David Guterson and His Use of the Theme of Nature


David Guterson, a young American author, has written two major works
regarding aspects of human nature and human emotions. His first publication, a
collection of short stories, entitled The Country Ahead of Us, The Country
Behind addresses some of the moral dilemmas that humans face throughout their
lives. His first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, narrates the trial of a
Japanese man accused of murdering a white man in the post World War II era.
Throughout his literary works, Guterson uses elements of nature: land, trees,
water and especially snow, as literal and metaphorical tools to develop and
resolve conflicts.
David Guterson uses the same aspects and characteristics of nature in
two different ways. First he describes in visual detail the literal or actual
effects that elements of nature have on the characters in the story. But more
importantly Guterson uses nature to convey substantial and symbolic meaning in
the lives of the characters in his stories.
One of the elements of nature that Guterson uses as a tool to develop
the conflicts in Snow Falling on Cedars are the strawberry fields on the island.
These fields represent an important source of income for the community.
Traditionally the Japanese laborers worked the fields and the white Americans
owned the fields. The question of the ownership of seven acres of strawberry
fields serves as the apparent motive for the murder of Carl Heine. To a local
Japanese fisherman, Kabuo (accused of murdering Carl Heine), the ownership of
this land promises a secure future and ultimately independence. “...she knew
that Kabuo wanted a strawberry field.. nothing more than that” (Snow Falling 89).
“His dream...was close to him now, his strawberry land, his happiness” (Snow
Falling 456). The strawberry fields connected Kabuo to his past and symbolized
a continuity of life. “My father planted the fathers of these (strawberry)
plants” (Snow Falling 362).
Guterson also uses snow metaphorically to make the ownership of the
strawberry fields disappear and seem unimportant in life (Snow covering the
fields permitted the reader to veiw the ownership of the fields as a very
materialistic and selfish thing). After the snow has fallen it acts as a
purifier to all the wrong that has come of the fighting over the ownership of
the fields. “Center Valley strawberry fields lay under nine inches of
powder...the snow fall obliterated the boarders (of the fields)... all human
claims to the landscape were... made null and void by the snow”(Snow Falling
320). The snow covered the fields; all of the fields seemed as one field. The
nine inches of snow caused a visual unity of the strawberry fields. “..the
world was one world”(Snow Falling 320).
The element of water is used as a paradox in Guterson\'s novel Snow
Falling on Cedars. Water is both the sustainer and taker of life. The damp and
misty climate on San Piedro Island is the reason why the community grows and
prosper off of the strawberry based economy. Without the water, and the wet and
nurturing environment it provided to the island there would be no foundation for
life. The ocean is also one of the key sources to the community. It provides
the community with a way to make a living.
Water, the source of life in Guterson\'s literary works, is also the end
of life. In several of his works water is portrayed as the place where life
ends. “...the wall of water rose up from behind...Carl Heine fell swift and
hard against the Susan Marie\'s port gunnel. His head craked open above the left
ear and then he slid heavily beneath the waves”(Snow Falling 458). The tidal
wave was the cause of Carl\'s death; the water, this element of nature was truely
responsible for the death of the fisherman. In that sense Gutersonn uses water
metaphorically to represent the circle of life; the source of life, the
maintenance of life, and the end of life.
Guterson uses trees as a metaphorical device to portray and predict
events in his literary works. He also uses them as literal tools to develop his
work, beautiful cedars and elms which are magnificent, full trees with flowing
branches that are visually pleasing and familiar to his readers. In “American
Elm”, one of Guterson\'s short stories, trees are used as a metaphor to screen
and sheild the sanitarium from the rest of the town. “Burrellville Sanatarium
lay shadowed in a thicket of pines...”(Elm 118). In the town of Burrellville,
the sanatarium has been isolated from the rest of the town because of the pine
trees