Saturday, August 04, 2012
Maledictions on All Dollar-Godded Utilitarians
They are cutting all the trees down in the beautiful valley on which I have looked so often with a loving eye. This throws quite a gloom over my spring anticipations. Tell this to Durand—not that I wish to give him pain, but that I want him to join with me in maledictions on all dollar-godded utilitarians.Thomas Cole, letter to Luman Reed (March 28, 1836):
After I had sealed my last letter, I was afraid that what I had said about the tree-destroyers might be understood in a more serious light than I intended. My "maledictions" are gentle ones, and I do not know that I could wish them any thing worse than that barrenness of mind, that sterile desolation of the soul, in which sensibility to the beauty of nature cannot take root. One reason, though, why I am in so gentle a mood is, that I am informed some of the trees will be saved yet. Thank them for that. If I live to be old enough, I may sit down under some bush, the last left in the utilitarian world, and feel thankful that intellect in its march has spared one vestige of the ancient forest for me to die by.Text of these two letters in Louis L. Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, N.A., 3rd ed. (New York: Sheldon, Blakeman and Company, 1856), pp. 217-218. Durand is Cole's fellow painter Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886).
Thomas Cole, Lecture on American Scenery, addressed to the Catskill Lyceum (April 1, 1841):
I know, full well, that the forests must be felled for fuel and tillage, and that roads and canals must be constructed, but I contend that beauty should be of some value among us; that where it is not NECESSARY to destroy a tree or a grove, the hand of the woodman should be checked, and even the consideration, which alas, weighs too heavily with us, of a few paltry dollars, should be held as nought in comparison with the pure and lasting pleasure that we enjoy, or ought to enjoy, in the objects which are among the most beautiful creations of the Almighty.I owe my knowledge of these quotations to Alan Wallach, "Thomas Cole's 'River in the Catskills' as Antipastoral," The Art Bulletin 84.2 (June 2002) 334-350, an excellent discussion of the following painting (click on image to enlarge):
Among the inhabitants of this village, he must be dull indeed, who has not observed how, within the last ten years, the beauty of its environs has been shorn away; year by year the groves that adorned the banks of the Catskill wasted away; but in one year more fatal than the rest the whole of that noble grove by Van Vechten's mill, through which wound what is called the Snake Road, and at the same time the ancient grove of cedar, that shadowed the Indian burying-ground, were cut down.
I speak of these in particular, because I know that many of you remember them well; they have contributed to your enjoyment as well as mine; their shades were long the favorite walk and ride. After my return from Europe, I was proud to speak of that delightful spot, to walk there with my friends, and whenever opportunity offered to take persons of taste to view it, and as we trod the velvet grass beneath those noble trees, and pointed out the distance mountains, and the quiet stream below to say: This is a spot that in Europe would be considered as one of the gems of the earth; it would be sought for by the lovers of the beautiful, and protected by law from desecration.
But its beauty is gone, and that which a century cannot restore is cut down; what remains? Steep arid banks, incapable of cultivation, and seamed by unsightly gullies, formed by the waters which find no resistance in the loamy soil. Where once was beauty, there is now barrenness.
A few months after Cole delivered his lecture to the Catskill Lyceum, his poem "Lament of the Forest" appeared in The Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine 17 (June 1841) 516-519. It is too long to quote in its entirety, but here are its concluding lines (at pp. 518-519):
Each hill and every valley is become
An altar unto Mammon, and the gods
Of man's idolatry—the victims we.
Missouri's floods are ruffled as by storm, 200
And Hudson's rugged hills at midnight glow
By light of man-projected meteors.
We feed ten thousand fires: in our short day
The woodland growth of centuries is consumed;
Our crackling limbs the ponderous hammer rouse 205
With fervent heat. Tormented by our flame,
Fierce vapors struggling hiss on every hand.
On Erie's shores, by dusky Arkansas,
Our ranks are falling like the heavy grain
In harvest-time on Wolga's distant banks. 210
A few short years!—these valleys, greenly clad,
These slumbering mountains, resting in our arms,
Shall naked glare beneath the scorching sun,
And all their wimpling rivulets be dry.
No more the deer shall haunt these bosky glens, 215
Nor the pert squirrel chatter near his store.
A few short years!—our ancient race shall be,
Like Israel's, scattered 'mong the tribes of men.