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S U S A N J. R O S O W S K I University ofNebraska-Lincoin WillaCather’s Ecology ofPlace I propose to write of aWilla Catherwe’ve scarcely met, the Cather who while growing up in Red Cloud went on rounds with Dr. McKeeby, observing him as he diagnosed and treated his patients; and the Cather who in her high school graduation speech described success as becom­ ing “agreat anatomist or a brilliant naturalist.”This Cather entered the University of Nebraska in 1890 intending to study science, and she arrived at precisely the time that the pioneering work being done there in botany and ecology placed the University at the forefront of those fields. Having joined its faculty in 1884, Charles E. Bessey was trans­ forming “rawyouthsfrom the new farmlandsofbooming Nebraska into missionaries for science”(Tobey 9). The intellectual climate created by Bessey and his circle was nothing short of extraordinary, formed by a common appreciation of being at the frontier of knowledge offered by the unbroken prairies and plains spreading around them. Out of hiswork in the Midwest Besseywrote BotanyforHigh Schools and Colleges (1880), the textbook that revolutionized botany by direct­ ing attention away from other people’s taxonomies and toward the field, where one might study nature.1Among his students and among Cather’sfriendswas F. E. Clements (class of ’94), an intense young man with the soul of a poet who formulated principles of both plant and animal ecology, now best known for the facilitation hypothesis of eco­ logical succession. Among the University’s students also was Edith Schwartz, who would marry Fred Clements and coauthor with him scientific papers (she received her own Ph.D. degree in botany in 1904), as well as write with him popular guides to plants of the plains and Rocky Mountains. Yet another studentwas Roscoe Pound (brother of Cather’s friend Louise Pound), whose genius inspired those around him to explore the philosophical issues mostrelevant to biology. Pound was to receive his Ph.D. in botany and to head the state’s survey of 38 Western American Literature Nebraskaflora before moving on to Harvard,where he became Dean of the Law College. Developed in response to practical problems facing the state’s farmers, ecology at the University of Nebraska was articulated in lan­ guage that invited participation by the nonprofessional. Along with their more academic writing, these scientists wrote books for the schools, prepared reports for the state’s citizens, and published popu­ lar guides to plants of a region. Courses of study (the scientific and the philosophical) and subjects of inquiry (nature and human) come to­ gether in a field that describes itself in terms common to both,2and ecology had a human face—sometimes literally. In FlowerFamilies and Ancestors, for example, the Clementses wrote that ‘The faces of flowers are much like those of people in bearing the impress of experience more or less plainly stamped upon them”(1). Plants “bear”flowers and provide “parental care”; they co-operate and compete; they establish a “community,”and so on. Making the activity of science as accessible as its subject, the founding ecologists described what they did in the familiar terms ofreading a story. As Edith Clementswas to reflect in her memoir, ‘The ecologist adds his pages to the book of knowledge by reading in the vegetation of the world, not only the story of its past and of the present, but he can foretell its future as well” (Adventures in Ecology 11). Being at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s meant that one “could not have avoided the Bessey influence” (Knoll, “Interview”; see also Prairie University). With a student population of 500 when Cather arrived and 1500when she left, the Universitywas akin to a small town where everybody knew everybody—and where everybody looked to Besseyas their “model ofexcellence,”the one “who set the pace.”His “influence was everywhere, in all the departments—in the English and the language departments (whereA. H. Edgren called himselfalinguis­ tic scientist) and in the history department (where F. M. Fling advo­ cated conducting historical research by scientific principles) and, of course, in the sciences.”3 As a “second prep” student intending...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 37-51
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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