During the planting season Okonkwo worked daily on his farms from cock-crow until the chickens went to roost. (2.13)
Okonkwo’s hard labor out in the fields suggests the Umuofia survive by agriculture. They depend on the generosity of the earth for their survival.
The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed-yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time; it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad. The first rains were late, and, when they came, lasted only a brief moment. The blazing sun returned, more fierce than it had ever been known, and scorched all the green that had appeared with the rains. The earth burned like hot coals and roasted all the yams that had been sown. Like all good farmers, Okonkwo had began to sow with the first rains. He had sown four hundred seeds when the rains dried up and the heat returned. He watched the sky all day for signs of rain clouds and lay awake all night. In the morning he went back to his farm and saw the withering tendrils. He had tried to protect them from the smoldering earth by making rings of thick sisal leaves around them. But by the end of the day the sisal rings were burned dry and gray. He changed them every day, and prayed that the rain might fall in the night. But the drought continued for eight market weeks and the yams were killed…
Okonkwo planted what was left of his seed-yams when the rains finally returned. He had one consolation. The yams he had sown before the drought were his own, the harvest of the previous. He still had the eight hundred from Nwakibie and the four hundred from his father’s friend. So he would make a fresh start.
But the year had gone mad. Rain fell as it had never fallen before. For days and nights together it poured down in violent torrents, and washed away the yam heaps. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere. Then the rain became less violent. But it went from day to day without a pause. The spell of sunshine which always came in the middle of the wet season did not appear. The yams put on luxuriant green leaves, but every farmer knew that without sunshine the tubers would not grow.
That year the harvest was sad, like a funeral, and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself. (3.29-33)
Okonkwo’s destiny, and indeed the future of the people of Umuofia, is decided by the vicissitudes of nature. Their crops depend on the rain and sun for survival. The fact that drought, and then flooding, kills the yam crop means a year of going hungry and maybe starvation.
Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who was two years younger, because quite inseparable from him [Ikemefuna] because he seemed to know everything. He could fashion out flutes from bamboo stems and even from the elephant grass. He knew the names of all the birds and could set clever traps for the little bush rodents. And he knew which tress made the strongest bows. (4.6)
Ikemefuna is familiar with all the blessings of the earth, knowledgeable about how to make delightful crafts from all sorts of raw foliage and also how to find food in the wild. By tying Ikemefuna to the earth, Achebe clearly depicts Okonkwo’s murder of Ikemefuna as a direct crime against the earth.
Yam, the king of crops, was a very exacting king. For three or four moons it demanded hard work and constant attention from cock-crow till the chickens went back to roost. The young tendrils were protected from earth-heat with rings of sisal leaves. As the rains became heavier the women planted maize, melons and beans between yam mounds. The yams were then staked, first with little sticks and later with tall and big tree branches. The women weeded the farm three times at definite periods in the life of the yams, neither early not late.
And now the rains had really come, so heavy and persistent that even the village rain-maker no longer claimed to be able to intervene. He could not stop the rain now, just as he would not attempt to start it in the heart of the dry season, without serious danger to his own health. The personal dynamism required to counter the forces of these extremes of weather would be far too great for the human frame.
And so nature was not interfered with in the middle of the rainy season. Sometimes it poured down in such thick sheets of water that earth and sky seemed merged in one gray wetness. It was then uncertain whether the low rumbling of Amadiora’s thunder came from above or below. At such times, in each of the countless thatched huts of Umuofia, children sat around their mother’s cooking fire telling stories, or with their father in his obi warming themselves from a log fire, roasting and eating maize. It was a brief resting period between the exacting and arduous planting season and the equally exacting but light-hearted month of harvests. (4.35-37)
Yams require a good deal of attention to grow successfully. But the planting season is not all hard work and no play; the advent of the rainy season brings lots of eating, storytelling, and enjoyment of family company indoors. Rain is so crucial to their survival that the Umuofia associate it with the godly world.
“Locusts are descending,” was joyfully chanted everywhere, and men, women and children left their work or their play and ran into the open to see the unfamiliar sight. The locusts had not come for many, many years, and only the old people had seen them before.
Everyone was now about, talking excitedly and praying that the locusts should camp in Umuofia for the night. For although locusts had not visited Umuofia for many years, everybody knew by instinct that they were very good to eat. And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown-earth color of the vast, hungry swarm.
Many people went out with baskets trying to catch them, but the elders counseled patience till nightfall. And they were right. The locusts settled in the bushes for the night and their wings became wet with dew. Then all Umuofia turned out in spite of the cold harmattan, and everyone filled his bags and pots with locusts. The next morning they were roasted in clay pots and then spread in the sun until they became dry and brittle. And for many days this rare food was eaten with solid palm-oil. (7.10-13)
The Umuofia capitalize on natural phenomenon, such as this locust plague. They live off what nature provides them with and don’t shun any of the gifts nature offers.
