How the Vast Landscapes of the American Great Plains Impacted Settlers’ Mental Health

  In Western culture, nature has always been the object of human conquest. In the development and utilization of nature, human beings have exerted their ingenuity. And nature is not indifferent, and its great power and initiative will also have a continuous and profound impact on human mental outlook and psychological activities. Beginning at the end of the 19th century, with the pioneering and development of the Great Plains in the United States, many explorers, settlers, and travelers described the impact of the Great Plains landscape on them; at the same time, a large number of stories about the Great Plains appeared in American literature. The background novels describe the hard life of the pioneers, and the spiritual world of the female pioneers is especially favored by the creators.
  The pioneering of the Great Plains in the United States is closely related to the westward movement. In 1862, in order to attract and encourage immigrants to settle in the west, the U.S. government promulgated the “Homestead Act”, which led to a large number of immigrants from the prosperous eastern cities to settle in the west. In the course of exploration and settlement across the west of the Mississippi River, travelers and settlers encountered an entirely new landscape on the Great Plains, a virgin land that defied aesthetic conventions.
  From the geographical point of view, the Great Plains is located in the central part of the United States, with a land area accounting for about one-fifth of the land area of ​​the United States. The terrain is flat, the climate is arid, and the zonal plant type is grassland vegetation. It was originally a place where Indians hunted and scattered, and it was a wilderness scene with few people and wild grass. Batch after batch of pioneers wrote their stories of joys and sorrows here. Perhaps for most men, this is a paradise for them to build an ideal home and find freedom; but for women, coming to this barren land from a comfortable home in the east, there are wild grasses as far as the eye can see, and they are far away from relatives and friends. , Lonely and often accompanied, it is not surprising that they are prone to mental difficulties. Many Great Plains novels in the United States describe the “crazy” spiritual world of female pioneers.
great plains landscape

  Beginning in the late 19th century, many explorers and travelers have described the vast landscape of the American Great Plains and how they felt. According to existing documents, the first European to travel on the Great Plains was a Spaniard named Alvar Nuiz Cabeza de Varca. Around 1534, he got lost while passing through the southern plains because there were no mountains and no landmarks on the Great Plains. A few years later, another Spaniard, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, led a party to the Great Plains in search of gold, but they saw only wild grass and bison. There were no reference objects or landmarks on this endless plain. In order to prevent people from getting scattered, Coronado had to use sun-dried bones and cow dung to mark the road. One of his men, Pedro de Castaneda, kept detailed records of the expedition and was helpless at the engulfment of the great plains: “You can’t find any traces in this place, because As soon as the grass is stepped down, it straightens up again.” Later in the book, he continued around this topic: “Who would believe that 1,000 horses, 500 cows, more than 5,000 rams and ewes, and more than 1,500 friendly Indians Men and servants, passed these plains without leaving traces of their walk, as if nothing had happened…” Henry Mary Brackenridge described in 1811 exploring the plains near the Missouri River “Suppose that for a moment all traces of population, dwellings, and human existence suddenly disappeared in the most beautiful regions of France or Italy, leaving nothing but silent plains and a few solitary groves and bushes. Now, that would have some resemblance to that of Missouri…” Sarah Lemon wrote in her diary in 1865: “The view of the prairies and plains as far as the eye may occasionally excite your imagination, but such a view It’s still boring. It’s never going to give you the same intoxicating, joyful feeling that the majestic scenery of mountains and mountains can bring.” Seth K. Seeing the loneliness and monotony of Prairie: “It’s utterly silent, horribly stiff, like a long-dead monstrosity. I finally understand why it’s sending so many women to mental institutions in the Dakotas.”


