Monday, 3 October 2011

Perception, Character and Mood: Landscape as a Reflection

In ‘Dangerous Ground,’ Annie Proulx contends that early writers considered western landscapes to be ‘hostile’ and that ‘[a]lmost never did the protagonist display any sense of belonging to or understanding of the country through which he journeyed, nor did he try to learn much about it’ (Proulx 2008:15).  While this may be true of the adversarial adventure stories featured in the later dime novels, Proulx’s statement is far too generalised and she offers no specific examples to support this claim. 
In her own work, Proulx uses landscape to explore the psychology of her characters.  External landscape reflects the internal contours and depth of vision her characters possess and, as a driving force within the plot, landscape controls their movements and influences what they can and cannot do.  Her characters are frequently outsiders, alienated in some way from the society around them, and rootless either by choice or coercion.  It is clear, however, that landscape is more than simply a mirror, reflecting and reinforcing her characters’ struggles.  The open spaces which dominate her writing have a pensive quality, arid and remote, yet geologically and historically complex, and mood, plot, action and theme are all influenced by the shape and behaviour of the land. 
In Proulx’s first novel Postcards, Loyal Blood flees the farm he loves after accidentally killing his girlfriend Billy.  As he takes a final look at ‘the rich twenty-acre field propped open toward the south like a Bible’ (1992:14), we feel his emotional attachment to the land he has loved and nurtured:
Beautiful pasture, four or five years of his work to bring that field up, none of Mink’s labor, his, draining the boggy place, liming and seeding to clover, plowing under the clover three years running to build up the soil, get the sourness out, then planting alfalfa and keeping it going, look at it, sweet good stuff, nutty, full of nourishment.  That’s what made those cows give the butterfat, nothing Mink did, but him, Loyal, the best pasture in the county. (ibid)

Proulx’s lingering and detailed description of the Blood family’s Vermont farm hangs over the rest of the novel as a reminder of what Loyal has lost.  He is homeless, now, but more than that, he is alienated from the ground which fed him and gave him purpose.  As he travels west, he dreams of a new beginning and a farm of his own:
His own place would be a small farm, maybe two hundred and fifty acres, gently swelling earth like the curve of hip and breast, good pasture.  He saw his Holsteins grazing, up to their hocks in good grass.  The soil would be crumbly and stoneless.  There would be a stream with flat rich bottomland on each side for corn and hay crops, and a woodlot, say fifty acres of tall straight hardwood, a sugarbush, low branched sweet trees on a south slope.  On the height of his land he imagined a stand of evergreen, and in the dark spruce a spring welling up from the earth’s pure underground water.   (ibid:59-60)  

Proulx gives Loyal Blood a vision of a western agrarian idyll which will allow him to reconnect with the soil and provide him with spiritual sustenance. It is this hope of ‘curing his trouble with the earth’ (ibid:209) which drives him on, but Loyal has committed a heinous act, and the forgiveness he craves is beyond his reach.  In a perpetual act of penance, he allows himself few comforts as he drifts through a remote western landscape. 
Through a series of jobs – mining, prospecting, fossil hunting, and trapping, work which although imbedded in the landscape is the antithesis of farming – he is eventually able to buy a small plot of land in North Dakota.  It is not the lush and fertile farmland of his imagination, however, but a ‘bony square of earth’ (ibid:210), dust-blown and dry.  But Loyal is, as his name implies, faithful to the land, feeding it, nurturing it, and coaxing it to bloom.  He finds solace as he works the soil but though two decades have passed since he committed his crime, the earth remains parched and without compassion.  Instead of offering Loyal redemption, the land actively pushes him away:
The equinoctial dry storms came, wind and soil and locked knots of tumbleweed bouncing across the fields, gathering fellow weeds as they rolled, spraying the earth with seed.  He’d hear them at night working up against the house with muffling scratches. (ibid:218)
When his farmhouse is encased by tumbleweed, and relentless winds cast balls of fire across the prairie, it is as though the landscape conspires against him, judging and convicting him, and planning his execution.  The rejection is complete.  Once more, Loyal is wrenched from the soil and resumes his solitary wandering through the lonely spaces of the West.
In the short story ‘Hellhole’, Proulx once more depicts landscape as having an inherent primacy over man.  In the story, fourteen-year-old Creel Zmundzinski had been heading for a life of crime when Wyoming Game and Fish Warden Orion Horncrackle arrived at the St. Francis Boys’ Home:
“I want a tell you that you’re not as much orphans as you think.  You was born in a wonderful, wild place and I think that if you let Wyomin, your home state, and its wildlife stand in for your human parents you will do pretty good.” (Proulx, 2005:6)

