Willa Cather (1873-1947), one of my favorites among America’s great authors, spent her formative years between nine and sixteen in Red Cloud, in south-central Nebraska. The scenery of the Great Plains seared itself into her psyche and suffused much of her writing. She might be best known for her so-called prairie trilogy, which comprises O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918), but others among her twelve novels are redolent of that setting. In the early 20th century, when pioneer life along the American Frontier was not considered worthy of literary pursuit, Willa Cather broke the mold and became herself a pioneer, with regard to theme, women’s central roles in their spheres, and her hallmark prose, evocative of place.
Even though Native Americans had survived, even thrived, in the challenging environment of the High Plains, for those on a quest to conquer the West following the Civil War, this land posed a conundrum. Unlike the agricultural areas in the eastern states and in Europe, it was seemingly barren. Many settlers concurred with the impression of the first explorers traversing the area in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, who had referred to it as “The Great American Desert”.
For Willa herself, it wasn’t love at first sight. When she arrived in Nebraska’s Webster County in 1883 from her birthplace in Virginia, the transition from the green lushness to the semi-aridity of the High Plains was confounding. She reminisced later, “This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody paid any attention. So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake.” Her eventual fondness of the native flora is epitomized in a 1921 interview, “There is one book I would rather have produced than all of my novels. That is Clements Botany dealing with the wild flowers of the west.” While Willa Cather sings the praises of the raw beauty and intricate design of that carpet woven of native wildflowers and grasses, she simultaneously admires the soil’s arable potential and refers to the generosity of the earth willing to subject itself to the plow and to human industry, to yield a harvest that benefits humankind, provided it is treated with understanding and respect.
Sparked by my own acquaintance with a number of Willa Cather’s narratives, and fanned by my growing fascination with the Great Plains which also occupy a vast portion of Colorado, I finally fulfilled the long-held wish to make a literary pilgrimage to Red Cloud in October 2015. Thanks to the Willa Cather Foundation, it is possible to tour original sites and buildings important in the writer’s life which she immortalized in many of her stories, along with some of her contemporaries.
Since nature plays such a prominent role in her work, I was profoundly moved by the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. These 612 formerly overgrazed and herbicide-treated acres had, nonetheless, never been touched by a plow. Acquired by the Nature Conservancy in the 1970s, they were subsequently transferred to the Willa Cather Foundation. Located a short distance south of Red Cloud, they exemplify the successful restoration of a portion of original grassland. It is heartening to see a biome revert back to its original state, albeit only with a concerted effort. It took and still takes many hands to pull or burn invasive weeds and to reintroduce native grasses and wildflowers. Controlled intermittent grazing simulates the cyclical visitations by American bison when they still roamed vast regions of the continent.
Like the pioneers who inhabited Willa Cather’s universe, the present-day caller is greeted by the picturesque prospect of rolling hills rippling in Nebraska’s relentless breeze. I am confident that she would embrace this natural treasure named in her honor. Just as we devotees want her stories and characters to live on, so should the landscape which gave them life.
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