  In the eyes of explorers and travelers, the Great Plains is completely different from the familiar eastern United States or Europe. It is bare, with no trees, no visual restrictions, and no traces of human activities. There are only wild grasses, bison herds, and wild wolves extending to the horizon. group, while the ear is howling wind. These unfamiliar landforms may be a visual impact to male pioneers and not a threat, but to female pioneers, they may cause mental torture.
Female Madness Theme

  The above-mentioned records of the Great Plains quickly attracted the attention of writers, who began to use their rich imagination to create a large number of novels about the Great Plains. One of the recurring themes is female madness. The Great Plains area was once a place where Indians lived scattered. In the middle and late 19th century, white immigrants seized this vast land from the Indians and began to transform this land with great ambition. However, they soon discovered that this land was not the paradise they had imagined. The hard pioneering life destroyed the will of some immigrants, and many people had mental breakdowns and went on the road of self-destruction. It’s worth noting that the protagonists of madness in Great Plains literature are usually women. They couldn’t adapt to the environment here, endured loneliness for a long time, depressed, and finally fell into madness. As Sarah Brooks Sandburg pointed out: “The image of female madness on the prairie frontier is difficult to eliminate.” Although the madness of women who migrated to the Great Plains has various factors, such as gender tension, domestic violence, cultural barriers, Lack of social interaction, etc., but the landscape of the Great Plains is also one of the triggers for the emotional collapse of the characters that cannot be ignored.
  William Allen White was an American journalist and author whose A Story of the Highlands (1897) tells of women’s experiences of being seized by a sense of terror and hopelessness as they gaze upon the landscape of the Great Plains . Set in the highlands of Kansas, where the natural conditions are harsh, “the flat horizon is rarely violated. The silence of such scenes erodes its charm from the bottom of its heart. Under its destructive power, men become harsh and hard , women become dull”.
  The protagonist of the story is the Burkhold family, who hope to live a prosperous life as a farmer through their hardworking hands. But God did not favor them. After repeated crop failures, they fell into debt to buy food. Most of the time, Mrs. Burkhold was left alone at home, busy inside and outside the house. The sound of the wind on the Great Plains, the open sky, and the view of the prairie from the window gave her a terrible feeling:
  All winter she could hear the harsh wind howling around the house, and a terror paled her face when she was alone. The great gray dome seemed to imprison her. She felt overwhelmed. She closed her eyes and tried to get rid of the feeling by imagining green hills and forests; but her eyes opened involuntarily, and with a hypnotized terror she went to the window, where, The prairie tied her tightly with shackles again.

  Mrs. Burkhold had strange sensations as she gazed at the ground. The author uses phrases such as “hypnotic fear”, “bondage” and “shackles” to imply the oppression and emotional and psychological destruction of the gazer by the power and agency of the prairie. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Burkhold becomes more and more sickly, and she begins to hallucinate, often “seeing” a dead tree sapling in the town cemetery, “its two withered branches seem to be moving toward the She beckoned. All day, she seemed to hear the wind whistling through the new iron fence around the tomb and the weeds on the graves of the dead.” The dead sapling is a metaphor, not only to mock the farmers’ attempts to grow crops on the prairies, but also to hint at Mrs. Burkhold’s deteriorating psychological condition.

william allen white

  In the spring of the second year of coming to the plateau, many immigrants’ dreams of settling here were shattered, and they had to go home and return to the eastern United States. Mrs. Burkhold watched the carriages returning home from the window. The bare scenery made her more and more anxious, and the steel-like dome seemed to press her even tighter. After a month of struggling with the hallucinations, Mrs. Burkhold nailed a large black cloth to the kitchen window to screen the desolation from the window. This excess seems absurd, but it symbolizes a rebellion by the woman against the suffocating sensation of the hypnotic fear of the steppe. However, her struggle was finally defeated, two dead branches in the cemetery spun wildly in her morbid imagination, and she died like a dead tree at last-it was a long summer, when it passed, in the
  distant Another vacant home among hundreds on the Highlands. In the desolate country cemetery, one more mound. …… The rustling wind seems to be whimpering on the sun-baked strings, like a lonely soul crying, groping hard to get back to the lowlands, back to the green pastures, back to the calm waters, back to the A calm beyond understanding.
  Look no further than Elijah Wilkinson Peaty’s Great Plains horror story, The House That Was Not. The story begins with 17-year-old Flora coming to the Great Plains to live with her husband Bart. One day, she noticed a small wooden house in the distance, and her curiosity was instantly aroused. Under her repeated questioning, her husband told a story he had heard: a young couple came to settle in the Great Plains. In this desolate place, the young wife became more and more lonely, and over time had hallucinations. Later, she killed her husband and children, and then committed suicide. People found their bodies and buried them under the wooden houses where they lived. About two weeks later, the cabin burned down for unknown reasons. So what Flora sees is only a phantom of the cabin. After hearing this horrifying story, Flora did not believe it, because she clearly saw smoke coming out of the chimney of the cabin sooner or later. So she decided to go find out for herself. When she approached the poplar windbreak forest in the north, the cabin disappeared before her like a shadow, and she only found a baby’s shoe lying in the grass. The end of the story is open-ended: Flora’s horse, terrified, abandons its mistress and heads straight home… It’s dangerous for Flora to leave home by herself to find the ghost cabin, and she doesn’t have much of the Great Plains for a newcomer life experience. Flora’s horse abandons its mistress and runs home. So, what is Flora’s final fate? Judging from the clues of the novel, there are only two possibilities, either getting lost and being swallowed by the grassland; or being rescued by luck and returning home to continue a lonely life. However, if nothing changes in her lonely life, could she be the next log cabin woman?

