Friday, March 25, 2011

The Heath

I remember a high school English teacher who forced my class to slog through the unfamiliar and difficult language of Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native. She insisted that the main character was the landscape...the heath. I didn't appreciate much about the book's dramatic and doomed plot, but I do remember wrestling with the idea of landscape as character.

About the same time I moved to the American Southwest, I discovered Tony Hillerman. As far as language goes, he might be Thomas Hardy's polar opposite. With the clear language of a journalist Hillerman brought the Southwest to life. The dense, foggy heath and the sun-drenched and stony Southwest are as different as their authors, yet both encompass an almost impassable distance. It is the distance between the human characters and their own salvation.

For centuries theologians have argued whether nature, the creation, provides a glimpse of its creator and is worthy of contemplation, or if it is evidence of our sinful state and can swallow us whole if we gaze too long. I think the enduring quality of Hardy's heath and Hillerman's Southwest relies in part in recognizing the truth in each of those positions.  The landscape is capricious and unforgiving, and also sublime.

What is the landscape like in your writing? Recognizing the creation in a novel forces an author to pony up about their spiritual beliefs. Is your landscape determined to drown you? Does it hint at mysteries that are just out of reach? As you're wedged in the rocks do you see a glimpse of glory pass by, or are you just a flea crawling over dead and infinite geologic time?

I try to write Montana like I see it, and today it is quiet and foggy. It's a good day to watch the doves courting and write a romance novel.

1 comment:

  1. I love the landscape as character. Maybe not the main character, but a major player. That sense of place, and what it does to the story and its characters, is so important. And how the author portrays the landscape really *does* speak to his or her spiritual beliefs. You can see Hillerman's belief in a good God in his depiction of the Southwest landscape.