IN THE PAST MONTH, I'VE TWEAKED A LOT. I’ve tweaked curriculum, articles, even the brightness of my book cover and its font size. I've tweaked my website, but I’ve also tweaked my closet apparently. Maybe I even tweaked my foot when I stepped on a backyard mole hill.
When it was first recorded in Old English in the 1600s, tweaking used to mean pinching, as in tweaking or tugging someone’s nose. Then it meant plucking, like picking lint off of a shirt. I don’t think I’ve managed to pinch or pluck anything I’ve written, but I may have plucked a few things from my closet that I don’t wear. Now that I consider it, I do pluck things from what I write so that I can add other words because in modern lingo, tweaking means to make a fine adjustment.
Tweaking really is refining, and refining is all about process, not perfection. It requires time and reflection and a good deal of plain old thought. I don’t want to be the fool described in Ecclesiastes 10:14 who just multiplies his words. That just implies empty quantity. A good word encourages the heart and strengthens it (Proverbs 12:25). Those words are agreeable and bring pleasure and make you stand taller.
Perhaps one of the most valuable parts of the tweaking process is that God can reveal His wisdom to us if we wait and rest without trying to fill a page just to fill it. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom herself says, I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength. And that is my hope and prayer for the words that I write. Let tweaking be a refining.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to him who understands,
and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
“For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious.”
As she explores the life and land of her heroine Alexandra Bergson, Willa Cather creates an aura and mystique about the Nebraskan land itself in O Pioneers!. The land alone is fierce, ugly, sombre, even magical, but most significantly, it is dynamically alive.
At first, Cather constructs a setting where the land appears as a separate woebegone entity: “the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.” In its singularity, the land has doubtless endured without man. Cather describes it as a fact in itself “which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes.” Specifically, Cather relates how Alexandra’s father, “John Bergson had made but little impression upon the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods.” Yet the hardness of this pioneering life, the hardness of the land itself, did not overcome John Bergson. Emil asks his sister Alexandra, “Father had a hard fight here, didn’t he?” And she responded, “Yes, and he died in a dark time. Still, he had hope. He believed in the land.”
This persistent belief and interaction distinguishes the land even further. As Alexandra and others engage and hope in the land, it responds in kind—“For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious.” The land affects Alexandra’s heart and spirit, and Cather alludes to the influence of God the creator, “the Genius of the Divide,” who is part of this burgeoning relationship. Cather clearly portrays Alexandra’s connection. As Cather depicts Alexandra’s vast and fruitful property, she reveals that it is “in the soil she expresses herself best.”
Although Alexandra recognized her tie to the land, she ironically doesn’t want her brother Emil to share the same connection. She clearly expresses her demand, that he must never buy land or work the land, so that he could pursue life in freedom, in choice, unlike herself. Out of her father’s children there was one who was fit to cope with the world, who had not been tied to the plow, and who had a personality apart from the soil. And that, she reflected, was what she had worked for. She felt well satisfied with her life.
Perhaps Alexandra felt that her tie to the land was more than an anchor, that it instead was a trap. She felt confined to her farm and the land, as did her older brothers. More than ever, the land tends to reflect not only the mood, but now the waning hopes of Alexandra. For her, the land is simply no longer a place of goodness and freedom.
As time passes, Alexandra expresses a fatalism about the land, partly due to her experiences. After Emil and Marie are murdered, Alexandra grieves for months and becomes weary of life. Here returns her “old illusion of her girlhood, of being lifted and carried lightly by some one very strong . . . she knew at last for whom it was she had waited, and where he could carry her.” By description and inference, her lover appears to be the land in human form, for that is where she will be returned in death when he carries her away “one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom.”
Once Carl returns and pledges himself in marriage, Alexandra confirms that her commitment to Carl would lessen her tie to the land. In the same fatalistic manner, Alexandra and Carl speak of how the land has taken the best of them with the deaths of Emil and Marie. Carl states that he felt “my blood go quicker . . . an acceleration of life” when he had been with them. Maybe the land was jealous of their lives, of how others felt alive around them, for they remember an account about the graveyard, about “the old story writing itself over. Only it is we who write it, with the best we have.” Both Carl and Alexandra appear reconciled with the outcome, as if the land is fed with the death of their best.
Regardless of her grief and even change in circumstances, Alexandra is yet united with the land—“‘There is great peace here . . . and freedom,’ she tells Carl. ‘You belong to the land,’ Carl murmured, ‘as you have always said. Now more than ever.’” Alexandra remains a stalwart reflection of the land as it becomes part of her—“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.”
IN MY ANTONIA, WILLA CATHER'S PORTRAYAL OF THE LAND is blurred by its intercourse with character. Not only can the land be place, but it can also be soul, an emotional center for more than one character. For narrator Jim Burden, both Antonia and the Nebraskan landscape become a place of returning, equal with the past, yet most essentially a place known as home.
The land is part of Jim Burden from his earliest memories, ones that indeed he returns to. When Jim first travels to Nebraska, his young mind is captured by the vast land, “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Once he arrives at his grandparents’ farm and begins to explore the property and gardens, Jim realizes a peace and comfort there—“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire.”
More importantly, as Jim’s friendship with Antonia develops, their mutual experiences across the prairie tie them together, whether exploring for gophers and earth-owls or gathering insects. “How many an afternoon Antonia and I have trailed along the prairie under that magnificence!” Yet as seasons pass and they grow older, Jim pulls away from the land as he attends university while Antonia detaches herself for a short time as a hired girl.
Their similarity ends there though. Jim’s distance from the land becomes permanent whereas a disgraced Antonia returns to the land to raise her daughter after the fiasco of a promised marriage. Though she could have abandoned her childhood foundation, she chooses a limited life. In a sense, the land becomes both a rescue and a jail, for though she has a livelihood, she has chosen a life without freedom where people gossip and judge and the land feels removed.
"the old pull of the earth"
Yet as she explains her choice to Jim, Antonia declares, “I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here.” Here, Jim relates how he wishes he were a boy again where he “felt the old pull of the earth” and “that my [his] way could end here,” so that he could be part of both the land and Antonia’s life. Jim knows that he could have chosen to remain even though he doesn’t. For some reason, he sees the land as part of a past sense, not his present life. In a reassuring farewell, Antonia most clearly reveals the land’s ties, that Jim will always be with her just like her dead father because of what they experienced on this enigmatic parcel of earth. Her sentiments even echo Jim’s from long ago, the day he confessed to Antonia that he felt her father’s spirit “among the woods and fields that were so dear to him.”
In their final reunion, we see how Jim’s return home is a return to the land and to Antonia. Through the final chapter, Jim vividly depicts Antonia as full of the “fire of life” and a “rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.” She is the one he could tell anything to, the soul mate, the “closest, realest face,” that sees him for who he is. Antonia has become an ideal for Jim, one that is reminiscent of not just the pioneers, but of something more ancient. She is a tie to a nourishing land, a place that through time has brought healing and life to Antonia, her progeny, and finally, Jim. Jim Burden in fact launched his narrative with this same conclusion—“this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.”