Horncrackle believed in the redemptive powers of the wilderness and under his guidance, Zmundzinski’s life was turned around.  Now, as a Game and Fish Warden himself, Zmundzinski finds the land is also capable of vengeance. 
Catching a California preacher who has just shot and butchered a cow moose in a no-hunting area, leaving its calf orphaned and defenceless, Zmundzinski directs the man to a gravel parking strip next to the road known as the Pinchbutt Pullout, and begins writing the man a citation.  As the preacher works himself into a rage, stamping his feet and cursing Zmundzinski to hell, ‘tendrils of smoke [rise] in a circle around him’ (Proulx, 2004:9).  Through his disregard of hunting regulations, the poacher has alienated himself from lawful society, and through his lack of concern for wildlife, he has alienated himself from the natural world.  Though the legal system may be ineffective, however, Nature proves expert at obtaining swift justice:
“What?” [the preacher] said as the gravel sagged beneath his feet.  There was a sound like someone tearing a head of a lettuce apart.  The gravel heaved and abruptly gaped open.  The hunter dropped down into a fiery red tube about three feet across that resembled an enormous blowtorch-heated pipe.  With a shriek the preacher disappeared. (ibid)

As word of the ‘Hellhole’ spreads among the Game Wardens, more and more poachers are punished by the landscape they abuse.  Proulx ends the story with a cautionary note, however, indicting human intervention as an ultimately destructive act.  The popularity of the ‘Pinchbutt pullout’ where the judgements are passed has not gone unnoticed, and when Zmundzinski returns the following season the pullout has been developed into a ‘multiple use enlargement’ (ibid:14), with ‘room for fifty cars, fancy trailhead signs […] the works’ (ibid:13).  The Hellhole has been covered over and sealed up.  Depending on one’s perspective, the earth has been tamed, or it has been destroyed. 
In Proulx’s memoir Bird Cloud, she writes of her visits to a golden eagle nest on her property in Wyoming.  Returning to the nest after several months’ absence, she finds it empty and ponders the fate of its former residents: ‘Wyoming winter is a hard time for even these hardy creatures, but the snares and instruments of humans are more deadly than weather […]’ (2011:233). Like the paving-over of the Hellhole, human activities in the landscape seldom have positive results.
It would be wrong to ascribe an ecological agenda to Proulx’s work, however, or to assume Horncrackle’s romantic view of nature is her own[i].  She is pragmatic about the environment and displays little interest in writing about untouched, virgin landscapes (Brown, 2009). She has, though, voiced concerns about man’s long-term impact on the environment.  In an interview with Aida Edemariam she states:
I’m appalled at what human beings have done to the planet.  I think it would be quite marvellous if human beings disappeared [….] 100 years ago I would have written the great-fight-against-the-elements kind of books, whereas now the landscape has moved from being the great enemy to being the victim. (2004)

While neither Postcards nor ‘Hellhole’ portray landscape as a passive victim, by showing its active opposition to those who abuse it, Proulx reflects contemporary concerns.  Landscape would have no cause to fight back if it was not under threat. 
With Loyal Blood and Creel Zmundzinski, Proulx offers two ways of looking at landscape: as an entity to be harnessed, brought under control and utilised, or one to be protected and conserved.  Both stories regard the landscape as an independent and sentient entity, responding to the actions of man, and directing the fate of characters within the narrative.  Whether or not that landscape is hostile, however, depends entirely on one’s own perception.
       Contrary to Proulx’s claims that the first western writers emphasised the hostile potential of the frontier, two of the earliest examples in the western canon, The Virginian (1902) and O Pioneers! (1913), clearly depict the land as benign.  Although Wyoming, in Wister’s The Virginian, is acknowledged to be a ‘lonesome country’ where old trappers are likely to become ‘skewed in the haid’ (Wister, 1902:56), it is the absence of human companionship, not the land, which is the danger.  Even the Eastern narrator experiences no feelings of trepidation when he arrives at Medicine Bow for the first time and is confronted by ‘a land without end, a space across which Noah and Adam might come straight from Genesis’ (ibid:18).  It is, without doubt, a foreign landscape to him, but the narrator does not perceive, and nor does he discover in the course of the novel, an innate hostility in the arid and unpopulated expanses of sagebrush.  On the contrary, the size of the landscape and its undeveloped state enthrals him, and later he reflects on how comfortable he was in his western surroundings by acknowledging a sense of kinship with the earth: 
To leave behind all noise and mechanisms, and set out at ease, slowly, with one packhorse, into the wilderness, made me feel that the ancient earth was indeed my mother and that I had found her again after being lost among houses, customs, and restraints. (Wister 1902:246)

The Virginian, the cowboy figure whom the narrator so admires, also feels a deep connection with the Wyoming landscape.  He, too, is an Easterner by birth, but after he and Molly marry, it is to the ‘true world of the mountains’ (ibid:314), further into the West, that he takes his bride, not to the ‘civilised’ comforts of the East.  As he and Molly sit beside a mountain stream, the Virginian attempts to express the spiritual bond he has with the surrounding landscape and his desire to become a physical part of it:
Often when I have camped here, it has made me want to become the ground, become the water, become the trees, mix with the whole thing.  Not know myself from it.  Never unmix again. (ibid:321)

