This is the second of three essays by the author about nature and the art of the Far West, corresponding with a current show at the Seattle Art Museum, "Beauty and Bounty."
From the beginning, people who have visited the West’s iconic places have tended to see more than has met their eyes. “Much of the California landscape has tended to present itself as metaphoric,” Joan Didion writes in Where I Was From, “even as litany: the redwoods (for a thousand years in my sight are but as yesterday), the Mojave (in the midst of life we are in death), the coast at Big Sur, Mono Lake, the great vistas of the Sierra, especially those of the Yosemite Valley, which, [California historian] Kevin Starr has pointed out, ‘offered Californians an objective correlative for their ideal sense of themselves: a people animated by heroic imperatives.’ Thomas Starr King saw Yosemite in 1860 and went back to the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco determined to inspire 'Yosemites in the soul.’ "
“Upon the heights, Clarence King [a New England-born, Yale-educated geologist and mountain climber, who first visited California in the 1860s, more than a decade before he became the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey] conceived of himself as poised above chaos, as having defied chasms without and chasms within,” Starr writes in Americans and the California Dream. “On the same and even more lofty peaks, [John] Muir saw himself as soaring over a singing creation, hearing the music which the ages had prepared.”
A century later, people were less likely to use religious metaphors but just as likely to invoke religious places, fighting to preserve the West’s last unprotected "cathedral forests." In those forests, over which many recent environmental battles have been fought, the architectural metaphors really work. You find the upward sweep of the trunks, like the soaring of Gothic arches; the sense of vertical space; the glowing color of a backlit branch, like illuminated stained glass; the silence.
The historian Simon Schama points out in Landscape and Memory that just as we see the Gothic in living forests, we can see living forests in the Gothic: the characteristic pointed arch of Gothic architecture mirrors — and may be patterned on — the shape made by branches that have been bent into archways. Schama also discusses the widespread and pervasive place of sacred trees in pre-Christian religions and the persistence of tree imagery in early and not-so-early Christianity. As he notes, Americans in the mid-19th century saw the newly discovered groves of redwoods and sequoias as holy places, and subscribed fully to the idea of forests as natural places of worship. Why should a forest need an architectural metaphor? It doesn't. But the memory of cathedrals adds resonance; it enhances the experience — although it may diminish the direct perception of trees.
In the late 19th century, when the nation thought of Washington at all, it may not have envisioned cathedrals, but it clearly thought in terms of trees. J.W. Robinson was appointed to take the proposed state constitution to Washington D.C. for approval in 1889, and secure from President Benjamin Harrison a formal proclamation of statehood. Thirty years later, he recalled meeting with Harrison, Congressman John L. Wilson, and Secretary of State James G. Blaine, from the old lumbering state of Maine. Blaine “asked me what was the greatest quantity of merchantable timber I had ever known to be on, say, 160 acres in Washington,” Robinson wrote, “and I answered him by saying that in the Land Court I [had] represented a timber claimant as against an agricultural claimant in [a case in] which the issue was whether the land was chiefly valuable for timber or agriculture, in which the witnesses testified, after examination of the timber, that it contained 36,000,000 board feet of first-class merchantable timber, and President Harrison said, ‘Well, that much timber could hardly grow on 160 acres,’ and Secretary Blaine, with [a] twinkle in his eye, said: ‘Mr. President, that would depend upon how high it grew.’”
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