A Phenomenology of the Land: “Her eyes drank in the breadth of it”

Here I am again at the writer’s desk with a tall glass of lemonade, ready to analyze two passages that invoke “the Genius” of the land in Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! In the first passage, we witness the retrospective despair of John Bergson, a first generation pioneer in Nebraska:

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.

In the second passage, we witness the prospective hope of Alexandra, the daughter of the now deceased John Bergson:

When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an Old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since the land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

Comparing both passages, we find there are two pioneers with two different perceptions of the same land. The first pioneer views the land as indomitable (“wild land”), impersonal (“wild thing,” “unfriendly to man”), erratic (“ugly moods”), and monotonous (“the same land, the same lead-colored miles”). By contrast, the second pioneer views the land through aesthetic eyes (“It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious”) and romantic ambition (“a human face was set toward it with love and yearning”).

C. S. Lewis’ hermeneutical categories in An Experiment In Criticism apply profitably to environmental ethics:

A work of (whatever) art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used.’ When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as an assistance for our own activities…. ‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.

John uses the land whereas Alexandra receives the land, which explains why the former is alienated from “the Genius of the Divide” and the latter is reconciled to it. If the land is seen as a tool, it will never yield enough to the infinity of human desire. If, however, the land is seen as a gift, it will yield. How does the pioneer “acquire” the land? Much in the same way as a bachelor acquires his wife – not through the will to conquer but through the will to love, as Blanche Gelfant remarks in her introduction on “the love affair between Alexandra Bergson and the prairie”:

Alexandra’s love cannot be exaggerated… for it is the empowering force that enables her to take possession of the land: to own it and to appropriate it, preternaturally, into her being. Cather’s strained metaphor for appropriation translates into a drinking in of space and subsequent blindness: “Her eyes drank in the breadth of it [the land], until her tears blinded her.” The sight of Alexandra irradiated with yearning and blindly weeping with love subdues “the great, free spirit” of the Divide; its Genius, for centuries ‘unfriendly to man,’ yields to a woman, bending “lower than it had ever bent to a human will before.” In a complex relationship, love and will become indistinguishable from each other and from aesthetic sensitivity. The land submits to Alexandra’s love as though it were a coercive will, while Alexandra experiences love as a will-less response to the beauty inherent in the prairie’s breadth.

Turning from the novel to our own lives, I would like to hear when, if ever, have you exerted your “senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the [Creator]” in order to receive the land? How has the land “added” to your life in a non-utilitarian manner? Has the Creator ever “bent lower” to you in his creation? Is there a “country” in your heart?

In short, I am interested in a phenomenology of receiving the land, as Cather describes with Alexandra. For now, I am setting aside an important question about the relationship between receiving and using the land because use prevails. Environmental ethics, I propose, begins with reception and then responsible use.

Further exploration

National Geographic: John G. Mitchell, “Change of Heartland: The Great Plains.” After generations of trying to bully America’s heartland into producing, many farmers are giving up. But others are changing their ways, working with the land on its own terms.

• National Geographic: Sights and sounds by photographer Jim Richardson (8 minute presentation).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s