The backdrop of the story is the fertile and beautiful valley named Las Pasturas de Cielo, or the Pastures of Heaven in English. The valley, discovered by a Spanish corporal while capturing Native Americans, offers an implied promise of peace and prosperity, much like the Garden of Eden, but seems to fall short of that promise for most of its residents. Steinbeck, intentionally offering the first view of the valley against the backdrop of the oppression of Native Americans, makes his reader wonder if there is a curse on the valley as punishment for the treatment of the Native Americans that had made the area their home for thousands of years. He does not directly say that there is a curse, but one could infer it is the punishment bestowed upon the conquerors and their descendants.
Despite the implied curse the valley seems to carry, it does offer fertile and productive land. Many farms in the valley are productive so long as the land is managed and cared for properly—the employment of good husbandry that Richard Whiteside saw as necessary. Bert Munroe, Raymond Banks, and Pat Humbert all have productive farms that provide not only subsistence, but profitability. Bert Munroe worked his land and in return, "every seed sprouting from the ground seemed to renew a promise of immunity [from failure] to him" (18). Pat Humbert "kept [his farm] well, and made money from it" (158). Raymond Banks had what the residents considered "the model farm of the valley" (132). Those that ignored, or neglected their farmland, like Shark Wicks and Junius Maltby, perpetually struggled in poverty, or worse, like John Whiteside, are punished, in a sense, for neglecting their duties to care for the land.
Farming plays a crucial role in the characters' lives in the Pastures of Heaven. Rural farming may have been on the decline at the turn of the century, but it was still a lifestyle practiced by many Americans. Good land begs to be farmed, and in return for good stewardship, the land should provide a means to survive indefinitely. Steinbeck reminds readers of the renewable riches nature can provide through farming. Richard Whiteside settled the valley to start a farm and a family dynasty. He saw the waste and destruction created by gold mining and comments that "the earth gives only one crop of gold [...] this is bad husbandry" (169). With farming, the land provides bounty annually. Residents of the valley who put effort into tending to their farms are rewarded for their hard work. Steinbeck uses the land as an integral force in "The Pastures of Heaven." In Steinbeck's prologue, he claims that at present the families of the Pastures of Heaven live in "prosperity and peace," yet he introduces his reader to a litany of failure, shattered dreams, self-deception and denial, death and suffering, and poverty (5). The irony that the land fails to deliver on its promises, even to those that dream of settling in the Pastures, cannot be overlooked by the reader. This alludes to the impossibility of creating a heaven on earth or returning to an Edenic garden now that creation has been irreparably soiled by humanity.