  Many literary critics have argued that The Haunted House is a projection or externalization of Flora’s depression, as Geoffrey Andrew Weinstock has pointed out, “The Haunted Hack depicts a morbid state of the frontier wife , this morbidity is caused by their claustrophobic confinement at home, lack of opportunities for socialization, personal pleasure, and self-development.” However, the author hints at the influence of the “landscape” on the mood of the characters. Bart and Flora’s house is surrounded by 320 acres of endless corn and rye, and she spends long hours each day listening to the great rustle of that sea of ​​corn. The landscape of the Great Plains is mysterious and powerful, “the harvest sun, in an angry and bloody ray, sinks into the veiled horizon, and at noon a golden scarf of vapor sways up and down the earth… Sometimes, when a storm comes, a purple cloud, swift as lightning, crackles on the western horizon.” The dynamism of the landscape features of the Great Plains not only subverts the usual narrative of human domination of the wilderness, but also resists the easy reversal of a dynamic that makes the environment an adversary or threat to humans. Now nature has the upper hand, humans have lost the ability to control nature, and the landscape of the Great Plains slowly begins to affect the characters in these stories through sounds, colors, smells, and more.
  There is also Ole Luwag’s novel “Giants in the Earth” (Giants in the Earth), which describes the natural landscape of the Great Plains affecting women’s emotional and mental stability. It tells the story of a Norwegian couple Peel and Beret. The story of children going to South Dakota to pioneer the wilderness. The novel begins with a prominent description of the land and its unique features:
  bright, clear skies, …and the sun! And more sunshine! It lights up the sky every morning; it fades to a quivering golden glow as the day progresses – to soft shades of red and purple as night falls… solid colors everywhere. A gust of wind blew across the plain, setting off a wave of life in yellow, blue, and green.
  From the sky to the sun, the wind, and finally the grass, the author emphasizes the sense of power, movement, and agency in the environment, allowing people to see the power of the prairie, undisturbed by human actions. And at sunset, the plains take on another look: “As the sun went down, a sense of vastness enveloped the plains—suddenly, the landscape became desolate; a sense of bleakness pierced the surrounding silence. , making people fear.” It has both a magnificent side and a trembling side.
  In this novel, it is also a woman who cannot adapt to life on the Great Plains—Beret. Her first impression of the Great Plains was that they had come to the end of the world. The night of the Great Plains was what frightened her most. The novel describes the strange landscape of a moonlit night in the prairie: “From the horizon rises a supernatural light—a light of yellowish and transparent green mixed with strange reds and golds. They watch it stretch upwards, deepen in color, and flare It’s getting stronger and stronger, like the phosphorescence of will-o’-the-wisps.”
  On the vast plains, her husband Peel dreamed of the castle he built with his own hands, but his wife Beret couldn’t agree with his vision. Instead, she was thinking of the mysterious Norse trolls lurking in the landscape, evil giants lurking in the land, resisting human occupation. To her, the land they had bought was an empty place, devoid of familiar trees and mountains, fjords and sea. A sense of alienation and abandonment haunts Bellet. Bellet’s initial impression of the Great Plains had already cast an ominous shadow in her heart, and it has been affecting her emotions and feelings ever since. “How can humans stand this place?” The topographical features with nowhere to hide make Beret feel helpless and at risk of being exposed. “There is no chirping of birds, no buzzing of insects, and even the wind has disappeared.” She couldn’t connect the strange and empty landscape in front of her with the familiar and aesthetically valuable Norwegian landscape, and she couldn’t interpret it. A landscape without her own cultural references, she fears losing her psychological and cultural identity in a completely unfamiliar space.

