Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Significance of Landscape in Literature of the American West

The Broad Expanse: charting the landscape

Western literature is tied to place more than any other regional form.  As we read the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel or an Annie Proulx short story, we traverse a world of staggering imagery: jagged peaks of distant blue mountains, arid expanses of red desert and sagebrush, and hip-high seas of winter wheat rippling and cresting in a prairie breeze.  It is a world of wide-open spaces and unpopulated places, where characters come and go, but the land is constant and forever. 
In her essay ‘Dangerous Ground’, Annie Proulx argues that landscape is much more than what the landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson describes as being ‘a portion of the earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a single glance’ (2008, p. 12).  Rather, she offers her own broader definition:
Landscape is geography, archaeology, astrophysics, agronomy, agriculture, the violent character of the atmosphere, climate, black squirrels and wild oats, folded rock, bulldozers; it is jet trails and barbwire, government land, dry stream beds; it is politics, desert wildfire, introduced species, abandoned vehicles, roads, ghost towns, nuclear test grounds, swamps, a bakery shop, mine tailings, bridges, dead dogs.  Landscape is rural, urban, suburban, semirural, small town, village; it is outports and bedroom communities; it is a remote ranch.  (ibid:10)

       As Proulx points out, landscape goes beyond the physical, beyond what can be touched and seen and experienced, and includes those sometimes transient and elusive influences which help to shape the environment.  Landscape possesses not only the physical elements of geography, geology, flora and fauna, but also the products of civilisation which are scattered across the land itself – rural communities and cities, and all the detritus those communities produce.  But landscape is also history, the people who trod the ground before us, and the events which took place at other points in time.  Beyond the tangible landscape lies another which is perceived rather than seen, a landscape in which all of preceding time continues to exist.
Fifteen thousand years ago, glaciers and glacial floods scoured much of the northwestern United States and dropped boulders the size of houses across the prairies; in the first millennium BC, the Nez Perce left pictographs and petroglyphs of bighorn sheep on the stony walls of Hell’s Canyon; from the 1830s to the 1880s, wagon trains wove their way across the West, and the ruts carved into the earth by the wheels of their wagons remain visible today in the sagebrush hills of Idaho and Oregon.  The swollen flanks of the Snake River, and the mighty Columbia which it feeds, bear testimony to the twentieth century’s desire to illuminate the night – damming the waterways to make the deserts bloom; abandoned homesteads remind us that we are only visitors in this land, that we make a pact with the environment, and must live on its terms or get out.  The asphalt ribbons we leave behind, cross-hatching the plains and winding through river valleys, speak perhaps of our impatience, our need to always be somewhere other than where we are.  Swathes of clear-cut amid the trees; dynamited hollows of open-cast mines; wolf reintroduction in central Idaho: each mark we leave will be a window through which future generations will perceive how we lived today. 
This chapter will analyse critical perceptions of representations of landscape by Native and non-Native writers and critics, and will consider the cogency of those arguments in relation to key literary texts from the American West.  It will also consider the way perceptions of landscape are realised in literature, and how these literary perceptions are themselves perceived by readers and critics in turn.  This discussion is further complicated by essentialist arguments involving perceptions of race and ethnicity, and attempts by writers and critics to identify perceptions of the other.

