Classics Fiction

Willa Cather, Greta Thunberg and Me


Willa Cather’s novel about pioneer life in Nebraska — My Antonia — was published a century ago in 1918.  This book casts a nostalgic look at the Midwestern prairie at the time it was being turned into farmlands and towns. Men and women from America and from Europe, primarily Eastern Europe, struggled to make a living by uprooting the tough prairie grass to plant corn, wheat and other crops.

Willa Cather

What struck me was the unconsciously narrow focus of this book despite the endlessly wide horizon of the land. Unbeknownst to Cather in 1918, and totally not on the radar of her characters, an environmental catastrophe, the Dust Bowl, would happen less than twenty years after the book’s publication.

In the 1930s, severe drought led to great dust storms that blackened the skies. Crops failed. Livestock died. Farms went belly up. The farmers were in part responsible for this tragedy as the hardy grasses they eradicated had previously stabilized the soil. A 2012 article in the Lincoln Journal Star stated, “In 1931, the loose soil started blowing, and a year later, 750,000 acres of farmland had been abandoned in Nebraska alone.”


Of course, the characters in My Antonia, including Antonia’s newly-arrived Bohemian family, had no inkling of the disaster that was to follow in a few decades. And, the land seemed magical: “As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day…The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed.” And, “there had been another black frost the night before, and the air was clear and heady as wine.”

Willa Cather was 73 when she died in 1947. That was the year I was born. I have now lived 72 and a half years. So, it’s only two lifetimes from her day to mine. Much has happened in that time, especially in term of technology: airplanes, cars, sky scrapers, cellphones. And yet, we have been as near-sighted as the pioneers about our impact on the environment.

The difference is that in 2019, we have been warned. There has been scientific agreement for almost thirty years about human activity as the cause of global warming. Even politicians have come on board (the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the 2015 Paris Accords). Recently sixteen-year-old activist Greta Thunberg has been effective in calling out world leaders for their short-sighted and hypocritical inaction to curb climate change.

Greta Thunberg

Thunberg was born 56 years after me, almost as far apart from me as I from Willa Cather. She is the Swedish teenage warrior for the environment. She says that her Asperger’s, which she calls her super power, gives her a single-minded focus. Yet, to me, I think she sees with the widest scope. As she said at this year’s World Economic Forum, “Our house is on fire.”

Compared to many, I had a head start in learning about the environment. I heard for the first time about the “greenhouse effect” in 1966 in Barry Commoner’s Botany 101 class at Washington University. I was alarmed, but that alarm abated over time when this issue never came up in the news or in politics.

Barry Commoner

Environmental issues were always peripheral to my day to day obligations as a mom, a doctor, a daughter, a wife. Never once did I tailor my travel plans to minimize my carbon footprint. I grocery-shopped for taste, nutrition and price, not how the food was produced and how far it was shipped. And comfort! I can’t imagine living in St. Louis without air conditioning. For a couple of decades, I was all for anything that saved time.

Like the Nebraskan farming settlers of My Antonia who labored mightily to cut the prairie grass without realizing its vital function of anchoring the soil, my generation were too caught up in our daily pursuits of comfort, convenience and conventional ideas of success to realize our impact on the global and local environments. My latter efforts at recycling, a hybrid car, LED lights and energy audits of the house seem very paltry.

Prairie Restoration at Shaw Nature Preserve near St. Louis

It has become clear that the poles are melting, accelerating temperature rise and water levels. The permafrost is melting which releases even more carbon in the atmosphere. And while we weren’t paying attention, bee colonies are collapsing. I thought that I became more immune to mosquito bites. Turns out that 75% of insects have disappeared around the globe in the past quarter century.

Equally alarming is the disappearance of three billion birds from America in the past fifty years. We went to the Audubon Center at Riverlands near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers last weekend.  The last couple of years, we saw thousands of trumpeter and tundra swans. Magnificent birds –bigger than the white pelicans and the geese. This year, we saw them in the low hundreds. Is it a fluke? I hope so.

By the time the most catastrophic aspects of climate change will hit – flooded out Miami, New York, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai – I’ll be dead. I hope that the Greta Thunbergs and those who follow in her footsteps will, at some point, have convinced enough people to take effective action. I pray it’s not too late already.

A speculative rendering showing what a hundred-year storm could briefly do to the Meatpacking District of New York decades from now, when sea levels have risen several feet. Photo-illustration: MDI Digital/Jonny Maxfield/Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

I hope that the stories of my time, the stories of the mid-to-late twentieth century, will evoke the beauty of our landscape and reflect our struggles as well as My Antonia did for the prairie lands at the end of the nineteenth century. I fear that, in retrospect, our stories will feel small and encapsulated in a nostalgic bubble, much like those about the early settlers. The world changed under our very feet, but we didn’t have the eyes to see.

Tell me: Would you buy a condo on Miami Beach?

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

One reply on “Willa Cather, Greta Thunberg and Me”

My father was a South Dakota farm boy during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. He resisted his father’s expectations to take over the family farm (thank goodness) and emigrated to Baltimore for a Federal Govt job. But he stayed true to his roots and grew vegetables and flowers throughout his life. While attuned to the weather, climate was not on his radar. Our hope lies with youth, like Greta Thunberg, though we oldsters are leaving a horrible mess behind.

A condo? I lived 60 miles north of Miami, and 10 miles inland from the beach, but climate change was one of the factors prompting my move from Florida.


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