After a day in the high desert, surrounded by mountain ranges wherever we go, as darkness falls once again I turn to books about desert and mountains. Far from seeking escape in my winter reading, what I desire above all is immersion.
The reds are always salmon-colored, terra-cotta, or Indian red; the greens are olive-hued, plum-colored, sage-green; the yellows are as pallid as the leaves of yellow roses. Fresh breaks in the wall of rock may show bright colors that have not yet been weather-worn…. A mountain wall may be dark red within, but it is weather-stained and lichen-covered without. Long-reaching shafts of granite that loom upward from a peak may be yellow at heart but they are silver-gray on the surface. The colors have undergone years of ‘toning down’ until they blend and run together like the faded tints of an Eastern rug.
- John C. Van Dyke, THE DESERT: FURTHER STUDIES IN NATURAL APPEARANCES (1901)
John C. Van Dyke (1856-1932) was an American art historian and critic, and his books all have to do with art. THE DESERT is no exception. Geologic formation, factors of climate then and now, flora and fauna, and human plans for alteration of the land all find their way into THE DESERT, but it is first and foremost with an eye tuned to art that he examines effects of light and atmosphere, clouds, mirages, and every other aspect of what is to be seen in the desert and its mountains. A few of his details — over a hundred years after this book was written — are by now outdated, but in essence it remains truthful to the land, to his experience, and it wonderfully captures the ways in which such a severe landscape can penetrate and capture a human heart. I read my own experience in his, mine not of artist or art critic but only a seasonally retired bookseller and philosophe fauve, when I read sentences such as the following:
How silently, even swiftly, the days glide by out in the desert, in the waste, in the wilderness! How ‘the morning and the evening make up the day’ and the purple shadow slips in between with a midnight all stars! And how day by day the interest grows in the long overlooked commonplace things of nature! In a few weeks we are studying bushes, bowlders, stones, sand-drifts — things we never thought of looking at in any other country.
In my case those last eleven words do not apply, I think immediately, because wherever I am “bushes, bowlders, stones, sand-drifts,” along with insects, lizards, birds, mammals, tracks on the ground, clouds in the sky, running water or indications of water has run, still water, trees, habitations of human beings and other life — all this I look at and drink in hungrily. I suspect the difference for Van Dyke was one of familiarity vs. unfamiliarity, because in the West he did not find what he “knew so well when [he was] a child by a New England mill-stream.” And yet, something tells me that back in his New England boyhood he must already have been doing much more looking than overlooking, that he must have been noticing and forming impressions and making mental notes about everything he saw around him. Because being open to nature is generally a lifelong habit, and in the contrast of long-ago and recent experiences, after all, both are sharpened.
For example --
The state bird of Illinois is the cardinal, a bird also common in Michigan, both in summer and winter. Against dense green summer foliage, the brilliant scarlet of the male cardinal commands attention, while seen on a background of winter snow, the white a blank page behind its startling color, it is no less impressive. Amid the dusty hues of a desert wash, to someone from the East or Midwest, the cardinal is more than impressive and attention-grabbing: it is downright improbable, verging on miraculous.
Arizona’s "silver cardinal," the pyruhlloxia, unfamiliar and new to someone new to the West, is no more wonderful than the familiar cardinal, unfamiliar again in its “new” setting. Both give a lift to the heart and put a smile on the face.
|Trail through new snow after April storm in Michigan|
In Leelanau County, Michigan, Up North winter brings opportunities for noticing comings and goings of life that otherwise proceeds invisibly all around, as tracks in the snow tell stories. (Follow link to see more Michigan tracks. There was another, more extensive post of tracks in the woods, but I can't find it.) In spring, when the snow is gone, my dog still gets the news with her nose; I, on the other hand, dependent on vision, have the olfactory equivalent of near-blindness in grass and woods and must await dirt roads or wet shoreline sand to see what she detects on and near the ground. Here in the desert there is more bare earth, thus more signs accessible to sight. On dirt roads, in dusty washes, across the desert itself, there are more tracks and trails for me to see than back in Michigan after snowmelt, but whether here or there, looking for signs and paying attention to them is just as natural to me.
|Cow tracks on road|
|Cow path through mesquite|
Enough, however, of this caviling. I did not set out with the intention of arguing with Mr. Van Dyke. On the contrary, I love his writing and especially love his love of nature. Was it the art criticism of his time that hailed “art for art’s sake,” rather than for conveying and imparting spiritual or political values? He does not insist on “meaning” in art, I’m guessing (not having read any of his other books), any more than he looks for it in nature, where he finds beauty “in itself."
Line and tint do not always require significance to be beautiful. There is no tale or text or testimony to be tortured out of the blue sky. It is a splendid body of color; no more.
And there I am absolutely on the same page with this writer of over a century ago. It is not “sermons in stone” that I look for or find in mountains; nor do I find the absence of sermons something that mountains lack. In themselves, both as they are now and as they became over millenia, along with the changes they continue to undergo, mountains with no addition of sermonizing are endlessly fascinating and awe-inspiring. They are enough. No, more than enough. Monumental and overwhelming — and at the same time engaging, welcoming, beloved.
At the same time….
At the same time, neither Van Dyke’s prose nor his sensibility are those of our age but belong instead to the nineteenth century, a period that had closed — on the calendar, at least — only very shortly before this book appeared. While he refrains from passing judgment on nature, stylistically he is given not only to rhetorical questions and flowery exclamations, but also to the personification of nature and to teleological thinking, writing of nature’s designs and purposes, mysterious as the latter must always remain.
Those first twenty years of our life we were allowed to sap blood and strength from our surroundings; the last twenty years of our life our surroundings are allowed to sap blood and strength from us. It is Nature’s plan and it is carried out without any feeling. With the same indifferent spirit that she planted in us an eye to see or an ear to hear, she afterward plants a microbe to breed and a cancer to eat. She in herself is both growth and decay. The virile and healthy things of the earth are hers; and so, too, are disease, dissolution, and death. The flower and the grass spring up, they fade, they wither; and Nature neither rejoices in the life nor sorrows in the death. She is neither good nor evil; she is only a great law of change that passeth understanding. The gorgeous pageantry of the earth with all its beauty, the life thereon with its hopes and fears and struggles, and we a part of the universal whole, are brought up from the dust to dance on the green in the sunlight for an hour; and then the procession that comes after us turns the sod and we creep back to Mother Earth. All, all to dust again; and no man to this day knoweth the why thereof.
Over and over he reminds us that the individual is of no concern to nature. Only in his closing pages does he finally conclude, somewhat shockingly, that nature is equally indifferent to species, and, probably, even to life on earth itself. Shocking? Surprising, certainly, and yet the conclusion is of a piece with all that came before. Nature is not benevolent, he has said all along. Nature is indifferent. So why would nature care about the survival of a planet?
Individual, type, and species, all shall pass away; and the globe itself become as desert sand blown hither and yon through space.
Van Dyke acknowledges that such a “destiny,” as he calls it, seems “harsh” to us, but he sees purpose even in the eventual destruction of our planet, as he sees it in the “waste” of the arid desert —
…not because they develop character …, but simply because they are beautiful in themselves and good to look upon whether they be life or death.
Would I use those words? Destiny? Purpose? Destinies and purposes seem at odds with indifference, and I can’t help wondering how a mountain would remain beautiful with no one to behold it. — Of course, without senses and minds to apprehend and appreciate desert and mountains, the question of beauty would never arise. So here we are.
Yes! Here we are, me here and you wherever you are! And aren’t we the lucky ones, though, to be alive at all, “to dance on the green in the sunlight for an hour” on our transit “from the sweetgrass to the packinghouse”?