For three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo’s household and the elders of Umuofia seemed to have forgotten about him. He grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season, and was full of the sap of life. (7.1)
Because he is so closely tied to the earth, Ikemefuna’s growth and development are described in terms of youth present in the natural world – yam tendrils and sap.
The footway had now become a narrow line in the heart of the forest. The short trees and sparse undergrowth which surrounded the men’s village began to give way to giant trees and climbers which perhaps had stood from the beginning of things, untouched by the ax and the bush-fire. The sun breaking through their leaves and branches threw a pattern of light and shade on the sandy footway. (7.23)
Achebe describes the forest in these terms to highlight the difference between the civilized world of the village and the wilderness of untamed nature. It also sets an ominous mood that foreshadows Ikemefuna’s death. The description of the “giant trees” as fossils of the “beginning of things” refers to the primeval nature of the wilderness which has changed only minimally over time and has barely registered the coming of man.
Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell, and which she no doubt still told to her younger children – stories of the tortoise and his wily ways, and of the bird eneke-nti-oba who challenged the whole world to a wrestling contest and was finally thrown by the cat. He remembered the story she often told of the quarrel between Earth and Sky long ago, and how Sky withheld rain for seven years, until crops withered and the dead could not be buried because the hoes broke on the stony Earth. At last Vulture was sent to plead with Sky, and to soften his heart with a song of the suffering of the sons of men. Whenever Nwoye’s mother sang this song he felt carried away to the distant scene in the sky where Vulture, Earth’s emissary, sang for mercy. At last Sky was moved to pity, and he gave to Vulture rain wrapped in leaves of coco-yam. But as he flew home his long talon pierced the leaves and the rain fell as it had never fallen before. And so heavily did it rain on Vulture that he did not return to deliver his message but flew to a distant land, from where he had espied a fire. And when he got there he found it was a man making a sacrifice. He warmed himself in the fire and ate the entrails. (7.3)
Nwoye is inexplicably drawn to stories that anthropomorphize nature and its creatures. The implication here seems to be that children – being innocent and pure in their youth – are naturally drawn to mother earth in all its wonder, even when it is only in words. There is something fantastic about imagining the natural elements and animals with human personas, it seems to draw connections between man and the natural world. These stories, to Nwoye, are more fascinating than the completely human-centered stories of violence and bloodshed.
The men in the obi had already begun to drink the palm-wine which Akueke’s suitor had brought. It was a very good wine and powerful, for in spite of the palm fruit hung across the mouth of the pot to restrain the lively liquor, white foam rose and spilled over.
“That wine is the work of a good tapper,” said Okonkwo.
The young suitor, whose name was Ibe, smiled broadly and said to his father: “Do you heart that?” He then said to the others: “He will never admit that I am a good tapper.”
“He tapped three of my best palm trees to death,” said his father, Ukebgu. (8.70-73)
In this scene, the men condemn the killing of trees for wine while simultaneously enjoying that same wine. The earth here acts as both provider and victim of men.
“It is iba,” said Okonkwo as he took his machete and went into the bush to collect the leaves and grasses and barks of tree that went into making the medicine for iba. (9.7)
The earth provides ways for humans to combat disease. This furthers the idea that sickness is an abomination to the earth.
The priestess’ voice was already growing faint in the distance. Ekwefi hurried to the main footpath and turned left in the direction of the voice. Her eyes were useless to her in the darkness. But she picked her way easily on the sandy footpath hedged on either side by branches and damp leaves. She began to run, holding her breasts with her hands to stop them flapping noisily against her body. She hit her left foot against an outcropped root, and terror seized her. It was an ill omen. She ran faster…Although the night was cool, Ekwefi was beginning to feel hot from her running. She continually ran into the luxuriant weeds and creepers that walled in the path. Once she tripped up and fell. (11.52)
The wilderness seems to be working against Ekwefi, keeping her from reaching her abducted daughter, blinding her to the path, and inspiring fear in her.
As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezeudu’s quarter stormed Okonkwo’s compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts again Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman. (13.15)
The Umuofia believe that killing a brother clansman is a sin against the earth – the provider of life, the matchless nurturer of life, and the ultimate mother. The village believes that the earth will turn against them if the sin isn’t atoned for.
