Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Full of many things except boundaries": Aloneness, Transcendentalism, and PrairyErth

Room for the Sky, taken somewhere in Chase County, Kansas, by Dave Leiker. Click on image to enlarge. Image found here.

As mentioned in my most recent post, I've begun reading William Least-Heat Moon's PrairyErth. What follows is a particularly compelling snippet of writing from it. It'd be quite easy to create post after post consisting of such snippets--Least-Heat Moon has this way of turning on a stylistic dime from literally and figuratively pedestrian writing (he's a strong advocate, as you'll see in a bit, for spending as much time on foot in the Flint Hills as possible) to turning the landscape he sees into a metaphysical vastness that, if not the equal of Emerson, certainly is a worthy participant in the Transcendentalist tradition.

Still, PrairyErth's version of Transcendentalism has an edge to it that Emerson's doesn't. In Chapter I of Emerson's essay "Nature," Emerson describes landscapes as "charming" (in a book in which the author quotes a 19th-century pioneer woman as saying that the word "prairie" is too pretty a word to describe the Flint Hills, I'm willing to bet that "charming" will not put in an appearance in PrairyErth as part of a description of landscape) and says things like "The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relationship between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me and I to them." (Cue "Zippity Doo Da.")

I find myself wondering how Emerson's "Nature" might have looked if its author had lived in the prairie.

But that same first chapter of "Nature" also finds Emerson saying, "But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars." Emerson here means "alone" in the sense of one's being at a remove from people and people's ideas ("a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society") in order to begin to perceive one's essential bond with Nature. There's plenty of aloneness in PrairyErth, too, but whatever Emersonian sensibilities Least-Heat Moon's aloneness might have are tempered by Naturalism's understanding of Nature as, at best, indifferent to human beings (Stephen Crane's "A Man Said to the Universe" is all you need to read about that). So, we end up, in the end, with a passage like this, in which Least-Heat Moon delivers a quiet but firm response to Emerson's famous "transparent eye-ball" moment in a clearing in the woods:

Hiking in the woods allows a traveler to imagine comforting enclosures, one leading to the next, and the walker can possess those little encompassed spaces, but the prairies and plains permit no such possession. Whatever else prairie is--grass, sky, wind--it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie and more than there is a little ocean, and the consequences of both is this challenge: try to take yourself seriously out here, you bipedal plodder, you complacent cartoon. (82)


R. Sherman said...

That's one of the reason I enjoy the Great Plains: Their vastness is a sponge which absorbs all manner of mental detritus the longer one is there.

I suppose one could say the same thing about anywhere in the West, but mountains are like those rooms Emerson describes. Man inhabits the valleys and are safely cocooned in their own little regions, blissfully unaware what's going on a few miles away over the pass.

Not so with the plains. Even the distant is immediate--think watching T-storm cell from 25 miles off. There is an awareness and effect, even if it's minor.


R. Sherman said...

Totally Off Topic: I hope you see this.


John B. said...

Just a few things excepted (but only a few), that piece describes my mother fairly accurately. Which is to say that it was pretty true of most Texas women a couple of generations back. But it was fun to read; thanks for sending it along.

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