Thomas Moran and Now…

Warning: When I first launched this blog I promised I wouldn’t post any rants. I even say as much in the header above. But now I’m breaking that promise. So, if you wish to retain the image of me as a fun lovin’ hale-fellow-well-met sort of bon vivant who travels hither and yon with paintbrush in hand then I suggest you stop right here. Because I am unleashing my inner-misanthrope for this post. It needs a little  exercise and fresh air…

Thomas Moran’s “Shoshone Falls”, circa. 1900
In the Gilcrease Collection, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Sometime before 1900, Thomas Moran traveled from the Yellowstone basin by rail and stage to see Idaho’s Shoshone Falls. He did so because it was called the Niagara of the West and he’d painted several definitive versions of the real one. At that time Shoshone Falls was a massive cataract which roared over an odd assortment of sedimentary rock and columnar basalt. Bric-a-brac glued together by thousands of years of lava flows.

When he arrived, Moran was astounded by the magnificence of the torrent. As he approached the rim he had no hint of the scale he would encounter since the cataract lies entirely inside the the Snake River Canyon. He could hear the roar, of course, but not see anything until he reached the edge. Shoshone Falls may not be as monumental as Niagara, or contain as much flow, but the setting is so unexpected and out of place you can’t but wonder how the hell it got there. Afterwards, Moran painted a six by eleven foot painting from sketches done in situ. It was his last grand canvas and I had the chance to view it when it traveled to the Portland Art Museum in 2011. Walking up to Moran’s painting reminded me of the first time I saw the falls myself. I was nineteen or twenty – barely out of my teens. Entering a grown up world.

The falls as it once was…
So last week, while driving home from a painting trip in the Southwest, I convinced my wife to stop and let me relive that moment again. We were heading west on I-84, right at the turn-off.

What a mistake.

It was bad enough that we drove the Shoshone people away from this sacred place, but did we also have to crap on it after they were gone? Shoshone Falls was once a natural wonder – a display of raw aquatic power carved into a flat arid plateau. (At around 212 feet, it’s actually roughly 35 feet higher than Niagara.) Yet some idiot had the bright idea of sucking most of the water out so more soybean and wheat could be cultivated for the international commodities market. And another idiot apparently thought that constructing a dam, powerhouse, and spillway, and then diverting the little water that remained over the infrastructure was worth the meager power the system could supply. And to add even more insult, someone else decided that building houses along the north side at the waterline was a solid real estate opportunity.
For the discriminating home buyer who feels that living close to a natural wonder just doesn’t offer enough prestige; you have to live on it as well.

Shoshone Falls as it is today is the best argument I have come across for our National Parks system. A park can never be the same as a wilderness – you can either have one or the other – but at least a park can protect a natural area from the exploitation you’ll find at Shoshone Falls.

What also stunned me were the people who came to gawk…

There were people who looked like live-action extras from the movie Wall-E. People who had to roll themselves out of their cars. People with no interest in the roaring precipice beyond finding out how far they could spit or fling a beer cap. People with more interest in reliving last night’s reality show than in experiencing the one in front of their face. This place – which again was once a natural wonder – looked more like a water treatment plant than a waterfall. Whoops, I’m sorry, I shorted that last simile. I meant to say it looked more like a giant toilet bowl. It was certainly being treated like one. There were turds in the parking lot.

Moran’s grand paintings of the Yellowstone area during the 1870’s created a public movement to preserve it for all. His (admittedly rather fanciful) depictions of magnificent geysers, hot springs, and awe-inspiring waterfalls motivated our U.S. Congress to protect the region from speculators and uncontrolled development. Yosemite, Mt. Rainier and other settings like the Grand Canyon and Zion soon followed. Sadly, Moran arrived too late to Shoshone Falls. Remember, Moran completed his last grand painting circa 1900. Thirty years after Yellowstone. By then the American public had turned away from his art.

These days I think of myself as a Buddhist. Perhaps not a deep or particularly disciplined one, but a guy who stumbles along the Dharma as best he can. And because of that I try to take the long view. So when I run into such ignorant contempt for the sublime I pause, take a breath, and remind myself that someday – at some point – nature will take us out and tectonic subduction will scrape our mischief off the surface of the earth. Beauty and balance will be restored. 

Too bad there won’t be anyone around to appreciate it. 

