In his foundational history of the intellectual origins of American environmentalism, Roderick Nash makes a distinction between utilitarian and aesthetic motives for environmental concern. The classic example of the former is George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 book, Man and Nature. Arguing that the aridity and unproductive soils of some of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea were “man-made,” the results of the chopping down of ancient forests, Marsh urged his fellow citizens to avoid repeating in the United states the land-use practices that had caused so much damage to agriculture and to the sustainability of human settlements in the “Old World.” This kind of argument for the protection of nature – an argument concerned primarily with human material welfare – provided a major impetus for much of the organized action which laid the foundations of American environmentalism. For example, in 1885, when the legislature of the State of New York set aside 715,000 acres of the Adirondacks as a “Forest Preserve,” it did so with the express purpose of protecting the watershed of the Hudson River, one of the state’s major economic resources.
In Nash’s view, such utilitarian considerations still provide the most persuasive argument for environmental protection. Nevertheless, the utilitarian strand in American environmentalist thought has always been intertwined with other ideas which – superficially, at least – are less clearly concerned with the material benefits which nature can provide to humans. Nash uses the term “aesthetic” as an encompassing label for most of the other ideas that played a role in the early development of American environmentalism. In certain respects, this term is problematic, and we will presently have to deal directly with some of the problems it entails. For the moment, however, the term is especially appropriate, because it draws attention to the fact that a significant source of burgeoning environmentalist consciousness was the work of visual artists.
Among American artists who were active in the first half of the nineteenth century, one of the most influential was the painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848), who is generally seen as the founding member of the artistic movement that has come to be known as the Hudson River School. Cole’s major subject was the American landscape. In addition to sketching it and drawing it and painting it, he also wrote about it extensively. In his best known piece of writing, the “Essay on American Scenery” of 1836, he asks a question with significant environmentalist implications: How does the aesthetic value of the American landscape compare with the merits of the landscapes of Europe?
Cole had made a careful study of the work of European landscape painters during two trips abroad, and, like . many of his compatriots, he was anxious to create an American artistic tradition that would be the equal of its European predecessors. (The fact that he himself had been born in England and emigrated to the United States in his late adolescence may have been an additional reason for this concern.) In his essay, he observes that the American landscape lacks an important ingredient of its European counterparts, namely, visible evidence of a centuries-old history of human activity. This is a point that he might have been less inclined to make if he had had any familiarity with the area encompassed by the present-day Southwestern states; but, although he does briefly mention other parts of the country (e.g., “the distant Oregon”), his principle frame of reference, as he himself acknowledges, is the Northeast – a landscape which did indeed lack the “venerated ruins,” “castled crags,” and other kinds of features which might evoke a sense of past achievement to Europe-trained eyes. This absence of a human imprint on the land was, for Cole, a defining characteristic of “American scenery,” and the major argument of his essay is that this characteristic should be seen not as a deficiency, not as a sign of American cultural rawness or primitivism, but as a virtue. The essay thus becomes a celebration of American wilderness, whose various features – mountains and forests, lakes and rivers and waterfalls – Cole describes in detail and at length, in a series of rhapsodic word-portraits.
In celebrating the beauty of wild America, Cole’s aim as an artist was to educate the eye of his public and to influence the work of other artists. But he was also very much concerned with the moral implications and practical consequences of aesthetic sensibility, and his essay makes clear enough his hope that the cultivation of a “loving eye” for nature might serve to temper the spirit of his age, “when a meager utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is sometimes called improvement in its march makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the imagination shall all be crushed beneath its iron tramp.” Elsewhere in the essay, he speaks with regret of the likelihood that the United States may attain the “cultivated state” of Europe and that “with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away.”
The nationalistic element in this plea for wilderness might sound somewhat unfamiliar to present-day environmentalists. In other respects, however, the sentiments expressed by Cole – especially his distaste for a “meager utilitarianism” – are quite characteristic of much subsequent environmentalist rhetoric in the United States. What are the implications of this rhetoric for the visual portrayal of the American landscape? Reading Cole’s essay, someone who knew nothing about his paintings might reasonably expect a heavy emphasis on untrammeled wilderness, depicted with a “loving eye,” or, alternatively, perhaps some negative portrayals of the damage caused by human activity and the spread of population. In fact, however, much of Cole’s work does not fit these categories very well. While he certainly did paint many reverent scenes of wild nature, and while an occasional painting of his does cast a negative light on the results of human development, there is another aspect to his art which goes beyond this simple dichotomy. There is no better example of this additional aspect than the much-analyzed canvas which is usually referred to as “The Oxbow” (1936).
