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…
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.
What a mistake.
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.