I’ll be contributing a handful of pictures to a show for the Asheville Humane Society, whose title, if you remember your 12th-grade English Literature class, comes from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal. –from Canto iv.
The show’s page on Alchemy’s site features images of animals and landscape: some quadrupeds, a skull, found objects put into still lives, as well as tilled fields. I’m thinking of adding some dog and wolf studies, and a painting of some chickens.
The show’s title got me thinking. It’s hard to gain access to really wild things. Human influence is everywhere. Even the wolf shown here is as incapable of survival in the wild as a typical laying hen. That’s a basic problem with Romanticism: whether or not you love the wilderness, you can’t get there from here, as Byron, on the run from industrial England, knew all too well. There is an unintended human presence in what we hairless bipeds regard as “pathless.”
Even if you could escape civilization and dwell in unspoiled wilderness, you’d have some explaining to do. Byron’s words might help: “I love not man the less but Nature more.” Somehow, Nature–whatever that is–is supposed to be more capable of love than human beings. For Americans, whose history is a series of overcoming wilderness, that is problematic; if we are busily spoiling nature, where is our love supposed to go?
Without an appropriate receptacle for our love, we find it easy as well as common to heap love on anything that is “natural,” as our buying habits disclose. It is easier to fetishize unkempt things than to admit the absence of wild things. As the biography of any teenager will show you, love out of proportion is a growth pain, not growth.
For that reason alone, honesty in landscape painting matters, especially when it is honest enough to treat small things, like individual animals, trees and structures. Painting and collecting their images are acts of stewardship and devotion, and they give wholesome enjoyment. They are worth doing because they remind us that culture begins in path-making and that, however we may dream of trackless places, to enter them is to blaze a trail