Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination

By Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

Willa Cather, Learner

THOMAS J. LYON

Three years ago, my wife Jan and I were enjoying an autumn Sunday morning in The Mill, in Lincoln, when, as it seemed, Willa Cather walked slowly past our little table. Dressed for church as a good, still family-involved twelve-year-old ought to be, her figure square-built and still androgynous-seeming, her person quiet and unobtrusive, this girl circled slowly and attentively through the big room. Her mind was absorbed in the diverse mix of coffee-drinkers and paper-readers, whom she saw one by one, without staring. This intelligent young girl was gathering material. Sounds and images and the warm, bakery fragrance of the place, the whole ambience, were registering. You could see learning happening as clearly as watching India ink spread indelibly into soft paper.

I am going to argue that the real Willa Cather was also and above all a learner in this same way, and that her deepest-going books are about learning—that is, about sensitivity and vulnerability, and the extraordinary beauty of human consciousness when it is young and free.

This sensitivity is also, I believe, the basis of the ecological imagination. Cather's capacity to see a man or a woman, to imagine their inward life, is at root the same as her ability to feel the “light reflecting, wind-loving trees in the desert” (The Song of the Lark 37) and to describe the living landscape of a redrock canyon, or the open prairie. It is all one sensibility. It is in terms of this awareness, this capacity to learn, that she understands life and the characters in it. What is the real, fundamental difference between Thea Kronborg and her sister Anna? Between Claude and Bayliss Wheeler? Between Alexandra on the one hand and

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