The Frontier West: inventions and perceptions

The white settlers who moved into the frontier depended on the land for their livelihood.  As trappers, farmers and ranchers, their ability to adapt to and understand the environment was paramount for their survival.  Those who were adept, forming connections with the land and learning its lessons, found purpose and satisfaction in their work.  Those who lacked an understanding of the land’s temperament, however, perceived the western frontier – prone as it was to the vagaries of nature – as a threat.  Drought, pestilence, seasonal fires and months of sub-zero temperatures tested the newcomers’ endurance and wit.  Early western literature took its inspiration from these people, and in turn, the landscape of the West and the many challenges it presented became embedded in western fiction.
When discussing the use of landscape, critics often draw a division between the work of Native and non-Native writers.  From the Euro-American perspective it is argued, the western landscape offers opportunities and challenges: it is something to be conquered or overcome, harnessed, manipulated, used and transformed for profit.  For the Native American, the land is regarded as a sentient being, intimately known and understood, revered as the giver of life. 
In the essay ‘Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place’, the Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich discusses the traditional view of the eternal nature of landscape.  By occupying a place for generations, she argues, a tribe’s history, its connection to the land, and its sense of collective identity were bound together by storytelling, a Native American tradition which itself is deeply based in the land.  The telling and re-telling of stories that took place in a landscape which the people already knew intimately, reinforced their understanding of their surroundings and made ‘[p]lace and people inseparable’ (Erdrich, 1985).  The Nez Perce, like other Native American tribes, point to features in the landscape to pass on their cultural knowledge and recount the history of their tribe: a basalt outcrop on the hillsides overlooking the Clearwater River provides a lesson in neighbourliness; a rocky mound near Kamiah, Idaho holds the story of creation and the origins of the people themselves.  This ability to read the land, and understand its significance, provides a constant reminder to the people of who they are. 
Heart of the Monster near Kamiah, Idaho
By contrast, Erdrich argues, western society is alienated from the land.  Citing Alfred Kazin, she points to the tendency of white writers to describe the landscape in detail as an indication that they are not connected to the natural world, and that, unable to hold it within themselves, they attempt to recreate it through words:
In renaming and historicizing our landscapes, towns and neighborhoods, writers from Hawthorne to Cather to Faulkner have attempted to weld themselves and their readers closer to the New World.  As Alfred Kazin notes in ‘On Native Grounds,’ ‘the greatest single fact about our American writing’ is ‘our writers’ absorption in every last detail of this American world, together with their deep and subtle alienation from it.’  Perhaps this alienation is the result of one difficult fact about Western culture – its mutability.  Unlike the Tewa and other Native American groups who inhabited a place until it became deeply and particularly known in each detail, Western culture is based on progressive movement.  Nothing, not even the land, can be counted on to stay the same.  (Erdrich, 1985)

          For Euro-Americans, she argues, landscape is not constant: native grasslands are ploughed up and destroyed, rivers are dammed and redirected, and ‘limestone mountains [are] blasted into likenesses of important men’ (ibid).  The earth is being continually altered and reshaped to meet the shifting demands of modern American society, which itself is in a perpetual state of flux.   
           The writer Louis Owens, of Choctaw, Cherokee and Irish decent, supports Erdrich’s claim that Native American writers have a world view which is distinct from their White counterparts.  Owens argues that Native writers, rather than placing their characters in a position of superiority to the landscape, promote the view that human beings are simply one part of the natural world:
Native American writers are offering a way of looking at the world that is new to Western culture.  It is a holistic, ecological perspective, one that places essential value upon the totality of existence, making humanity equal to all elements but superior to none and giving humankind crucial responsibility for the care of the world we inhabit. (Owens 1992:29)

This perception of man’s dependence on the world around him engenders a sense of humility and the belief that all things are linked together for a larger purpose.  By connecting human existence directly to the landscape, and making it part of the landscape, human vulnerability is exposed and the necessity of an eco-conscious world view becomes apparent.
       Another common theme in Native American fiction is the Indian protagonist’s feelings of dispossession, a feeling predicated upon a prior experience of belonging.  This theme is particularly evident when the protagonist is, as is the case with the vast majority of Native American authors, of mixed decent.  Novels such as D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded, John Joseph Matthews’ Sundown, N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony all feature mixed-blood protagonists caught between opposing worlds: the traditional Native world and progressive American society.  William Bevis (1996) points out that while Euro-American fiction frequently centres around plots in which the protagonist leaves home to discover his identity, fiction by Native writers most frequently involves the protagonist returning home after a period of time spent in the ‘white’ world.  In Native American novels, he states, returning home to ‘a past where one has been before, is not only the primary story, it is a primary mode of knowledge and a primary good’ (Bevis, 1996:29).  Only by returning to their Native cultural roots and re-engaging with the landscape of their birth do the protagonists find spiritual healing and a sense of wholeness.  


Don Hastings, Jr. said...

Hi Loree! Great blog.

I will offer an additional dimension to Annie Proulx's definition. In addition, landscape is habitat. As such things as wild animals can not exceed their supportive environment, there was a time, long ago in the stone age, when that could have been said about us.

Loree said...

Thanks, Don. And thanks for your additional comments by email. I value your input and perspective.


Lena said...

Hi Loree,

thanks for the interesting blog! Makes me want to read Annie Proulx' essay "Dangerous Ground". Can you let me know where exactly I can find it?


Loree Westron said...

Hi Lena,
Sorry it's taken me so long to reply. I guess I haven't checked in in a while...

Annie Proulx's essay 'Dangerous Ground' can be found in a book called REGIONALISM AND THE HUMANITIES, edited by Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz, and published in 2008 by University of Nebraska Press.

Tom Vowler said...

Hi Loree
Just stumbled across this while researching landscape in fiction. Great piece and thanks for keeping archives!

Loree Westron said...

Hi Tom,
Glad you found me! My posts have dwindled away somewhat, but I'm hoping to resume in the fall.