At last the rain came. It was sudden tremendous. For two or three moons the sun had been gathering strength till it seemed to breathe a breath of fire on the earth. All the grass had long been scorched brown, and the sands felt like live coals to the feet. Evergreen trees wore a dusty coat of brown. The birds were silenced in the forests, and the world lay panting under the live, vibrating heat. And then came the clap of thunder. It was an angry, metallic and thirsty clap, unlike the deep and liquid rumbling of the rainy season. A mighty wind arose and filled the air with dust. Palm trees swayed as the wind combed their leaves into flying crests like strange and fantastic coiffure.
When the rain finally came, it was in large, solid drops of frozen water which the people called “the nuts of the water of heaven.” They were hard and painful on the body as they fell, yet young people ran about happily picking up the cold nuts and throwing them into their mouths to melt.
The earth quickly came to life and the birds in the forest fluttered around and chirped merrily. A vague scent of life and green vegetation was diffused in the air. As the rain began to fall more soberly and in smaller liquid drops, children sought for shelter, and all were happy, refreshed and thankful. (14.4-6)
The Umuofia people are at the mercy of nature; they depend on the timely arrival of the rains for their crops. Here, the earth is characterized as an entity separate from the sky. The earth, too, depends on the sky’s providence to renew her life every rainy season.
But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo’s first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth. (16.24)
Nwoye sees the missionaries’ hymn as such a source of relief that he is compared to the thirsty earth drinking in rain. This comparison is especially appropriate since children throughout the novel are particularly affiliated with the earth, while rain (like the hymn) is associated with the heavens (or sky). For Nwoye, Christianity will prove to be his new wellspring, a means of rebirth, just as seasonal rains renew the floral life of the earth.
Every clan and village had its “evil forest.” In it were buried all those who died of the really evil diseases, like leprosy and smallpox. It was also the dumping ground for the potent fetishes of great medicine men when they died. An “evil forest” was, therefore, alive with sinister forces and powers of darkness. It was such a forest that the rulers of Mbanta gave to the missionaries. They did not really want them in the clan, and so they made them that offer which nobody in his right senses would accept. (17.3)
This “evil forest” represents the unknown (and potentially evil) side of nature – the wilderness, an untamed place often hostile to men.
The last big rains of the year were falling. It was the time for treading red earth with which to build walls. It was not done earlier because the rains were too heavy and would have washed away the heap of trodden earth; and it could not done later because harvesting would soon set in, and after that the dry season. (19.1)
Nature’s seasons determine the Umuofia calendar. The implied message is that if the Umuofia don’t follow nature’s calendar, the earth can cause damage as easily as it can provide and nurture.
Ekwefi rose early on the following morning and went to her farm with her daughter, Ezinma, and Ojiugo’s daughter, Obiageli, to harvest cassava tubers. Each of them carried a long cane basket, a machete for cutting down the soft cassava stem, and a little hoe for digging out the tuber. Fortunately, a light rain had fallen during the night and the soil would not be very hard…
The harvesting was easy, as Ekwefi had said. Ezinma shook every tree violently with a long stick before she bent down to cut the stem and dig out the tuber. Sometimes it was not necessary to dig. They just pulled the stump, and earth rose, roots snapped below, and the tuber was pulled out. (19.8-12)
It’s appropriate that the women, the human equivalents of the mother earth, reap the riches of the earth for a banquet. The trope of the banquet is not only meal but a celebration of food and family that encapsulates everything the nurturing earth stands for. Here, nature shows compassion towards the women by sprinkling a light rain on the soil to make digging for tubers especially easy.
The annual worship of the earth goddess fell on a Sunday, and the masked spirits were abroad. The Christian women who had been to church could not therefore go home. Some of their men had gone out to beg the egwugwu to retire for a short while for the women to pass. They agreed and were already retiring, when Enoch boasted aloud that they would dare to touch a Christian. Whereupon they all came back and one of them gave Enoch a good stroke of the cane, which was always carried. (22.9)
This scene depicts the worshippers of the earth coming into conflict with the upstart new religion, Christianity.
The courthouse, like the church, was built a little way outside the village. The footpath that linked them was a very busy one because it also led to the stream, beyond the court. It was open and sandy. Footpaths were open and sandy in the dry season. But when the rains came the bush grew thick on either side and closed in on the path. It was now dry season. (24.2)
The Christians place their courthouse and church at a strategic spot, one that reaps benefits from the earth (through the stream) and makes their buildings impossible for the Umuofia to avoid. However, the earth seems set against the Christians, closing off the footpath linking the church to the village during the rainy season.
[Obierika on Okonkwo’s corpse]: “It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.” (25.15)
Suicide is a sin against the earth because people in fact owe their lives to the fertility and life-giving nature of the earth. Killing oneself is akin to thumbing one’s nose at the earth’s generosity.