is the only voice that speaks for the wild environment, and it is a small voice that goes easily unnoticed.

The central story of the novel is Alexandra's effort to tame the land and preside over "the last struggle of a wild soil against the encroaching plowshare" (49). Alexandra's conquest of the land is more that of a lover than a warrior: "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" (64). Yet it is only through human effort that the land is capable of fulfillment: "The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or woman" (64). Alexandra's love seems to be just what the land wants, for it repays her handsomely: "It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all at once, it worked itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found that we were rich" (108). The image of land being awakened by a loving touch to make people wealthy is uncommon enough to draw raised eyebrows from other pioneers.

Cather does not supply many details about the process of taming the prairie and converting it into prosperous farmland. She skips over the years of hardship and toil, referring only vaguely to the failures and disasters that many must have suffered. Her narrative leaps over the miseries and resumes when the land is populated by many successful farmers, linked by good roads and connected to markets by railways. There are now churches and schools and an active social life where people compete and cooperate with one another. In Alexandra's words, "the country had become what she had hoped," (191) no longer wild, but a benign setting for the exploration of human character and relationships.

Human relationships dominate the latter stages of the novel, with greed and jealousy leading to murder and suffering. The land is no longer the focus of attention, except as an object to be possessed. When, at the close of the story, Carl says to Alexandra, "You belong to the land," she responds with: "The land belongs to the future. . . .We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while" (272-73). The natural world, here as elsewhere, is defined and given value by the people who inhabit it.

In The Song of the Lark, Cather shows how a woman can be transformed from a farm-town girl to a sophisticated musical artist. That journey is like the personal transformation that Cather saw in her own life. Thea, the transformed operatic singer, returns to her prairie home and feels "that she was coming back to her own land" (202). This earth seemed to her young and fresh and kindly, a place where refugees from old, sad countries were given another chance. The mere absence of rocks gave the soil a kind of amiability and generosity, and the absence of natural boundaries gave the spirit a wider range.Wire fences might mark the end of a man's pasture, but they could not shut in his thoughts as mountains and forests can. It was over flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang—and one's heart sang there, too. Thea was glad that this was her country, even if one did not learn to speak elegantly there. It was, somehow, an honest country, and there was a new song in that blue air which had never been sung in the world before. . . . She had the sense of going back to a friendly soil, whose friendship was somehow going to strengthen her; a naïve, generous country that gave one its joyous force, its large-hearted, childlike power to love, just as it gave one its coarse, brilliant flowers. (202-03)

Like Thea, Cather seems to feel that the absence of dramatic landscape features bestows a freedom on the human spirit, permitting it to explore new and creative territories. This "friendly soil" is the foundation upon which Cather's art rests as well. Yet neither Cather nor her heroine draw their inspiration from living on their land. Instead, they leave it at an early age for travels in large American and European cities. And it is not the prairie that unlocks Thea's creative energy, but the spectacular scenery of Arizona cliff dwellings.

Thea's visit to a ranch in northern Arizona becomes for her an epiphany of her career as an artist. There, amid forested mountains and canyons, she discovers her vocation. While bathing at a pool in a swift flowing stream, she reflects upon shards of pottery left by ancient Cliff Dwellers: "The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?" (279). From this point on, Thea knows that she is called to her art, and her strength grows rapidly. Now she has energy and ambitions that had been absent from her life on the prairie. Later, she watches an eagle sailing above her in the canyon and salutes it as a symbol of her newfound power: "O eagle of eagles! Endeavor, achievement, desire, glorious striving of human art!" (293). Near the end of the book, when her life as an operatic soprano is fulfilled, she reflects that her work as an artist has grown from the early experience in the mountains of Arizona: "Out of the rocks, out of the dead people . . . I don't know if I'd ever have got anywhere without Panther Canyon" (408). The prairie context seems to provide a sense of freedom and expansiveness, as well as the comforts of a well-loved homeland, but something more is needed to stimulate the creative imagination. This is found in the varied and colorful landscapes of northern Arizona and in reflections upon the ancient people who once lived there.

The ancient people appear briefly in My Ántonia also, but only as a fading image that goes without exploration or explanation. Narrator Jim Burden describes their traces: "Beyond the pond, on the slope that climbed to the cornfield, there was, faintly marked in the grass, a great circle where the Indians used to ride" (60). No surviving Indians appear in the novel to explain what the great circle might have meant to those who made it. It is a remnant of the prairie's past with no discovered significance for the present. These marks from the past are echoed near the end of the novel when the narrator encounters old wagon tracks that can still be seen on the now-mechanized prairie: "On the level land the tracks had almost disappeared—were mere shadings in the grass, and a stranger would not have noticed them. . . . They looked like gashes torn by grizzly's claws, on the slopes where the farm wagons used to lurch up out of the hollows with a pull that brought curling muscles on the smooth hips of the horses" (359). The land bears reminders of the past, whether in the unknown traces of the native people, or in the vividly remembered images of childhood. This is a central theme of the novel, identified by the narrator as "the precious, the incommunicable past" (My Ántonia 238).

Jim Burden, the narrator whom Cather created to tell this tale, deserves some attention from a modern perspective. After his childhood in Nebraska, Burden left the prairie to live in New York, where he is "legal counsel for one of the great Western railways" (1). Although he has left Nebraska for city life, "he loves with a personal passion the great country through which his railway runs and branches. His faith in it and his knowledge of it have played an important part in its development" (Grumbach xi). From a farmer's perspective, the railroad surely made the prairie economically successful, if that is what is meant by development. Jim Burden's daily work is never described in the novel, but it is not hard to imagine what a lawyer for the railroad might have been occupied with during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Among his tasks would have been the acquisition of as much land as possible for rights-of-way and for commercial and real estate development. Whatever his sentimental ties to the land might have been, they were surely tinged with a strong capacity for its exploitation.

It is through Jim Burden's eyes that we learn about the prairie environment. His first views are not very encouraging: "There seemed to be 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 country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. . . . Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out" (7). This initial sense of emptiness soon becomes transformed into richer imagery as the land slowly reveals its living character: As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. . . . more than anything else I felt motion in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping . . . (14-15) This vividly described sea of red grass reappears in the imagery of the novel often, although it is never named. Gradually in the course of the novel it disappears, presumably as it is replaced by cereal grains and corn. Near the end of the book, there remains only a remnant of it still growing at a protected gravesite. The passing of little and big bluestem, the native prairie grasses, leaves only faint traces, just as the Native people and the early pioneers had done.

Prairie wildlife also gets some attention. Jim and Ántonia visit a prairie-dog town and notice that it is a well-organized community where "an orderly and very sociable kind of life was going on" (42), rather like that of the human pioneers, many of whom also lived underground or in sod huts. It is there that Jim Burden performs his heroic feat of killing a large rattlesnake with a shovel. The snake was "old and Lazy" and he was "sunning himself after a cold night." Yet Burden does not merely move away from him, but attacks because "his abominable muscularity, his loathsome, fluid motion, somehow made me sick" (44). When he has crushed the "disgusting vitality" out of the snake, Burden reflects, "I had longed for this opportunity, and had hailed it with joy" (45). His act is celebrated by Ántonia and the other settlers because his adolescent heroism has triumphed over "the ancient, eldest Evil" (45-46).

The prairie wind and wildlife are mingled in Burden's imagery: The wind shook the doors and windows impatiently, then swept on again, singing through the big spaces. Each gust, as it bore down, rattled the panes, and swelled off like the others. They made me think of defeated armies, retreating; or of ghosts who were trying desperately to get in for shelter, and then went moaning on. Presently, in one of those sobbing intervals between the blasts, the coyotes tuned up with their whining howl; one, two, three, then all together—to tell us that winter was coming. (51)

Apocryphal wildlife stories also appear in the novel. A Russian settler tells of a wedding party in Ukraine, where several sleds full of celebrants were attacked and devoured by wolves, "hundreds of them" (55). The teller of the tale escaped by throwing the bride to the wolves in order to lighten his sled, and the disgrace that followed caused him to leave Russia and emigrate to Nebraska. The story terrifies the children and haunts their dreams, but it has nothing to do with wolves, who do not occur in hundreds to attack sled trains.

There are visions of the prairie that become deeply symbolic, and these provide references to other literary images. One in particular is worth recalling in some detail:

We sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the sandbars glittered like glass, and the light trembled in the willow thickets as if little flames were leaping among them. The breeze sank to stillness. In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off in the bushes an owl hooted. The girls sat listless, leaning against each other. The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back into its own littleness somewhere on the prairie. (236-37)

A few pages after this striking image appears, there is a discussion of Dante's Commedia and of the poet Statius on the Mountain of Purgatory. Dante seems to have been on Cather's mind at this point in the novel. It is easy to imagine that her image of the plow silhouetted by the setting sun is intended as a prairie version of Dante's beatific vision of the relatedness of all things in canto 33 of his Paradiso: . . . I presumed to set my eyes on the Eternal Light so long that I spent all my sight on it! In its profundity I saw—ingathered And bound by love into one single volume— What, in the universe, seems separate, scattered: Substances, accidents, and dispositions As if conjoined—in such a way that what I tell is only rudimentary. I think I saw the universal shape Which that knot takes; for, speaking this, I feel A joy that is more ample. (82-93) It is hard to judge whether Cather's agricultural image is a parody of Dante's vision or an attempt to raise prairie imagery to the level of Dante's spiritual symbol.

The case is complicated a few pages later where the conversation has turned to Virgil's Georgics, a collection of pastoral musings from the first century. Cather quotes Virgil: "'Primus ego in patrium mecum . . . deducam Musas'; 'for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country'" (My Ántonia 256). Bringing the Muse into a pastoral setting may be a responsibility that Cather felt she shared with Virgil. As if to confirm this, Virgil is again referred to: "where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, 'I was the first to bring the Muse into my country'" (256). The pen and the plow are fused into the beatific image of the symbolic sunset, with Willa Cather bringing her Muse to Nebraska.

Questions still remain about the character of Willa Cather's environmental imagination. It is worthwhile to consider the political and social context in which environmental consciousness was growing in America during her lifetime. Willa Cather was born in 1873, one year after the establishment of Yellowstone as the world's first national park. Other national parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon were created in the next few decades. Serious conservation movements became active beginning in 1890. The administration of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) saw the establishment of federal agencies to conserve parks, forests, soils, water, and wildlife. The writings of John Muir were popular and widely read in the early 1900s. Even my own ancestor Ezra Meeker, who had crossed Nebraska with an ox team in 1852, was working hard to preserve sections of the Oregon Trail as an historical landmark. If Cather was aware of these contemporary developments, little evidence of them appears in her Nebraska novels.

Cather herself appears to have had an ambiguous relationship with the prairie land she claimed to love. As soon as she could in her youth she left Nebraska and spent most of her life in large Eastern and European cities. She did not use her agricultural roots to develop an environmental art and philosophy, as we have seen Wendell Berry do from his small Kentucky farm in our own time. She lies buried in New England, far from her Nebraska ancestors.

Two major forces were at work to change the prairie environment during the period of Cather's Nebraska novels, and she portrays them both in a positive light. Agriculture and the railroads combined to transform the prairie irreversibly. Jim Burden, the railroad lawyer, reflects at the end of My Ántonia on these changes: The old pasture land was now being broken up into wheat fields 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 fortunate issue. The windy springs and the 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 seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces. (298)

The environment that Willa Cather evokes does indeed have a human face. It appears as if it were a character in these novels, interacting with human characters and changing their lives. It is also the landscape and setting for human growth and development, and the source for experiences of beauty and transcendence.

It is unlikely that Willa Cather will find a place among the great literary examples of the environmental imagination. She may have loved her prairie home, but her love was not strong enough to persuade her to live with it and learn its natural history. She shows little knowledge or curiosity about the natural processes surrounding her characters. One commentator speaks of Cather's "hatred of modern science" (Grumbach xxviii), which may well account for her disinterest in her ecological context. There is no environmental ethic that emerges from her work, but rather an ethic of development that supposes that land fulfills its destiny when it is successfully farmed. The land provides a background for her stories of human growth and development, but it is not loved and studied to find its own integrity and value, let alone its own story. The land is raw material in the hands of Cather's Muse, and it is the setting where the plow and the pen come together.


Dante Alighieri. Paradiso. Trans. Alan Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam, 1984
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. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
Cather, Willa. The Song of the Lark. New York: Vintage, 1999.
Grumbach, Doris. Introduction. O Pioneers! By Willa Cather. 1913. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.