Monday, June 26, 2017

Not Made by Humans

Living in Alaska, you can get complacent about Big Nature. The mountains are always on the horizon, the giant moose are often on the trail, glaciers fill the Sound. Mostly, you can end up just seeing the space in front of the windshield, bicycle, or your own two feet.

It can take a wholesale change in scenery to knock your socks off.

Fortunately, South Dakota and Wyoming come with Big Nature, overwhelming Nature. Nature that amazes. But they also come with rolling, calming, on-and-on-and-on-and-on Nature.

I thought we’d need books on tape or something else to get us through the prairies, the grasslands, the range lands. I couldn’t imagine just sitting and looking out the window – at grass! – for hours and hours and days and days and never growing tired of it. Turned out I could look at that grass for weeks.

It wasn’t just the cows or the horses or the rolled up bales of hay. It was the lushness, the abundance of space and time and … grass. Interrupting the greenness of the grass was the reddest soil I’ve ever seen. I stopped and collected some. I’m home now, and it’s still red, so it wasn’t just imagination tinged with vacation.

You come through the grasslands all soothed and still – and then suddenly you’re in the Badlands. Erosion has made the Badlands. Erosion has dug out their layers and peaks and valleys and sharp edges, and erosion will erase them entirely in another 500,000 years. You’d better hurry and go!

I’ve drawn log splitters and apple crushers, copied Picasso and Monet, but I don’t think I can paint the Badlands or the grasslands and do them justice. The problem is scale. A little doodle does not a whole landscape make. A little doodle doesn’t fill up the earth and air and sky.

The Badlands are striped reds and golds and blacks. The Yellow Mounds are yellow. The scrub is green. The dust is tan and white. You look over one set of craggy peaks and discover another batch of different colors. But the color is only part of it: the shapes are what haunt: this is the stuff of another planet, an intimidating dreamworld. Except it’s our Earth, but it’s primal Earth. It is raw, untamed, unbuilt, sharp and pointy Earth.

And if you’re driving along westward and Devils Tower rises on the horizon, you gasp. To see Devils Tower is to know why Close Encounters was filmed there. If extraterrestrials are to land on Earth, they will land at Devils Tower. No doubt about it. Native Americans honor it as a spiritual center, and it just throbs with whatever is more-than-meets-the-eye.

I can draw Devils Tower because everyone in Close Encounters did. I bet I could even make it out of mashed potatoes.
At Wind Cave National Park, we met a couple from Florida who said Mount Rushmore had disappointed, that it was smaller than they’d expected. We went to Mount Rushmore. We went to the even larger Crazy Horse Memorial. And you know what? They’re smaller. They’re smaller because they’re not everything. They’re not the whole landscape, the whole mountain range, the whole world. They’re a piece of it. A masterful, inspirational piece – what an artist can accomplish with pure will and tenacity! – but a piece just the same.

They’re Art. Humans made them.

The Badlands, the grasslands, the sky, the clouds, the Black Hills – they’re the forces of Nature. The universe made them.

I’m glad on this trip I was reminded of the difference.

1 comment:

  1. We just got back from our own trip to South Dakota and Wyoming. You captured this very well. Good writing. Good art. I know what you mean about scale, though. Our photos were slightly disappointing because something gets lost in translation.


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