Oh well, we wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway.

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12 Responses to Thomas Moran and Now…

  1. Mr. Kitts,I completely agree with everything you've said in this post. It's far from being a rant, however, as you could have easily cranked it up about a hundred notches.Our species is so depraved-this being an excellent example-the only thing we have left is hope, and not too much of that.It's nearly impossible for me to understand the unquenchable greed and stupidity which drives us to destroy our own planet.Thanks for sharing this horror story which desperately needed to be told. Keep fighting the good fight and who knows…Sincerely,Gary.

  2. Thomas Kitts says:

    Thanks Gary. I could have gone on a more full tilt-boogie with this but I asked my wife to make the final edit. She's good at preventing me from spinning too far out of control.

  3. B Boylan says:

    Thomas,I saw the Moran painting at the PAM and cried for an hour. I only heard of the destruction of the falls, but never fathomed how heinous it really has become.Say it like it is!

  4. Thomas Kitts says:

    Brenda, I was so p*ssed when I got there I threw a hissy-fit in the parking lot. And you know me, tantrums aren't my style…

  5. Jim Serrett says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Jim Serrett says:

    What is wrong with us human beings?That is just so sad…….

  7. Albert. S says:

    THomas, there is nothing wrong with a bit of valuable artistic opinion. Since a painter has that special sympathy with nature, it's like a extension of one self. So we rightly want to protect it. I remember reading Emerson and Thoreau and the talks of Walden pond. What a beautiful place it must be, I thought to myself. Some years later I read an editorial on Saving Walden Pond. I thought "waht could possibly be wrong with it..?" To my disgust and disappointment. The people and tourist turned it into a bath of garbage. A picture of it appeared on the website, there was a shopping cart in there, tires, garbage. My next emotion was anger, I could not believe that humans if there is anything left to be called human, let that beautiful pond turn sour. People have definitely lost the empathy with nature and it's beautiful places. So yeah, call me a tree hugger,.. Hell yeah!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hi Thomas, first of all I love your work. Secondly, I agree with you completely (fellow Buddhist friend). I am always amazed at the lack of compassion, understanding and complete wonderment the majority of humans have for our planet. I too am somewhat satisfied with the knowledge that we are a mer blip or perhaps pimple on the planet and nature will take us out. I work as a land protection specialist and I paint as a hobby so I am always trying to capture and protect the landscape in some way or another. Thank you for caringChris

  9. Robin Weiss says:

    I feel your pain Thomas, Glad we didn't stop at Shoshone Falls. Hoover Dam was depressing enough! I'll remember my imaginings of it from reading the accounts of Lewis and Clark, which unfortunately was the beginning of the end. Keep fighting the good fight!

  10. Thomas Kitts says:

    Robin, I won't go into too much detail, but I believe a good friend of mine is an old member of the original Monkey Wrench Gang. You know, Edward Abbey's crew. If the Glen Canyon Dam ever goes down unexpectedly I'll have a pretty good idea what happened. I would certainly mourn the damage and terrible loss of life but the Colorado would run free to the Gulf of Mexico once again.At least it would for a short while…

  11. My wife and I just finished watching ken burns America's parks. What strikes me is the continual lack of appreciation and respect for the beauty of the lands around us. I suppose that's one of the reasons I paint landscapes: you have to enjoy while these places are here and through our art call attention to the beauty around us. It's an uphill battle and the forces arrayed against keeping our lands beautiful are many. Posts like these Thomas are proper. Amaerican's apathy against holding people accountable for right and wrong just amazes me. Yesterday, I stopped at a highway rest stop and PICKED UP the plastic and garbage around my car. If we each took a small amount of action to not pollute and keep our space clean and yes to vocally hold others accountable…well…maybe the pace of pollution and disrespect for our beauty in America might stand a fighting chance.

  12. Thomas Kitts says:

    Good for you, Robert. When I am out in the field and come across trash, I'll try to carry it out. I know it is a never ending issue, but it won't get picked up by itself.In my mind trashing the natural world isn't as much of a moral issue as it is a spiritual one. A blindness to how we impact it. Each and every one of us must have a foot print, that's unavoidable, but to thoughtlessly pass through is a form of emptiness.The tectonic plates keep grinding on regardless. To appropriate a baseball metaphor, we should remember that Mother Nature bats last. She also bats clean up…

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