The landscape of Wyoming and the ‘unsurveyed and virgin wilderness’ (ibid:315) of the sparsely inhabited western reaches of the country represent a natural purity to the Virginian, a world which has not been defiled by the complications of human society.  He recognises that, in its natural state, the land possesses a redemptive power, and at their bridal camp in the mountains, we see how that power washes over him and cleanses him of his remorse for the hanging of his friend Steve.  As the burden of guilt and anguish are lifted from him, he is transformed from a man ‘whose hand knew how to deal death’ and, in Molly’s eyes, reborn as an innocent youth (ibid:321). 
Nowhere in The Virginian does Wister portray a sense of hostility or inherent malevolence in the landscape.  When he writes of ‘the long slant of ragged, caked earth…with its single tree and few mean bushes’, and describes the ‘universal dryness’ of the alkali desert (ibid:197), he is not suggesting a malign force within the natural world.  Instead, the malign force is Balaam, a man known for his ill-tempered and brutal treatment of horses.  Wister uses the lifeless quality of the ‘dingy, yellow world’ (ibid) of the desert scrubland to mirror Balaam’s lack of humanity and to build tension towards the scene’s climax.  The threats that exist in this desert landscape arise from people, not nature, and landscape merely serves to reflect the conflicts between men.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, as western tribes were forced to cede land to the federal government, the West was opened up for white settlement.  Prior to 1862, settlers had to purchase land from the government, and movement to the West was measured, restricted to those with capital.  After the introduction of the Homestead Act, however, anyone over the age of twenty-one could claim 160 acres of undeveloped free land west of the Mississippi River, on the condition that they ‘improved’ the land and occupied it for a period of five years.  Many of those who took up homesteads in the West were poor immigrants from northern Europe, with little experience of farming.  Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! (1913) chronicles the last decades of the nineteenth century as the families of immigrant homesteaders struggle to eke a living from the Nebraska prairies. 
For most homesteaders, the prospect of owning land was something they could not have previously considered: agricultural land in the East was out of reach to all but the wealthy and those with inheritance rights.  But to possess the title to one’s own land represented opportunity, the freedom to work for oneself, and the chance to secure a future for one’s children.  Because of what it represented, many homesteaders, particularly those who had emigrated from Europe, ‘had the Old-World belief that land, in itself, [was] desirable’ (Cather 1913:8) and were therefore willing to endure the hardships to stake their claims in the West. 
In his seminal essay, ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History,’ Frederick Jackson Turner defines the frontier lands which the homesteaders moved into as being ‘the meeting point between savagery and civilization’ (Turner 1893:3).  The land with which the homesteaders were confronted was not like the land they had previously seen.  Being untouched by the plough, in what were frequently remote and arid locations, the frontier generally bore more resemblance to the ‘savage’ wilderness than it did to the verdant farmland of the East, and Cather uses this ‘untamed’ imagery to create a sense of the anxiety felt by some of her characters.  To the inexperienced farmer, the land was ‘a wild thing that had its ugly moods’ (Cather, 1913:7) and behaved ‘like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces’ (ibid:8).  Cather describes the newly-settled Nebraska prairies as though they were a living creature, to be conquered and tamed through cultivation, but though the land is ‘wild’ and unpredictable, it is never described as hostile.  Even when the young Carl Linstrum looks across the ‘vast hardness’ (ibid:5) and feels that ‘men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty’ (ibid) he is only acknowledging man’s frailty. 
In O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson takes control of the family farm after her father dies.  Three years of drought and crop failure, ‘the last struggle of a wild soil against the encroaching plowshare’ (ibid:18), have forced many of her neighbours to sell their property and move to the city, but Alexandra convinces her brothers to stay.  Like the Virginian, she believes in the land’s enduring power of rejuvenation and creation, and believes that the land will take care of them if they remain faithful to it.  Though it is partly through her perseverance and her business acumen that the farm eventually prospers, she refuses to take any credit, telling her childhood friend, Carl Linstrum:
We hadn’t any of us much to do with it, Carl.  The land did it.  It had its little joke.  It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all at once, it worked itself.  It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still. (45)

Alexandra clearly sees the land as a sentient being, and while her father valued the homestead because of the security it offered his family, her relationship with the land goes deeper.  She feels ‘in her own body, the joyous germination in the soil’ (ibid:80) and reveres the land in a spiritual sense.  Alexandra recognises that the power which the land possesses is far greater than any power which the humans who inhabit it may have, acknowledging the temporary and therefore subordinate status of man within the natural world: ‘We come and go,’ she tells Carl, ‘but the land is always here’ (ibid:122).
Both The Virginian and O Pioneers! depict feelings of hope and optimism in the frontier West and American confidence in the future.  In each novel, the landscape is represented with sympathy and insight, and characters are portrayed as having a desire not just to develop and utilise the land for economic gain, but to unite with it on an emotional level.  I would suggest that the most hostile landscapes in Western American fiction – or at least the most hostile perceptions of landscapes –  come not from these early texts, but from some of the more recent. 

[i] In an interview with Emma Brown she has stated, ‘I don’t see nature as a healing force.’ (Brown, 2009)


etuttle said...

Loree, Where can I find the interview with Emma Brown and Annie Proulx you reference in this article?

Loree Westron said...

Hi Emma,
Sorry not to have seen your query sooner. Here's a link to the interview in High Country News: