Nature and the great nearby

An exhibition in Seattle features a 150-year scrapbook of images highlighting our relationship with nature, from dead eagles and illuminated orcas to sacred groves and horned loggers.
Crosscut archive image.

A cold, crisp day in 1962, year of the Century 21 Exposition, by Josef Scaylea.

An exhibition in Seattle features a 150-year scrapbook of images highlighting our relationship with nature, from dead eagles and illuminated orcas to sacred groves and horned loggers.

When English sea captain George Vancouver surveyed Puget Sound in 1792, he opened up a new chapter in the recorded history of our region. He was greatly impressed with the "wilderness" he saw.

The serenity of the climate," he wrote, "the innumerable pleasing landscapes, and the abundant fertility that unassisted nature puts forth, require only to be enriched by the industry of man with villages, mansions, cottages, and other buildings, to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined ...

What he didn't realize is that the landscape had already been shaped by the hand of man – the Native Americans had been clearing fields with controlled burns and building villages and "cottages" for millennia before Vancouver sailed onto the scene. But he did articulate the prevailing view of our relationship with nature, the view that has been the hallmark of more than 200 years of non-native settlement: We live in a beautiful land that is lucky to have the opportunity to be changed by us. We are here to give "unassisted nature" an assist.

Arrogant, yes, but it isn't the only view. Our relationship with the land – with forests, water, and wildlife – has been complicated and has been seen differently by many people through many lenses. Nature has been idealized and brutalized, clipped and stuffed into scrapbooks and turned into fine art. A sampler of those views is on display at an exhibit at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) through Sunday, Sept. 9. "Nature in the Balance" is a collection of 150 years worth of photographs and paintings that document how the people of the Northwest (mostly Washington) have interacted with nature since settlement. MOHAI's curator of photography, Howard Giske, has assembled an amazing and varied array of images – some locked away for many years, others reproduced on a scale that allows you peer into landscapes, longhouses, and bunkhouses of the past.

"Nature in the Balance" doesn't push a particular view. It offers interesting juxtapositions but doesn't editorialize. It combines documentary pictures with nostalgic scenes, romantic paintings with daily-newspaper photographs. Environmentalists are likely to find images that inspire and horrify; timber executives will not feel they are being subjected to environmental preaching. The images are allowed to speak for themselves, and many of them say a lot.

The show includes some picture postcard shots, but some have real stories to tell. Take a look, for example, at Josef Scaylea's portrait of Seattle in 1962, The New Look, which not only captures Seattle on the brink of modernity but embodies mid-century civic ideals about our relationship with nature. Or look at the photographs of pioneers posing by a giant 70-feet-in-circumference cedar, which makes a statement about the daunting challenge of clearing the land and the questionable sanity of the settlers who took on the task of cutting down our forest cathedrals.

I've collected a baker's dozen of "Nature in the Balance" images here (including the two referred to above), but I recommend that you also go see the show in person. You'll find most of pictures are bigger than a computer screen. Seeing the show will help you see the great nearby differently. And it will affect how you see what you see. That is its greatest contribution.

All images are courtesy of MOHAI. Curator Howard Giske provided me with label and credit information, but the opinions expressed in the captions are mine. Many thanks to Giske and the museum staff for their help in pulling this essay and gallery together.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.