This picture gives us an elevated view from the flanks of Mount Holyoke, in Massachusetts, down into the valley of the Connecticut River. The mountainside, covered with a dense, tangled forest, is on our left. Beyond it, on our right, the placid waters of the river form a wide, smooth oxbow bend as they wind their way through the floor of the valley. On either side of the river, the land has been cleared for agriculture and divided into well demarcated fields. Orderly rows of trees form the boundaries between some of these fields, and rows of trees also line the riverbanks – presumably as planned protection from erosion. Since this scene is shown from a distance, individual details are not easy to make out, but, if we look closely, we can see boats on the river, people and animals in the fields, and, in the background, a few buildings and an occasional plume of smoke rising from a chimney.
The contrast between wild woods on the left and cultivated land on the right makes it clear that Cole must have intended this picture as a meditation on the relationship between wilderness and human activity. But what attitude towards that relationship does the picture’s design imply? Is the painting a lament for the inevitable replacement of nature by culture? Is it a plea for balance between the two? Both interpretations could be justified, depending on how much meaning we wanted to read into the left-to-right sequence of woods and fields or the fact that the border between them is not vertical but diagonal (suggesting, perhaps, a mutual interpenetration of the two parts of the scene). One could even argue, in line with some of Cole’s other work, that the shape of the forested mountain – it forms a rightward-pointing wedge – is a sobering reminder that human achievement is transient and that wilderness may one day return to reclaim the land.Of course, there is no need to choose a single interpretation. Indeed, as others have noted, the picture’s tone seems deliberately ambivalent. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: contrary to what one might have expected from the skeptical words about economic development in Cole’s essay, the cleared, cultivated landscape in this picture is presented positively, as something pleasing to the eye. I have already tried to convey this aspect of the picture in my description of the river and the fields. But there is an additional element that reinforces the point. Cole paid much attention to the skies in his paintings, and in this case his atmospheric effects are striking: On the left, towering storm clouds turn the sky above the mountain a deep dark; but the sky on the right is clear, and the fields below are bathed in the warm colors of late-afternoon sunshine.
Despite his emotional attachment to wilderness, then – an attachment expressed in this picture by the fact that the artist himself is portrayed among the trees and rocks on the mountainside – Cole’s view of human impact on the land was not necessarily dark. In fact, affectionate portrayals of an inhabited countryside occur in several of his paintings, and even his essay on American scenery, which is largely a catalog of natural wonders, does contain an occasional word of praise for the cultivated landscape, including the villages and fields of the Connecticut River valley. Benign views of land shaped by human economic development are also common among the works of Cole’s contemporaries and successors, especially those painters now usually referred to as “luminists”: Fitz Hugh Lane’s exquisite renditions of the coast of New England invariably include boats and buildings, as well as people going about their work, while Martin Johnson Heade’s ineffable depictions of coastal marshlands treat the haystacks dotting the landscape as integral parts of its appeal. Furthermore, as such writers as Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque and John Sears have noted, it was not uncommon for mid-19th-century painters and illustrators to cast an approving eye on environments containing full-fledged evidence of industrial transformation: railroads, factories, and mines.
The fact that these artists were able to fit the changes made by humans into a positive vision of the American landscape is consistent with contemporaneous verbal opinions on environmental matters. Nash has pointed out that the design of Cole’s “Oxbow” corresponds to “the idea Henry David Thoreau accepted as axiomatic: man’s optimum environment is a blend of wildness and civilization,” while Leo Marx’s (1964) well known discussion of early depictions of railroads has documented the relationship between these images and a broader cultural ideal of a tamed landscape: wilderness transformed into garden. It would be interesting to speculate about the direction subsequent environmentalist thought might have taken if such images and such an ideal had continued to play a major role in it. However, as we turn to the environmentalist imagery of later years and of our own time, one of the most striking things we encounter is the almost complete disappearance of these early ingredients.