Friday, April 7, 2017

An Environmental Theme in American Literature: The Awakening Land

I recently finished reading Conrad Richter’s trilogy, The Awakening Land, which he finished in 1950. The three novels are about the settlement of Ohio: The Trees, about how pioneers carved out survival in a thick forest; The Fields, about how the pioneer settlements evolved into a little village; and The Town, how the little village became a major city in Ohio. The trilogy followed the life of a woman named Sayward (Saird) Luckett, later Wheeler, who grew up in a cabin but by the end of her life lived in a rich mansion. See a more detailed summary here.

At first, I was disaffected by what seemed to be the author’s approach. Sayward loved to cut trees down and to see others cut them down, for they represented a fearful primordial forest. (The primordial forest at the beginning of the trilogy, with leaves so dense that hardly any light penetrated throughout the forest, never actually existed. There were disturbances before the arrival of pioneers, especially fires set by nature or by the Natives.) Even into the second novel, she was glad to see the trees out of the way. But I should have known to expect something different before the end. Richter lived at a time when conservation awareness was beginning to grow in America. And sure enough, when Sayward was old, she realized that she missed the trees and the peaceful shade that they brought. She planted some trees by her mansion, some of the few trees in the city, and when she was dying she had her bed turned toward the window to see them. She regretted taking the land away from the trees: “Sometimes she wished she could give them back their land, for it was she who had taken it from them.”

Even the choice of the title, The Awakening Land, implied that nature is asleep until humans roust it into usefulness. But perhaps Richter intended this to be irony.

Although beautifully written, the novels seemed primarily episodic. Some of these episodes were funny, and some were beautiful: the chapter “Rosa’s Rainbow” was one of the best short pieces I have read. The only overarching plot of the trilogy was that the forest gave way to human progress. There was no structural conflict to be resolved.

The third novel did have a major plot: the romance that developed over many years between Chancey Wheeler, Sayward’s youngest and sickly son, and the frail, quiet, and thoughtful Rosa Tench. Everybody but them knew that they were half-siblings. Rosa was born from an affair that Portius Wheeler, the father, had with a schoolteacher when he was the master. But the two young people knew only that the adults, for reasons not explained to them, condemned their romance. I found myself hoping that this would reach a satisfactory resolution. Rosa had to live with a poor family and never received recognition or even a single word from the rich Wheeler family. I was hoping they would invite her into their home. This did not happen. The resolution of this plot was gruesome and occurred well before the end of the novel, which, as a direct result of this, I did not want to read. Had I known what would happen, I might not have read it. But it remains a beautiful piece of literature and a testament to the development of the American attitude toward the land, which everyone except, at the end, the main character, assumed was progress.

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