Thursday, November 13, 2008

How Ignorant of Our Own Country's Wildlife Are We?

Before I shelve My Antonia, I have to comment on something I found deeply disturbing, a symptom of how disconnected our culture is becoming from our land.

First, however, I need to set the stage by commenting about how impressed I was with some of Cather's ecological observations. Given her writing in this novel, she would have made a fine ecologist* if that had been her goal. For example, she talks about elderberry like this, "The elder bushes did not grow back in the shady ravines between the bluffs, but in the hot, sandy bottoms along the stream, where their roots were always in moisture and their tops in the sun."

Another ecological observation that impressed me was her description of a prairie dog town....

"Sometimes I rode north to the big prairie-dog town to watch the brown, earth-owls fly home in the late afternoon and go down to their nests underground with the dogs.... We had to be on our guard there, for rattlesnakes were always lurking about. They came to pick up an easy living among the dogs and owls, which were quite defenseless against them; took possession of their comfortable houses and ate the eggs and puppies."

At another point in the story, Cather has Antonia and Jim stopping by a prairie dog town to explore a bit....

"...Antonia suggested that we stop at the prairie-dog town and dig into one of the holes. We could find out whether they ran straight down, or were horizontal, like mole-holes; whether they had underground connections; whether the owls had nests down there, lined with feathers. We might get some puppies, or owl eggs, or snake-skins.
The dog-town was spread out over perhaps ten acres. The grass had been nibbled short and even, so this stretch was not shaggy and red like the surrounding country, but gray and velvety."

These are very accurate descriptions of prairie dog towns, including a couple of their "companion" animals, burrowing owls and prairie rattlesnakes.

However, in the introduction written by Marilyn Sides, an author and senior lecturer in the English Department at Wellesley in Massachusetts, Sides refers to Cather's descriptions of the prairie dog towns in such a way that it is obvious she doesn't have a clue what a prairie dog or prairie dog town is. She is commenting on the almost total lack of a Native American presence in this novel when she writes, "The only truly original inhabitation seems to be the prairie dog town, which may allude to a kind of Indian pueblo (in 1916 Cather had toured the pueblos of Taos and the ancient pueblo ruins of Mesa Verde)...."

Not only did Marilyn Sides not know what prairie dog towns are, but the editing staff of Signet Classics evidently didn't know either. Prairie dogs are keystone species in the prairie ecosystem. They are part of the prairie lore and mythology of this country. How do you comment on a book, even a novel, about the prairie and not have the faintest idea what a prairie dog is or how and where they live? Especially when the author is describing so many of the prairie animals and their habitats in such straightforward but beautiful prose?!

It's long past time that we include studies of our local and national wildlife and our ecosystems in our basic education system. Kids don't get out and explore wild areas like they used to 50 years ago, so that sort of basic knowledge is literally being lost. While teaching 1st graders about rainforests is theoretically fine, I think it's far more important that they learn first about the native plants and animals that live around them. There's time enough for understanding rainforests after the kids learn prairies and deciduous forests and American deserts.

It's time we all learn our natural neighbors and neighborhoods again.

* Note: The science of ecology, with its understanding of communities of plants and animals that are dependent on each other for existence, was not widely recognized until many years after Cather wrote.

1 comment:

Kitt said...

Wow. That's really ... ignorant. I never saw a prairie dog town until I moved to South Dakota, but I sure knew what one was.

Even if you didn't know, the book makes it fairly evident.