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The Genius of the Land

June 24th, 2010 | 4 min read

By Christopher Benson

In my first post on O Pioneers! I mistakenly drew a historical contrast between the modern project of "marking on the land" and a postmodern project of "being marked by the land." This contrast is too neat and tidy. As I continue to reflect on salient passages in the novel, I realize that the narrative reveals a lived tension within modernity––and I now propose that we haven't left this tension behind in late modernity (a preferable term to postmodernity).

To get a sense of this tension, I've quoted a passage below. Nothing is more irksome than the literary critic who lodges himself in the text before the reader has heard the words, seen the images, and felt the ambiance of the text. So, I'll get out of the way long enough for you to take it in:

Of all the bewildering things upon a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening. The houses on the Divide were small and were usually tucked away in low places; you did not see them until you came directly upon them. Most of them were built on the sod itself, and were only the unescapable ground in another form. The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. 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.

In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression upon the wild land 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. The sick man was feeling this as he lay looking out of the window, after the doctor had left him, on the day following Alexandra's trip to town. There it lay outside his door, the same land, the same lead-colored miles. He knew every ridge and draw and gully between him and the horizon. To the south, his plowed fields; to the east, the sod stables, the cattle corral, the pond,––and then the grass.

The characters in the narrative experience a lived tension between "marking on the land" and "being marked by the land," between land as enemy to be conquered and land as friend to be cared for.

In the beginning of the novel, the land dwarfs the human presence, so much so that the "record of human strivings" could be mistakenly perceived as the markings of nature. The interminable grass of the prairie is an existential threat to the pioneers: their homes, roads, and crops are erased (to keep with the graphic metaphor). That is why the narrator says, "Of all the bewildering things upon a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening." If Francis Bacon wanted to conquer nature by learning its secrets, the reverse scenario happens on the Great Plains: nature conquers man by exploiting his impotence––or at least ignorance.

Here, in this scene with the ailing and exhausted John Bergson, we have the tale of the conquered man. All his sweat and toil seem for nothing. Did he plow the field or did it plow him? God's curse on Adam haunts him: from the ground he works and to the ground he returns, literally grounded into the dust (Genesis 3:17-19). Clearly, this pioneer has been marked by the land––"he knew every ridge and draw and gully between him and the horizon"––but he despairs because the land is mostly invulnerable to his "feeble scratches." Nature (grass) encircles the modest, even abortive attempts at civilization (plowed fields, sod stables, cattle corral, and pond), whereas now civilization encircles nature (cf. Wendell Berry's personal essay "An Entrance to the Woods" in Recollected Essays:1965-1980).

This pioneer did not find a way to befriend the "unfriendly" land, as his daughter learns to do. The narrator says: "John Bergon had the Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable. But this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces." By the end of the novel, Alexandra exists in a symbiotic relationship with the land, taming the horse with loving discipline whereas her father only applied discipline. It was the same horse: one rider tried to live with it while the other struggled to live against it.

Christopher Benson