Something has had men heading for the interior, long before Henry David Thoreau publicly declared “I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness.” And as men of a certain tradition in 19th century America began to make their private pilgrimages public through written and artistic records, their excursions and revelations became canonized.
These meditations contributed to a change in national ideas about the value and fragility of nature and “man’s” place within it.
I understand the importance of reaching back into our histories to understand the cultural touchstones like these that have come to signify certain ideas and ideals, certain styles of thought and ideologies. After all, our histories are our foreground and they mark the path that we took to get here. Yet, from time to time in the midst of what can seem like a tireless reminiscence on the trope of the vigorous and steadfast wayfaring male archetype depicted through art and literature in the wilderness; I can hear a sucking sound like my boot makes when I’ve gone walking in mud season.
Since its creation, advocacy for and against conservation and preservation within the Park boundary has called on these and other similar images to underscore qualities like individuality, independence and virility in the midst of a seemingly untamed and unspoiled country. Guided by certain American philosophers and artists we enter into a stylized landscape, one that was politically manufactured through legislation and philosophically manufactured through the proliferation of 19th century ideals.
When popular literature and art combine to illuminate different parts of the same story, the impact often resonates outside the original medium of paint or narrative and into the larger cultural landscape. In the case of 19th century landscape art and literature, the story that fine art and prose conspire to tell transcends the cultural period and becomes part of one collective identity. Artists and writers who have become signs themselves of this aesthetic, and of a singular set of values, labored under a shared vision of wild America. These artists and scholars illustrated an ideal landscape beyond increasingly industrialized cities, and the legacy of this movement is largely responsible for our 21st century conception of the natural ideal.
Yet, this ideal only represents those who are drawn into its frame. But ours are stories (plural) and histories (as in many) so what would it take to shift the emphasis from one tone of voice to another? When old signifiers dominate a changed contemporary scene, we risk losing our way by walking backwards into the present.
Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum