Contents | March 2001

In This Issue (Contributors)

More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.

From the archives:

"Saving Salmon, Or Seattle?" (October 2000)
The Northwest is obsessed with the fate of salmon—except that, as is often true, the battle is really over how people want to live. By James Fallows

"Lewis and Clark and Us" (March 1998)
The expedition helped to forge a great nation. How does it hold up as a family vacation? By Cullen Murphy

"A Year in Montana" (August 1866)
A vivid travelogue of an 1864 trip out west. By E. B. Neally

From Atlantic Unbound:

Web Citation: "Crossing the Frontier" (December 4, 1996)
A challenging look at the American West.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

The Frontier in American Culture
The online companion to a 1996-97 exhibit at the University of Washington Libraries about the concept of the American West. The site offers suggested reading, displays of photographs, paintings, and postcards, and related links. The Atlantic Monthly | March 2001
Battleground of the Eye

In the Pacific Northwest, more than any other region of America, landscape painting embodies all our conflicting views—our hopes and delusions, our regrets and ambitions—about the natural world and the place of human beings in it. The author travels across time and ideology, canvas by canvas
by Jonathan Raban
andscape—if you give that rather slippery term its full weight—is one of the great divisive issues in the Pacific Northwest. The landscape paintings of the region, from the eighteenth century to the present day, are pictorial dispatches from a long war that is more heated now than at any time in the past 200 years.

Landscape is land shaped—land subordinated to a vision or a use. A picture frame or a Claude glass* converts land into landscape; so, too, does a logging road or a barbed-wire fence. The railroad magnate and the painter of majestic wilderness scenes have in common their designs on the land: James J. Hill and Albert Bierstadt are brothers under the skin.

Consider this curious tale of two pictures of the Pacific Northwest. In 1999 Slade Gorton, the Republican senator from Washington State, tacked an ingenious rider onto a bill intended to provide American aid for Kosovo. Gorton's rider concerned a proposed cyanide-leach gold mine in Okanogan County (he was for it). Eighteen months later, in the race between Gorton and his Democratic challenger, Maria Cantwell, the gold-mine rider came back to haunt him. (It may have lost him the election, which Cantwell won by a cigarette-paper-thin majority.)

In the Gorton-Cantwell race landscape turned into the central topic of debate, as the candidates fought over such questions as the Okanogan County mine, logging in national forests, and the breaching of dams on the Snake River. From the barrage of television ads that were broadcast by both sides, two pictures emerged, each executed in a style familiar to any Northwest gallery-goer. Gorton's was a tame Augustan landscape, with irrigated farms and gardens and orderly plantations, in which nature was tailored to human needs and specifications. Cantwell's was a landscape in the manner of Bierstadt or Thomas Cole—a Romantic wilderness, with free-swimming salmon and untouched stands of tangled old-growth forest (spotted owl calling to spotted owl), a realm of aboriginal solitude and grandeur.

Rural voters east of the Cascade Mountains showed an overwhelming preference for the Gorton picture, with its promise of money and jobs. West of the mountains, along the urban corridor that stretches north and south from Seattle, the Cantwell landscape found favor with hikers, bird-watchers, fly-fishers, and the mass of college-educated white-collar voters, who bear out the interesting paradox that Seattle is the first big city to which people have swarmed in order to get closer to nature.

One might hear echoes of that debate almost anywhere in the United States, but in the Pacific Northwest it is conducted with a peculiar and obsessive intensity, because here the wilderness itself seems to possess a tenacious memory. In this damp, dauntingly fertile climate the creeping salal and salmonberry, and the green spears of infant Douglas firs, are bent on restoring everyone's back yard to the temperate rain forest that it once was, not so long ago. The towns and cities of the Northwest tend to have a makeshift, provisional air, as if the forest might yet swallow them alive. Because the region was settled by whites more recently than elsewhere, its Indian past—10,000 years of it—lies very close to the surface, and Native American conceptions of landscape and land use remain live political issues here.

Last year's Senate race was fought on terms that go back to the eighteenth century, as the painted landscapes of the Pacific Northwest remind one, with their endless variations on the themes of wilderness, white settlement, tribal rights, and the competing claims of industry and nature. These paintings haven't dated. The questions they raise are all around us, even now.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

The Portrait of Captain James Cook by John Webber
Webber's portrait of Captain James Cook, along with biographical information about both Cook and Webber. Posted by the National Portrait Gallery of Australia.
ohn Webber was the first white artist to unpack his paint box in the Pacific Northwest. In the spring of 1778 Captain James Cook's Resolution put in to Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, after a long northward haul up the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand, with stops in Tonga, Tahiti, and Hawaii. En route through Oceania, Webber, the official expedition artist, had painted a series of watercolors that are dominated by exotic tropical greenery in which every palm frond has a life of its own.

Cook's ship left the palms, wili wilis, breadfruit, and hibiscus of Hawaii on February 2; on March 29 it sailed into the great funnel-shaped approach to Nootka Sound, on the same latitude as the mouth of the English Channel. To British eyes the Pacific Northwestern light falls at a familiar and homely angle. The vegetation is Scottish, the weather Irish. After Hawaii, Nootka Sound must have felt to the voyagers like a wet and windy corner of their own country, named New Albion, in honor of its teasing similarity to home.

Webber, who trained as a painter first in Switzerland and then in Paris, clearly seems to have experienced a bout of déjà vu. In sharp contrast to his Tahitian and Hawaiian watercolors, his Nootka sketches render the local scenery (and "scenery" it is) in brisk pictorial shorthand, the water, rocks, pines, and mountains composed into a strikingly efficient and conventional landscape. We might be on the shore of Lac Léman or Lake Windermere here.

Like Cook, in his posthumously published Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784), Webber seems to have barely noticed the land itself, so preoccupied was he with the Indians in the foreground—their swan-necked cedar canoes, their curious timber dwellings, the frames on which they dried their salmon. In Paris he had specialized in "picturesque peasant scenes," a useful preparation for his studies of Indian life. Though the figures are small on the page, they are exquisitely detailed and individuated. With a magnifying glass one can pick out their conical hats, woven from cedar bark, and capes made from sea-otter hides. Given his education, Webber almost certainly had encountered the ideas of Rousseau, and his Pacific Northwest is the habitat of "natural man," drawn with the fastidious zeal of a keen amateur anthropologist.

In 1791 and 1792, more than a decade after Resolution's flying visit to the Northwest (from Nootka, Cook sailed offshore to the Gulf of Alaska, sighting land to starboard but not stopping there), Spanish and British expeditions cruised through the region, proving the insularity of Vancouver Island and charting Puget Sound. The Spaniards shipped professional artists (Tomás de Suría, José Cardero, Atanásio Echeverría), whereas the English, under Captain George Vancouver, made do with the artistic efforts of a bunch of talented young midshipmen, including John Sykes, Harry Humphrys, and Thomas Heddington. From the mass of sketches that came home to London and Madrid one can see something of the Pacific Northwest but much more of the tastes and interests prevailing among cultivated young Europeans in the last decade of the eighteenth century.

One catches the artists' excitement at the strange customs, costumes, and architecture of primitive man, and their elation at finding themselves in a real-life Salvator Rosa landscape, with all its shaggy cliffs, tangled woods, blasted trees, and lurid skies. Rosa, the Sicilian Baroque painter, was a great and much imitated favorite in Georgian England, where the novelist Tobias Smollett called his work "dreadfully picturesque." So the young men had a fine time, in their journals and sketchbooks, with granite precipices, waterfalls, and snowcapped peaks, as the land steepened around them along the Inside Passage.

Dread was in fashion in the 1790s, when the word "awful" still had a precise meaning, and images of the vertiginous crag, the dark forest, the storm at sea, were calculated to induce a delicious sensation of vicarious terror. It happened that the Pacific Northwest was discovered by whites just as the idea of the Romantic Sublime was gaining sway. The lonely and forbidding geography of the place perfectly fit the reigning conception of how a Romantic landscape ought to look. It conveniently combined, within a single view, the essential iconic features of the Swiss Alps, the German forest, and the English Lake District.

There was a single dissenting voice on the voyage—that of George Vancouver, known by his men (though never to his face) as Captain Van. At thirty-four, Vancouver was far behind his time. He was a provincial (from King's Lynn, in Norfolk, where his father was employed by the Customs Service); his education had been mostly acquired at sea (he'd been one of Captain Cook's midshipmen); and the Sublime left him cold. His posthumously published Voyage (1798) gives a candid, heartfelt portrait of the Pacific Northwest as seen through the eyes of a young fogey who was out of touch with the intellectual currents of his age.

Captain Van took a great shine to Puget Sound and its surroundings. Among the low hills and forest clearings he was able to imagine himself in a reborn England of close-shaven lawns, artful vistas, rolling fields, and country houses. Remembering the stretch of coast over which the retirement homes of Sequim are now sprawled, he wrote,
The surface of the sea was perfectly smooth, and the country before us exhibited every thing that bounteous nature could be expected to draw into one point of view. As we had no reason to imagine that this country had ever been indebted for any of its decorations to the hand of man, I could not possibly believe that any uncultivated country had ever been discovered exhibiting so rich a picture.

But his pleasure in this newfound land soon curdled into repugnance as the expedition sailed north and west into the narrow, mountain-walled channels of the Inside Passage. While his juniors, along with the expedition naturalist, Archibald Menzies, thrilled to the dramatic sublimity of their surroundings, Vancouver recoiled from what he saw. The snowcapped peaks were "sterile," the cliffs of dripping rock and vertical forest were "barren," "dull," "gloomy," "dreary," "comfortless." Of the much admired waterfalls he complained that their incessant noise made it impossible for him to hear any birdsong.

Vancouver's voice seems to come from the wrong end of the eighteenth century, when mountains were conventionally seen as rude geologic excrescences—chaotic, useless, and offensive to the mind and eye ("vast, undigested heaps of stone," as the theologian Thomas Burnet described the Alps in 1681). Yet most of the effusive paeans to the region's scenic grandeur conspicuously lack the real depth of feeling in Vancouver's response to a grim and spiritually corrosive landscape whose epicenter he named Desolation Sound. Captain Van ought to be adopted as the patron saint of all northwesterners who have felt walled in by their mountain ranges, or suffered a jolt of depression when faced by the black monotony of the fir forest under a low, wintry, frog-spawn-colored sky.

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* In the eighteenth century, when the landscapes of Claude Lorrain were hugely admired in England, no tour of a great country estate was complete without a Claude glass—a gilt frame with an ornate handle, containing sometimes a tinted mirror, sometimes a pane of clear glass. From selected viewpoints along the route, the finest vistas of the estate were inspected with the Claude glass—living landscapes, in which (as in the paintings that figure in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books) the sheep and deer could be seen to move. [back to top]

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; Battleground of the Eye - 01.02; Volume 287, No. 2; page 40-52.