A Meditation on Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!

Shortly after the death of Nebraska pioneer John Bergson, his children––Alexandra, Lou, Oscar, and Emil––go on a “pleasure excursion” to buy a hammock from Crazy Ivar, who obtained the name from his hermetic lifestyle, strange speech, partly-cloudy mind, and unorthodox veterinary medicine, in which he groans when the animal experiences pain, takes the same medicine, and prays for its well-being.

What fascinates me about Ivar is the wisdom of his idiosyncrasies. He walks gently on the earth when his distant neighbors are trying to manipulate the land. Where they make their presence known with big farmhouses, he prefers a seamless existence with the land, as the narrator writes:

“Look, look, Emil, there’s Ivar’s big pond!” Alexandra pointed to a shining sheet of water that lay at the bottom of a shallow draw. At one end of the pond was an earthen dam, planted with green willow bushes, and above it 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 a 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 him had done.

Where his neighbors show a zeal to exploit the land, Ivar practices an ethic of stewardship, hiring “himself out in threshing and corn-husking time,” doctoring sick animals, and making twine hammocks. Pleasure––not profit––motivates his activities. Human waste grieves Ivar because it spoils the goodness and beauty of creation:

Ivar found contentment in the solitude he had sought out for himself. He disliked the litter of human dwellings: the broken food, the bits of broken china, the old wash-boilers and tea-kettles thrown into the sunflower patch. He preferred the cleanness and tidiness of the wild sod. He always said that the badgers had cleaner houses than people, and that when he took a housekeeper her name would be Mrs. Badger. He best expressed his preference for his wold homestead by saying that his Bible seemed truer to him there. If one stood in the doorway of his cave, and looked off at the rough land, the smiling sky, the curly grass white in the hot sunlight; if one listened to the rapturous song of the lark, the drumming of the quail, the burr of the locust against that vast silence, one understood what Ivar meant.

Notice how “his Bible seemed truer to him there.” The narrator informs us that Ivar “committed chapters of the Bible to memory.” When the Bergson clan arrives at his dwelling on a Sunday afternoon, Ivar’s “face shone with happiness” while he memorized a section of Psalm 104, which praises the Creator for quenching the thirty land and sheltering all creatures great and small. On the page, Ivar observes divine solicitude for donkeys, birds, and wild goats. Off the page, he observes the same care for ducks, cranes, and a displaced seagull. Ivar’s conclusion: we are watched by loving eyes.

Alexandra was the only Bergson child who intuited the wisdom of Ivar’s idiosyncrasies; the others laughed, as we might, at the fool who lived like a savage rather than a “civilized” man.

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Posted by Christopher Benson


  1. Christopher – The line about his Bible seeming truer there resonates with me. I think it hints at an important idea that we lost somewhere in the last century in the USA. In fact, I think it links up well with a quote I saw posted (perhaps by Matt, actually) from Collin Farrar about how apologetics do not create conviction, but they create a climate in which Christian conviction is more natural.

    So in God’s world, the bedrock message of the Gospel remains transcendentally true. Yet, there is a way to live that can make it seem more real, more precious, and more beautiful. (And here I think we need to get into a lengthy conversation regarding Leithart’s idea of Christendom vs. Christianity.)


    1. JAKE: In Patrick Dooley’s essay, he astutely observes:

      [Willa Cather] 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.

      The heroine of O Pioneers! (Alexandra Bergson) is a wise-use conservationist who sympathizes deeply with a hands-off preservationist (Ivar). She represents a minority within the majority view. Her brothers Lou and Oscar, by contrast, are (wise-use?) conservationists who regard Ivar as “Crazy,” laughing at his marginal existence on the prairie – marginal by his own volition and by societal exertion.

      Have you ever been acquainted with an Ivar? Do you sympathize with him, soliciting his advice of practicing an ethic of stewardship, or scoff at him, dismissing his ways as impracticable and bizarre? I don’t know an Ivar because such individuals remain marginalized in our society. Just as Ivar was eventually compelled to join Alexandra’s farm, does capitalism in late modernity force hands-off preservationists to join the mainstream or risk economic “redundancy” (to use British parlance)?


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