Willa Cather

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(c) Simple Gifts: Photographs and Reflections from the Landscape.

I was driving across Utah this past weekend, and the barren landscape with the low angled winter sun reminded me of one of my favorite authors, Willa Cather.

I was first introduced to her passionate prose in eleventh grade’s American Lit class with Mr. Williams. My Antonia was a required reading that I found deeply expressive and heroic. I’ve since read other classics by Ms. Cather, including O Pioneers, The Song of the Lark, and several of her short stories. Her heros are set against the backdrop of the unforgiving, yet somehow nurturing landscape of the Great Divide. Her characters are almost all imigrants, who must overcome their past as they overcome the land; and the heroism is to be found not in great acts, but in simple determination and fortitude that made the pioneer era the stuff of legends.

One of my very favorite quotes comes from My Antonia:

The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution, when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seed as they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had the sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm Fuchs’s story, but insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.

In Utah (where the mormons settled), every summer the roads and highways are lined with wild sunflowers, and I’m always reminded of this passage.

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