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.





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Posted by Christopher Benson

11 Comments

  1. […] The Genius of a Land | Mere Orthodoxy […]

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  2. Christopher – Another tangential point that could be raised: It’s not that the land was devoid of human landmarks, but that the land was devoid of human landmarks that the protagonists would recognize as such. If you showed the land to a Pawnee Indian they could show you all sorts of landmarks. This introduces two further questions then:

    1) The question of how different cultures perceive the land differently. (And this issue even manifests itself in our legal traditions – look at the SCOTUS case Johnson v. M’Intosh from 1824 sometime.)
    2) What role does memory play in our marking of the land? Part of what would change the Pawnee Indian’s view of the land is that his people have a history on it – “that’s the three where ______ happened,” things like that. For the Bergsons, they don’t have that same deep history, so they perceive the land differently.

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  3. JAKE: Thanks for stopping by. Your point is not “tangential” and I’m glad that you raised it. Cather’s narrative is written from the pioneer point of view, not the native point of view.

    Here’s my curiosity. Does the native undergo the same lived tension between “marking on the land” and “being marked by the land”? No human being – native or pioneer – can live on the land without marking it, so this question emerges: How should we mark on the land? At the risk of oversimplifying, it seems that the native practices an ethic of care whereas the pioneer practices an ethic of conquest. What makes O Pioneers! so interesting to me is that Alexandra Bergson, witnessing the failure of her father’s ethic of conquest, learns a new ethic of care. She does not learn this ethic from the native but she learns it like a native, respecting the Genius of the land, its “own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.”

    If Alexandra is a counterexample to the pioneer’s ethic of conquest, I should note that her ethic of care has different effects on the land than the native’s. Where the native leaves the land lightly touched, Alexandra leaves it deeply touched. Farming is more invasive than hunting and gathering. But is farming worse than hunting and gathering? Not necessarily. It entirely depends on the purpose of farming. Is the farming for sustainability or exploitation? Alexandra practices sustainable farming, which elicits my approval.

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  4. That’s the main issue, I think. Do we live with the land or on it? If we answer in the latter, then it doesn’t matter how “green” we are or how sustainable we try to be, we’re starting from the wrong premise. It’d be like insisting that you can have a healthy marriage even if you never make a covenant with the person – the covenant is what creates and preserves the health. This is my HUGE gripe with so much of the green movement today – I’m all for sustainability, but if we insist on living a life with no regard for particular places and respect for unique pieces of land it won’t make a difference. The sort of industrialized, mass-produced generalized culture is what’s killing the land and you can’t fix it by stamping it with the word “green” and a few cosmetic alterations.

    OK, enough ranting for now. I need to write that post about uprootedness you asked me to write. :)

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  5. Christopher,

    Perhaps I should begin with an apology, for I fear mucking around in another conversation about something I know precious little about.

    Still, I will, for how else shall I learn?

    At first glance, the native/pioneer narrative is chiefly about desire. As you said, John desires the land for land’s sake. That is the ethic of conquest. But does the ethic of care exist in the minds of natives or Alexandra? Neither would have a real capacity to exploit the land. Perhaps it is that dream of exploitation, the ethic of conquest, that renders the land hard.

    So: desire. What do we want of the land? Profit or life?

    Some Native American tribes had developed agricultural practices which were less harsh than imported agriculture, which in turn was less harsh than contemporary agriculture. But why were those agricultural practices less invasive? Because there was sufficient food for life, and no ability to profit in some other way by growing more. A demand for greater profit from the land is a greater demand on the land.

    Human desire seems the dynamo of it.

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  6. MICAH: Just as the pioneer experienced a lived tension between “marking on the land” and “being marked by the land,” the commentator undergoes the tension of marking on the blog and being marked by the blog. That’s my peculiar sense of humor coming through in case you missed it. I’m glad you weighed in, focusing our attention on this passage:

    “John Bergson 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.”

    As the conversation continues, I realize the narrative is more and more complicated. Risking generalization, I said the native is characterized by an ethic of care and the pioneer is characterized by an ethic of conquest. I then said John Bergson is the conquering pioneer while Alexandra, his daughter, is the caring pioneer.

    But you’ve caused me to wonder whether I unfairly linked John to the ethic of conquest because the above passage reveals his intrinsic desire for the land. When we desire something intrinsically we show care for the object. By contrast, when we desire something instrumentally we aspire to conquer the object. So, maybe it’s more accurate to say that John is conflicted by his caring and conquering instincts. I feel that conflict inside myself as well.

    This is a good question: “Does the ethic of care exist in the minds of natives or Alexandra?” The natives or Alexandra did not systematically think out an ethic of care, as if they were philosophers or theologians. Instead, they acted out an ethic of care, learning to live with the land and not against it.

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  7. Thinking about the land in terms intrinsic and instrumental, I can’t help but wonder that both constitute a perceived tension in everyone. Even as I write this, I can’t help but question if those categories exist. What does it mean to desire the land intrinsically? I suppose we can love the land as land, but can we desire it as land? Desire appears to have embedded within itself an intent and end to affect the land.

    It is not incorrect to say that natives desired the land as a home. So, even while practicing an ethic of care, they did want something from the land, but that desire did not overburden or overwhelm.

    I don’t suppose that natives of Alexandra or natives thought out an ethic of care, but, as I understand it, we are discussing their attitudes. But is their attitude toward the land an attitude of care, or is their ethic of care the consequence of some other attitude, belief, etc.?

    Perhaps, to simplify: can the ethic of care of pre-modernism be similar to an ethic of care for us? And if so, what are the resemblances to which we should attend?

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  8. MICAH: Hmm . . . . another interesting question, “What does it mean to desire the land instrinsically?” Here’s my preliminary answer: to live with the land instead of against it. That’s not a very precise definition, but it’s one that I’ll explore further in my reflections on the novel.

    For now, let’s return to the passage:

    “John Bergson 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.”

    In three sentences, we learn that Bergson desires the land intrinsically (“land, in itself, is desirable”) and instrumentally (“It was like a horse that no one knows to break to harness”). In the space between these conflicting desires, Cather writes: “this land was an enigma.” Why? Earlier she says “Its Genius was unfriendly to man.” In upcoming blog posts on the novel, I should consider how and why she used the word “genius.” Any guesses?

    I corrected myself for saying that the ethic of conquest (“marking on the land”) was modern and the ethic of care (“being marked by the land”) is postmodern because that’s too neat and tidy. The narrative reveals that this is a conflict within modernity, and I propose we still face that conflict in late modernity. So too, I think it would be a mistake to claim that the ethic of care is premodern.

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  9. Christopher,

    “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 passage here begins with an anthropomorphism, then an attribution of ill fortune. Though genius could mean a number of rather different things, in this context I would speculate that genius indicates an impenetrable, and almost thoughtful, nature. It is as though the ugly moods of the land have their causes, but that the distance between the land and its inhabitants is too great to be bridged. Anthropomorphisms can often suggest reason and motivation, and an attribution of misfortune suggests a dismissal of reason.

    So, there is a tension here, too, between the apparent callousness of the land and a tenuous belief in its hidden purposes.

    Well, that is one possibility. I eagerly anticipating what more you write on the matter. I am (somewhat reluctantly) gaining a stronger respect for my state’s most famous author.

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