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Wisps of Willa Cather’s Wisdom

I shared recently ‎that I had read Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! For today’s installment of this blog, I thought I would share with readers some of the statements from that book (some directly by Cather as the narrator, others by her through some of the characters in the book) that struck me as I read. Here are some of those “wisps of wisdom” from her pen, along with my brief comments.

There is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon.

I think of my father, who grew up “too soon” during the Great Depression. I know of only one photograph of him playing as a child; he was too busy working on the farm to play. As a boy, I remember fondly watching him tease our dog and seeing how much childlike enjoyment he got out of that simple act.

Keep turning the land, and always put up more hay than you need.

Save for a “rainy day.” This is a lesson that too few people have learned today (especially our policians), and that failure is sure to come back to bite them sooner or later.

It was a still, deep-breathing summer night, full of the smell of the hay fields.

As I read this, I could smell, through a combination of memory and imagination, my grandfather’s freshly cut hay and recall how I enjoyed helping him load the bales into the bed of his old blue Chevy pickup and haul them to the barn. Even today, whenever I smell freshly mowed hay, I’m transported back to those wonderful days.

Things away from home often look better than they are. . . . [P]eople always think the bread of another country is better than their own.

This was Cather’s unique way of saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”–even if it’s really not.

[T][he right thing is usually just what everybody don’t do.

This is her character’s way of saying what the Bible said centuries ago: “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:14).

She always loved to watch [the stars], to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security.

This must have been what the psalmist David was doing and thinking when he penned, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (Psa. 8:3-4)

[I]t sometimes pays to mend other people’s fences.

When others can’t take care of their own needs, it’s often good (for both the short- and the long-term situations) to help them by doing those things for them. Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” So does repairing the neighbor’s fence.

Good advice is all right, but it don’t get the weeds out of the corn.

By this, Cather meant that a lot of people offer words of advice but never lift a finger to offer real help.

There are always dreamers on the frontier.

The dreamers are often ridiculed and discouraged by those who have no vision, but the dreamers are the ones who lead the way for those who make the “impossible” happen.

We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it–for a little while.

Although I’m not a farmer, and although I don’t have a green thumb and only tolerate garden work, I realize the importance of those who earn their livings from the land. I come from a long line of small, yeoman farmers, and it is the values they passed down through the generations to my grandfather and father, and that they taught to me, that directs my life today. As a friend of mine once told me, “God’s not making any more dirt.” The land can only increase in value.

These were all truths that Willa Cather knew and wrote about. They are the truths that have made America great. They are truths that our own generation would do well to heed and cultivate in both themselves and the generations to come.

And there’s something else I learned from Cather’s book: One can learn truth from a work of fiction! 

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