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A N D R E W E L K I N S Chadron State College TheEcologicalVision of Thomas HornsbyFerril It is impossible to study a western author very long without having to confront and define that author’s attitude toward the environment. The fact of the land, place, space, geography, or environment, whatever one calls it, is inescapable in western literature. I propose to focus on the poetry of Thomas Hornsby Ferril, the Rocky Mountain region’s best known poet, and to define what I would like to call Ferril’s ecological vision, that is, his attitude toward place and space. The central tenet of hisvision is that the human does not take dominion over the natural. He approaches nature intending respect rather than domination; he re­ fuses or sees no need to think of his human world and nature as essentially separate and opposing realms. These traits, if I have accu­ rately described them, place Ferril squarely within “the [western] para­ digm” as defined by Harold Simonson: the paradigm “includes God, man, and nature, but instead of any one having dominion over the others, the primitivism integral to the western experience finally rules out all distinctions among the three. The three become one in cosmic unity.”1 The western writer finds his spiritual home underfoot, but “home,” as Simonson remarks, does not imply “ownership.” Instead, home is “a place of mutuality,”a place “where we share whatwe have,”a “hard-won union of person and place”rather than domination over a place.2 This attitude can easily degenerate into what Thomas Trusky calls “mushy, romantic rhapsodizing.”3 Ferril understands that the major problem for the poet of the West is that the landscape tends to over­ whelm the viewer and encourage in the poet “God-finding,”4 the too easyreverence and awe ofwhich Truskyspeaks. The attitude Iam calling Ferril’s ecological vision, however, is neither “mushy, romantic rhapso­ dizing”nor “landscape mysticism,”both ofwhich Ferril defines in order 110 WesternAmerican Literature to avoid: . . I believe that the same emotional influence which, in the presence ofvast mountains, causes the poet to say: ‘This is all so big, only God could have caused it’is responsible for the notion of prose writers: ‘This is all so big, only supermen can cope with it.’ ”5Poets and prose writers of the West thus often miss the real life lived in, and influenced by, the land. The poetjumps straight from purple mountains’majesty to God, omitting humans and their concerns; the prose author stays on the ground but populates it with superhumans, omitting real people and their concerns. The result is too often the same: “abstractions.”6The antidote to “mushy, romantic rhapsodizing”is simple: the western writer has to remember that landscapes alone are “meaningless.”It is only the interaction of land and humans—a mutual relationship in which both contribute equally, each according to its lights—that makes meaning: landscape is . . meaningful if the poet feels the mountain waters moving up through the grasses and the beasts into the metabolism of men with power to dream beyond the wasting of the glaciers and the granite.”7The key word is “feels,” and it is that genuine, felt, mutual, truth-producing, and hope-affirming relationship with nature which most clearly characterizes Ferril’swork. This attitude is evident, although not consistently evident, in Ferril’s verse as early as his first book, High Passage: As he rests, panting on his axe, the man is less A man than some worn register of sun and wind, Rock-boned, pine-lunged, strung taut of sinewed wilderness, With tunes of storm fringing the furrows of his mind. (“October Aspens”) The compound adjectives define the man as a mixture of internal and external reality and serve to question the distinction between inner and outer. Ferril, in other words, recognizes the human but does not auto­ matically give it precedence over the non-human. (If anything, the adjectives give precedence to nature, or at least imply nature’s inescap­ able influence on the human condition.) The attitude is one of respect for both the human and for what Thomas Wolfe, during his 1938 whirlwind tour of the western national parks, called...


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