Nature is a major theme throughout all of the stories we have read so far this semester, weighing in heavily in the subject matter of each novel. Despite this common thread, nature is handled quite differently in each story, with obvious varied effects in the story. Willa Cather uses the nature of the southwest as an overwhelming presence that stuns any who approach it, while John Steinbeck uses nature with his characters as one would use water with a goldfish in his bowl. Norman Maclean creates nature as a religious experience, and most interestingly, Wallace Stegner uses nature least of all, yet uses the few scenes of nature he provides to jar and jab the plot into advancing. Each of these portrayals of nature is radically different, but each allows the reader a closer glimpse into the natural world of the west.
Examples of the overwhelming and awesome power of nature are abundant in Willa Cather’s Death Comes For The Archbishop. There are so many of them that one can virtually flip open to any page in the novel to find an example of the sense of nature’s awesome power, but some are more amazing than others. Father Latour lay with his ear to this crack for a long while, despite the cold that arose from it. He told himself he was listening to one of the oldest voices of the earth. What he heard was the sound of a great underground river, flowing through a resounding cavern. The water was far, far below, perhaps as deep as the foot of the mountain, a flood moving in utter blackness under the ribs of antediluvian rock. It was not a rushing noise, but the sound of a great flood moving with majesty and power. (Cather 129-130)
Other examples in Cather’s writing are not so dramatic, but they highlight the ever-present beauty of nature in the southwest. The water thus diverted was but a tiny thread of the full creek; the main stream ran down the arroyo over a white rock bottom, with green willows and deep hay grass and brilliant wild flowers on its banks. Evening primroses, the fireweed, and butterfly weed grew to a tropical size and brilliance there among the sedges. (Cather 165)
While Cather blatantly overwhelmed her characters with the beauty of nature surrounding them, Steinbeck immersed his characters so deeply in their surroundings it seemed as if they were unaware of them, just as we are unaware of the oxygen we breathe or the way our heart is constantly beating. The one part of nature that is most often referred to is the forest surrounding Tortilla Flat, and even then only sparingly, and in a way that often downplays its existence, just the way we downplay things that seem common and unusual to us. On the second page of the story, where Steinbeck says the ?forest and town intermingle? he is making the forest seem more common, just another place for the adventures of Danny and his compatriots to occur.
Sentences that could carry more weight in other narratives are simplified in this story, to the point where they are stated as simple facts, as opposed to the poetic lines that they could have been written as. ?The sun was warming the beach now.? (Steinbeck 91) This sentence could have easily been developed into an entire paragraph about how the light of the sun reflected back from the froth of the waves and the sparkle of the sand, and so forth and so on. However, Steinbeck boils down the background to simple facts, making it easier to focus on the characters of Danny and his unorthodox Knights of the Round Table.
In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean may have attempted to boil all of the details away from the story to simplify it, but in doing so he highlighted certain parts of nature in such great detail that he helped exemplify the first sentence of the story. ?In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.? This is where Maclean provides the first glimpse into nature as a religious experience. Cather made nature overwhelming, but Maclean makes nature become an extension of religion. When Norman, his brother and his father go out to fish, the hunt for the fish and the reeling him in are much like a prayer, even like a litany or psalm.
He emphasizes this connection with comments about Norman?s father sitting on the bank ?somewhere in the sunshine reading the New Testament in Greek.? He makes references to the book of John, discussing the Word and the water, thus making a connection to the river they are fishing from (Maclean 94-96). This religious link to the river makes the river an ever present force in their lives, not just as a place they go to fish, but a place they go as one would go to church for solace from the world.
The way in which Wallace Stegner approaches nature is radically different than the way any of the other three authors does. He doesn?t so much try to overwhelm or immerse a person in it, nor does he make it fade into the background. From the picture on the cover of the book, one might make the false supposition that the book would be filled with flowery descriptions of the Rocky Mountains and other geographical features. This couldn?t be further from the truth.
Stegner?s use of nature is often rather subdued, yet he always manages to use the local, flora, fauna and geography as a starting point to conversation, or to jumpstart some inner thought process of one of his characters. He highlights the dialogue and provides a genesis for narrative shifts with descriptions such as the ones that occur when Oliver and Susan arrive in Leadville together. ?The stage leveled off into what seemed a plain or valley. She leaned to see. Ahead of them, abrupt as the precipice up which little figures toil in Chinese paintings, she saw a wild wooded mountainside that crested at a long ridge spiky with conifers. She pulled the curtains wide. ?But my goodness!? she cried. ?You called them hills!?? (Stegner 82)
Stegner uses nature to set moods, such as this scene where he uses a description of the world around Oliver and Susan to make the atmosphere a bit more somber and serious. ?The trees on the crest – redwoods, Oliver said ? burned for a few seconds and went black. Eastward down the plunging mountainside the valley fumed with dust that was first red, then rose, then purple, then mauve, then gray, and finally soft black.? (Stegner 90) He uses the deepening color shades to justify Susan shivering, and the more serious conversation that followed, as well as allowed him to have Lyman discuss his heritage without sounding trite or lewd as he discussed being made possible that night.
No matter where one looks in this literature, it is an inevitable fact that nature is an ever-present subject. The environment in which each story was written simply will not allow a writer to put blinders on in order to ignore it. The difference comes when one sees the way the subject is approached. Which is the better portrayal of reality? In the west, are we like fish in our bowl, oblivious to the nature around us? Or are we overwhelmed by the sheer power of the nature, or perhaps do we wish to sit and perform a sort of informal prayer because of our religious sensibilities, which we attach to the west. Perhaps we are merely influenced at key points in our lives by the beauty of earth.
Despite the opinions of many others on this wonderful earth, I would venture to say that it is all of the aforementioned things in this literature that we draw from the wonders of nature, especially that of the beautiful west. We are all impacted a little bit in each of these manners, hopefully providing a better understanding of the west, and a desire to preserve its beauty.