Study Guide

M.C. Higgins, the Great Man and the Natural World

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Man and the Natural World

His father, finding him exhausted, vomiting on the river bank: "You think that river is some mud puddle you can wade right into without a thought?" And then, his father beating him with his belt: "A boat wouldn't go into that water not knowing how the currents run. (Whack!) I'm not saying you can't swim it (Whack!), as good a swimmer as you are. (Whack!) But you have to study it, you have to practice. You have to know you're ready. (Whack-whack-whack!) I'll even give you a prize, anything that won't cost me to spend some money. (Wham!)" (1.28)

If you can read past the violence in this scene, it's worth examining exactly why Jones is beating M.C. He wants M.C. to respect the river—to "study it" and "to practice" before M.C. goes jumping into the Ohio. Whether the whole deal deserves a beating, we'll leave up to you. But M.C. definitely does learn the Ohio enough to swim it eventually…

"Vines are thick," he had told Ben. "You get your daddy and your uncles to cut them and make a weave."

He told Ben that wood posts had to go in solid ground on each side of the ravine. He told how to soak the vines, then loop them at the top and bottom of each post, and how to weave the vines so they'd stay tight. How to tie them.

I figured it, M.C. thought, admiring the simple lattice weave of the bridge. (1.45-47)

M.C. isn't just a guy who likes to blend in with nature—he also knows how to work with nature to engineer man-made necessities, like this bridge he gets Ben to convince the Killburns to make. It shows M.C.'s resourcefulness, which comes from his respect and knowledge of nature. Think of his bridge as a model for eco-friendly building.

"Nothing's any good this year," Ben replied. "My daddy says it will get worse with mining going on everywhere."

"What does mining have to do with your mama's vegetables?" M.C. asked.

Ben was silent a moment, as if he didn't want to talk about it.

Reluctantly, he said, "Well, Daddy and Uncle Joe went for miles north and east following the coal seam, looking for mining cuts. They didn't go to Sarah's Mountain because of what your daddy might do. But wherever else, they lay hands on cuts…" (1.93-96)

There are other story lines going on in this novel, but this is really the main one, the one that's most important to M.C. and Ben's lives. Strip-mining is ruining Sarah's Mountain and nothing is stopping the process, not even the Killburns' magic.

Only a hunter like M.C. could distinguish the telltale signs of trails. Anyone could follow the footpaths. (1.142)

Just so we're clear on this: M.C. is the master-hunter. He is a thirteen-year-old Bear Grylls, and totally different than just "anyone" because he's that close to nature. His relationship with nature is his identity.

Grapes grew small and not at all sweet to the taste.

Used to be Mama could make quarts of jelly out of a yield, M.C. thought, but not now.

Reluctantly, he thought of the mining cut at the top of Sarah's, and the harsh acids that washed down when it rained. Did they poison the grapes? (3.41-43)

The short answer to M.C.'s question: Yes. Yes, the harsh acids from the mining are ruining everything natural and good about Sarah's Mountain. Of course, it doesn't seem huge that the grapes aren't sweet or able to yield jelly, but for M.C., it's subtly changing the habits and ways (not to mention the diet) of the Higgins. And so for him, it's a major change simply because it signals an even greater change: he's losing his mountain home.

A shudder passed over M.C. like a heavy chill. Jones studied M.C.'s face. M.C. was so skilled at living free in the woods, at reading animal signs, at knowing when the weather would change even slightly. Jones could convince himself at odd moments that the boy had second sight. And now, half afraid to ask but worried for his children on their way to Harenton, his Banina, he said, "What is it you see?" (4.35)

M.C.'s "second sight" comes from how close he is to nature. It may seem mystical and mysterious—enough to make Jones "half afraid"—but here's another way to think of it: M.C. is just really close to nature. So close that he can actually sense the ground's vibrations and the air's currents, enough so to know things like when rain will come.

Then Banina had begun to sing. Coming home, walking with the strength that was tired now but never left her, she sang them how the day had been for her. She sang so all the hills could hear. As night came creeping, came sweeping over the land, her voice told the hills what they already knew, but in a way that only she could tell it. (4.14)

We know this category is all about man and the natural world, but in this case, it's all about the woman and the natural world. And yes, Banina is the woman. Her relationship to nature comes from her own natural talent—singing. Note, by the way, how everything comes alive around her. All of a sudden, the hills and the night are personified; it's like she calls them into being.

"But even the babies can 'preciate some vegetables. They understand that vegetables is part of the human form." He looked around to make sure everyone was listening. "Piece of the body you pull up by the root. Or piece that you cut away when it get the blight. Or heal it, depending on how bad it is." He nodded to himself. Others nodded back. "Or eat it, it's still body," he said, letting loose a strap and raising the hand for emphasis. (12.85)

This is Mr. Killburn's philosophy about vegetables. Clearly, he respects and honors vegetables in a way M.C. doesn't. Mr. Killburn's closeness to nature has to do with extending the "human form" to those vegetables they eat. It kind of makes sense if you think about it: If vegetables are grown for the purpose of being eaten by humans, then at some point vegetables do become part of the human body.

"And the truth is, we are a body just wiggling and jiggling in and out of the light."

"You mean, the earth is," she said.

"I mean earth and everything on it," Killburn said.

Deeply interested, Lurhetta nodded, saying, "But I don't think about it every day."

"Sure now, that's it, then," Killburn said. "If you could think about it every day, you never could own a piece of it. Wouldn't want to. And if you don't think about it every day, you get to believing you have a right to own it. You become a sore growing on the body." His eyes a vivid, mackerel shade: "A scab on the sore, getting bigger, hurting, causing pain." (12.91-95)

Killburn's philosophy about not owning land is a huge knock against the Higgins' pride at owning Sarah's Mountain. It's hard to disagree with him, too, at least given the way the story develops. After all, places like the lake or the view of the distant hills—all of that is free (more or less), no one owns them, and they provide for everyone. If someone were to own those things and restrict access to them, we're guessing the M.C.'s attitude toward ownership of the land might change a little.

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