Thursday, August 20, 2015

New Scenery, New Eyes

How do we perceive the vistas around us? With what eyes do we take in the forests, hills and plains of the natural world? When a new and radical form of scenery presents itself must we change our tastes and proclivities to appreciate it? Wallace Stegner raises these questions in Beyond the 100th Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Penguin, 1953) — and from what I can tell, he answers the last one with "yes."

Stegner chronicles not only the physical exploration of the canyons, buttes and gorges of the "Plateau Province" (mid to southern Utah and northern Arizona), but also the artistic one.
The process that is triumphantly concluded in [Thomas] Moran's "Yellowstone" was one that had begun forty years before in the water colors of Alfred Jacob Miller, when the painter's eye first began to adjust to prairies that were not green meadows, mountains whose rocks were other than the Appalachian granite, scrub growth whose shades were those of gray and brown and yellow, earth which showed its oxidized bones, and air without the gray wool of humidity across its distances.
 It's an interesting thought, that new types of places require new ways of seeing. Makes me ponder Pluto's recent closeups and the fantastic images that the Hubble space telescope has sent back to earth. The strange beauty of the Grand Canyon must have been just as jarring and awe-inspiring to the mid-19th-century denizen as these cosmic vistas are to us.

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