One prominent source of metaphors and symbolic imagery in Cather’s novel is the natural world. The landscape of New Mexico—often rough and rugged but also breathtaking and inspiring—is virtually a major character in the book. In III.3, for example, we journey with Latour to the “Enchanted Mesa” and discover, through Cather’s vivid descriptions,that—as is often the case with mountains in literature—the mesa country is special because it is a place where the earth meets the heavens. The boundary between the two realms is hard to discern; the mesa country is a liminal space. The name “Enchanted Mesa” for one of the mountains (p. 96) is thus an apt one. This country is “magic,” sacred country, as so much of the New World is when viewed through Latour and Vaillant’s eyes. Take as another example the river that runs far beneath the cave in IV.2. It represents the primal forces of the world commanding respect: “The water was far, far below, perhaps as deep as the foot of the mountain, a flood moving in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock. It was not a rushing noise, but the sound of a great flood moving with majesty and power” (p. 130). Latour calls it “terrible,” to which Jacinto agrees (p. 130). The cave of the stone lips is another liminal location, a place at which the boundaries between the worlds is thin. The ancient, primal past is still present in the cave; it is still a force to be reckoned with, a power that cannot be comprehended by Latour and that refuses to be domesticated. No wonder the cave is sacred to Jacinto and his people. It is holy ground—not for nothing does it remind Latour of “a Gothic chapel” (p. 127). Throughout Cather’s text, then, the landscape becomes the God-haunted arena in which the sacred and the mundane meet. It both affirms and challenges Latour’s faith in God (as, for example, his encounter with the cruciform tree in I.1). And it ultimately comes to represent the challenge of living in harmony with one’s world, rather than at odds with it.
Another natural metaphor developed throughout the book is that of agriculture. We see some literal cultivation of the land in the book, of course, but we also see Latour and Vaillant’s “cultivation” and “husbandry” of the faithful in New Mexico. One of the clearest passages to develop this metaphor occurs in VII.1, “The Month of Mary,” a chapter dominated by imagery from the natural world. The tamarisk tree, for example, figures prominently. It becomes a metaphor representing the people whom the two priests have been serving. Like the Catholics who had so long been cut off from the institutional Church, the tamarisk trees “had been so neglected, left to fight for life in such hard, sun-baked, burro-trodden ground”—a further reminder of the often harsh environment of the New World—“that their trunks had the hardness of cypress” (p. 201). But, as Father Vaillant has discovered, the people, like the trees hardened by neglect, can still blossom. This discovery motivates Vaillant’s desire for his new work: he tells Latour that the “[u]tterly lost Catholics” for whom he will seek are “like seeds full of germination but with no moisture” (p. 206). Vaillant, therefore, sees himself as a gardener—perhaps Cather’s allusion to Mary Magdalene’s mistaking the risen Jesus for a gardener on the first Easter (John 20:15), further reinforcing the identification of good priests with Jesus that we have seen throughout the novel. “A word, a prayer, a service, is all that it takes” for Vaillant, as gardener, to restore these people to health in their faith, “to set free those souls in bondage” (p. 207)—in other words, to enable them to blossom. How appropriate, then, that Vaillant’s month of special devotion is the month of May: the beginning of spring, when he is “conscious of a special sweetness in the air” (p. 202). And how appropriate that his patroness is the Virgin Mary, who has long enjoyed a connection to the natural world, and flowers in particular. As John S. Stokes, Jr., explains, “The association of plants and flowers with the Blessed Virgin Mary originated with the early Church Fathers, who saw her prefigured in passages from the Old Testament containing nature imagery: [for example] “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley’ (Canticles 2:1)” (Stokes, “Flowers of the Virgin Mary,” http:www.mgardens.org/JS-FOTVM-AVE.html).
One other major source of metaphors and symbols in the book is, quite logically, the rich liturgical and theological traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The doctrine of transubstantiation, for instance—according to which the elements of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine, literally become the body and blood of Christ—is evoked when Father Vaillant’s adeptness with people is being discussed. Latour remembers the many times he has seen “a good dinner, a bottle of claret, transformed into spiritual energy [to sustain Vaillant in his life and work] under his very eyes” (p. 226). The language seems to allude to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation: as priests consecrate and so effect the transformation of the Host in the Eucharist into the Body of Christ, so Vaillant transforms “the things of this world” into spiritual power, which sustains him as he, in his incarnational ministry (cf. VII.2), works the miracles of connecting people to each other and to God.