"Nature in the Balance" is an exhibit of 150 years worth of photographs and paintings that document how the people of the Northwest (mostly Washington) have interacted with nature since settlement. It's showing at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) through Sunday, Sept. 9. a collection 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.
I've collected a baker's dozen of "Nature in the Balance" images. I've also written an essay about the exhibit.1. Sacred grove?
In photographs of the Northwest, trees are often shown to give a sense of nature's scale. One of the reasons people were inclined to call this "God's country" was undoubtedly the cathedral-like quality of old-growth forests whose columns suggested ancient temples and medieval churches. "The hills and groves were God's first temples," said John Muir. In this photo, taken around 1915, the scale is captured by the figure of a lone man sitting at the base of a giant tree in the bottom right-hand corner. The image was taken by one of the famed Northwest Kinsey brothers photographers – it's uncertain which one. The most famous was Darius, who was very aware of the church-like qualities of the forests. He documented the Northwest with scenic pictures but is probably best known for his images of industry, especially railroads and logging. He died in 1940 after a fall from a stump. (Photo: Kinsey photographer) 2. Northwest gothic
When nature wasn't being worshipped, it was used as a prop to suggest the scale of the timber cutter's challenge. You can feel the tension in the picture between the power of old growth and the determination of settlers to transform nature into something they can live in, like a cabin. There are thousands of images of felled forest giants that have been bagged and tagged by timber workers, but this picture gives you the sense of the immense labor ahead for a single (albeit large) pioneer family as they look to clear the land for their homestead. Taken in Snohomish County, Wash., in 1895, it has a gothic feel, especially as the bearded settler has made a statement by burying his axe in the flank of this gigantic cedar, known as "the tree of life" to Northwest native peoples. (Photo: U.P. Hadley) 3. The hills are alive!
From the solo pioneer to industrial swarms: The hills are alive with the sound of chopping and sawing. The 20th century saw the systematic stripping of Northwest forests. Paul Bunyan morphed from a single giant with a blue ox into a horde of flannel-clad, axe- and peavey-wielding locusts. That feel is captured in this painting, circa 1940, by Northwest artist Richard Bennett. To me, it looks like a Franklin Roosevelt-era WPA mural gone mad. In a second painting in the series, also in the exhibit, the trees are no longer visible due to the logger swarm. If the forests were once cathedrals, what have we done to them? (Painting: Richard Bennett, gift of Helen Johnston) 4. Avatars of Bunyan and Babe
If we no longer worship the woods, we can celebrate the manly art of taming the forest beast. I love this picture for its pagan imagery. It was shot during Aberdeen and Hoquiam's celebration of Washington state's golden jubilee in 1939. Wherever there are (or were) forests in North America, there are giant statues and figures of the mythical Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox. They are shown here amid the bedlam as effigies, humorously reminiscent of the puppets used by environmental activists at the WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999. Only here they are the demigods of a horned horde of timber-town vikings – the Odorous Order of Blue Bulls – who in essence are celebrating their role in shaping the land as avatars of Bunyan and Babe. (Photo: Bliss Jones, Jones Historic Photo Collection, Anderson & Middleton) 5. Tasty salmon
Some Northwest native tribes believed that by putting the bones of salmon back in the rivers, they were reseeding the next crop of returning fish. Even with fish in abundance, longtime experience showed native peoples that you couldn't always take the miracle of the salmon's return for granted. Local nature worship still includes these kinds of notions, expressed by the people who interact with the resource, like fishermen. The exhibit contains a number of images of salmon and man by photographer Natalie Fobes, but I especially like this one taken in Alaska in the early 1990s. It shows fisherman Pete Blackwell kissing the first caught salmon of the season. Superstition holds that kissing the fish and throwing it back will bring good luck and good fishing during the season. Maybe so, but let's hope there are more reliable conservation and restoration strategies in place. (Photo: Natalie Fobes) 6. The eagle has fallen
As of June 2007, the U.S. government no longer considers bald eagles a threatened species. This image shows how the eagle got into trouble in the first place. Among other threats, they were once considered to be pests by farmers. This young bald eagle – its head not yet turned white – was shot by three Snohomish County hunters in the 1890s. Weirdly, in death, the bird's stretched wings mimic, or mock, the Great Seal of the United States. The crossed rifles in front give the image the feeling of a military tableaux. The eagle hunters seem serious, except for the one on the left who smirks. They've done their duty for the day, ridding the sky of raptors. (Photo: U.P. Hadley) 7. The calm before Seafair
Fifty years after its founding, a big city had replaced the woods, and paddling canoes was a form of leisure, no longer the most efficient way to commute on Seattle's original waterways. At the turn of the century, after the frontier and before hydroplanes and jet skis, a gentleman could escape the hustle and bustle of a growing city by having a camp on the shores of Lake Washington, where this picture was taken around 1900. I remember my own grandfather acquired "summer property" on pre-bridged Mercer Island. The camper pictured here was well-organized and clearly had a checklist: canoe, tents, hammock, and, oh yes, necktie. Check. (Photo: Anders Beer Wilse) 8. Reel change
After the setters were done, Seattle catered to gold-rushers, and when the gold rushes were over, a growing class of urban sportsmen formed a market for downtown retailers. In pre-REI Seattle, the go-to outfitter was Eddie Bauer, where fish and game were regularly displayed outside the store on Seneca Street. In 1926, what better advertising was there? The city became a base camp for people who wanted to recreate in the outdoors – folks who regarded the wilderness as a playground rather than a source of subsistence. (Photo: Pemco Webster & Stevens Collection) 9. Home of the whale hunters
Here is a rare view into a Makah longhouse on far tip of the Olympic Peninsula, filled with everyday objects such as pots, mats, and baskets. Light streams in through gaps in the roof. From the rafters hang strips of what looks like fish and sealskin floats, used by whale hunters to slow down harpooned whales. Other skin "bottles" hold whale oil. Unlike many of the staged photos of native life taken by such men as Edward S. Curtis, this picture shows the gritty reality of hard-working people rather than a romanticized view. That realism was reinforced in modern times when the Makah clashed with groups like Greenpeace, who objected to the tribe's winning back of their right to hunt whales again. They exercised that right for the first time in more than 70 years in 1999. (Photo: James G. McCurdy) 10. Hobnails and hard heads
This picture is not in the "Nature in the Balance" exhibit, but a large blow-up is on display in the museum, so you can see and compare it with the previous picture of the Makah longhouse. It is also a rare view, this one inside a 1905 logging camp bunkhouse, probably in Oregon. Like the longhouse, gear hangs from the wooden rafters. Evidence of the damp is found in the big stove and drying clothes – you can almost smell the mildew and tobacco stains. Old-school logging was tough, dangerous work, and these hard men have only narrow benches and even harder bunks to sleep on between long stretches of backbreaking work. Their feet were protected by hobnail boots, but their heads were expendable: no hardhats, only felt hats. The look on their faces captures an exhaustion and tired surliness one sees in pictures of soldiers taking a break from combat. (Photo: Pemco Webster & Stevens Collection) 11. Rainier through rose-tinted glasses
After its village and rollicking boomtown phases, Seattle worked hard to become a city of Beaux Arts architecture, Olmsted parks, and gardens that were a hallmark of the "City Beautiful" movement. A mature city sought to harmonize with nature. For many people, that still means the ritual of cultivating private gardens that frequently feature lush rhododendrons and too much English ivy. This picture, taken in the 1920s, personifies an aesthetic that still pervades a century later. Looking toward Seward Park and Mount Rainier, we literally see the city through rose-colored glasses as a romantic idyll that pairs old-world cultivation with the backdrop of a deceptively serene volcano. I suspect the villas at Pompeii once looked like this. (Photo: Unknown, gift of Ellen U. Juhl) 12. Life in the dead sea
For many, the modern ideal involves ignoring the impact of man entirely – especially as we've learned that that impact has destroyed much of what we cherish. The salmon are in steep decline, the cedars are suffering from global warming, Puget Sound is slowly turning into a new Dead Sea. The problem is, few people believe we're in enough trouble to warrant making the sacrifices necessary to keep the wild alive. In the meantime, we're drawn to images that reassure us. To me, that's the power of this incredible shot by Seattle photographer Joel Rogers. It's 2003, near Blake Island, the sun is setting behind the Olympics, and a ray miraculously illuminates an orca's spray. The signs of man are faded in the distance – it could be a primordial shore. That catches the paradox: The image is timeless and captures what we love about this place, but we cannot rest easy by believing what we see because we are running out of time. (Photo: Joel Rogers) 13. Great vision and great visibility
Josef Scaylea was a Northwest icon who photographed Northwest icons. His work was familiar to Seattleites who for decades enjoyed his photo features in the pages of The Seattle Times. Much of his work seems dated – almost too simple, too straightforward in its storytelling, a relic of an older Seattle that knew no irony. But at other times, he blows you away with that same (often deceptive) simplicity. This picture was shot on a cold, crisp day in 1962, year of the Century 21 Exposition. The Space Needle was a brand new addition to the skyline, a towering sculpture rising over a low-rise city. Here is modern Seattle with its space age structures standing in the clean light of winter morning. The mid-century modern city is minimalist, the white gothic arches of the U.S. Science Pavilion (now the Pacific Science Center), designed by Minoru Yamasaki, arc above Elliott Bay in a way that reminds me of the playful abstraction of Alexander Calder's "Eagle" in the Olympic Sculpture Park. Everything is fresh and clean, a city reborn as launch pad for the new frontier. It's not a clutch of generic skyscrapers and skinny towers but a scaled metropolis of high ideals and low impact. Looking more closely, you can see that is an illusion. Clearcuts are beginning to appear on the distant foothills. Nevertheless, this photograph captures a world of tomorrow that once existed. (Photo: Josef Scaylea, Josef Scaylea Collection)
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.