In reading and re-reading some of Steinbeck’s novels and stories, I came across a short novel I had never read before, entitled To A God Unknown. It is a strange novel, unlike any of his other works that I am familiar with. It fails as great literature in my view because his characters are thinly disguised symbols and the author seems to be intent on setting out his message rather than writing an imaginative work of literature. This is not to say that the work lacks imagination. On the contrary, it is highly imaginative. But also a bit strange.
The reader really doesn’t get to know the characters at all, and the central character seems a thinly disguised transcription of a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself for the land — of which he has become a part, almost literally. In any event, he is interesting and the novel has some important things to say to all of us here in the twenty-first century, because it is about the earth and about our responsibility to care for it.
The central character’s name is Joseph, and he leaves Vermont just before his father dies to homestead in California. As he takes possession of his piece of land he exclaims: “It’s mine and I must take care of it.” He feels a deep and pervasive responsibility to the land which he shares with his two brothers. Initially the land produces bountiful crops and he and his brothers prosper. But, almost inevitably, the skies cease to produce rain and the land dries up. His older brother takes what is left of their herd of cattle 100 miles to greener pastures while Joseph insists on staying behind. He abandons the ranch for a small oasis of green trees and a small spring which he regards as the heart of the land. But this, too, begins to dry up and because he is convinced that he has failed to care for the land, he sacrifices himself to the rains that he hopes will come. As the novels ends, the rains finally do come.
But the message within this tightly wound novel seems clear, despite the fact that it was written in the 1930’s when folks seem to have had a greater sense of their responsibilities to the earth which is their mother and to whom they will all return at some point. Today, we ignore this fact and many (most?) would regard it as a bit of romantic nonsense. We are too busy exploiting the earth for our own short-term interests, destroying the land and polluting the air and water as we check our bank accounts and ignore the signs around us that, like Joseph’s, is drying up, turning to powder. We need not sacrifice ourselves as Joseph does, cutting our wrists while lying spread-eagle on a huge rock covered with dying moss in the middle of the last remaining green spot for hundreds of miles around. But we could certainly inconvenience ourselves to the extent that we make small sacrifices in creature-comforts to conserve the land and protect the earth upon which we depend for our very lives. Joseph knew that well; we have forgotten it — if we even knew it.
This point was driven home to me recently after reading the World Wildlife magazine in which a feature story spells out the food shortages that will inevitably face the world we take for granted. In that article it was pointed out that, given the expanding world populations and the diminishing food supply, our only hope is to “double the amount of food available” on the earth and its oceans. The article goes on to say,
“By improving efficiency and productivity while reducing waste and shifting consumption patterns, we can produce enough food for all on roughly the same amount of land we use now.”
This, of course, ignores the fact of global warming and the very real possibility that our world, or large portions of it, will no longer be able to produce any food at all. It’s not simply a question of greater efficiency. It’s also a question of reducing the numbers of humans on earth and seeing to it that those who remain take responsibility for it — as Joseph did.