  In fact, it is a cultural response to translate vision into the aesthetic value of a place. Husband Peel cultivates an immigrant sensibility, while Bellet develops a sense of exile, perpetually alienated from her surroundings. The novel details how the sights and sounds of the Great Plains at dusk aroused Bellet’s sense of anxiety:
  her eyes looked around nervously, sweeping from object to object, trying to penetrate the approaching purple gloom, A deep sense of desolation enveloped her, and she seemed unable to think at all. Everything outside has turned into eerie darkness, and it is no good to stare at the horror outside.
  It is through the direct gaze of the landscape that Beret is seized by a sense of terror. The intense response of Ole Rowag’s characters to the landscape proves that nature is a living, active, creative force. When Bellet is alone, she always feels that their humble dwelling is surrounded by a magic circle established by the dark forces on the earth. The landscape of the Great Plains keeps the woman hallucinating. A Norwegian family has come looking for their child’s grave but has not found it. Not long after the family left, Beret saw a terrifying sight in the clouds: a huge, leering face that seemed to consume the land, “the eyes—the deep, dark caves in the clouds—closed. The mouth, if opened wide, would be a huge abyss. The chin rests on the grassland… the whole face is dark and thin, but it grows so big, so scary.” This giant phantom is derived from the old Norse legend of Drug, a living dead whose appearance portends disaster. Since then, whether it was dusk or noon, the face had always appeared before her eyes, and her fear was intensified. In the end, Bellet went crazy, and a series of incredible things happened. She saw her dead mother, and she huddled in fear in the huge immigrant box, constantly praying for forgiveness, and even asked her husband to go out in the cold winter, completely ignoring his will Life is in danger…

  The wind and prairie landscape in “Highland Tales” witnessed Mrs. Burkhold’s death; Although Bellet also went crazy, she was lucky enough to survive in the end. It was like a ray of light, pointing to a way for women to reassert their identities and gain ultimate meaning in life in an unfamiliar environment.
  From Liliyuan to the grass, one year old and one dry and prosperous. The weeds on the Great Plains of the United States grow every year, and generations of immigrants and pioneers came here with beautiful visions to work hard… There are profound reasons why women become the tragic existence in many stories about the Great Plains. First of all, the monotonous landform of the Great Plains caused their physical and mental conflicts, and the landform environment of the Great Plains filled with wild atmosphere is an important cause of the mental breakdown of pioneer women; secondly, the original way of life has undergone tremendous changes. Women suddenly migrated from the comfortable homes of the eastern states to these bare, windswept, sun-scorched prairies, without amenities or even a familiar face, and long-term physical Labor exhausted them physically and mentally; the most important point was the conflict between the original cultural values ​​and the real environment. When they left their homes and came to this strange land, their existing cultural schema made them feel extremely uncomfortable. The nostalgia and attachment to the hometown (including courtyards, gardens, creeks, trees, mountains and other familiar landscapes and the emotional bonds contained in them) were brutally severed, and the way for women to obtain their own value no longer existed, and everything had to start from scratch. There is a huge gap between their inner world and the outer world, and they cannot live peacefully in this environment at all, and those who are extreme can easily go to the abyss of death.
  ”On the Great Plains, no female settler could ignore the power of nature.” The beautiful landscape can make women feel happy and inspire them to be positive, while the harsh environment will suppress their fighting spirit and make them physically and mentally exhausted. The flat terrain of the Great Plains, the monotonous scenery, and the small space for women’s activities, lack of social activities, fear, irritability, and negative feelings of nowhere to rest always plague them. In this case, pioneer women bear more pressure than men, so their spiritual world is more likely to collapse.
  Humans have always thought that they are the masters of nature, but in fact the power of nature is mysterious and great, it exists independently of human will, and affects the spiritual world of human beings with its own landscape characteristics.

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