Acorns are dropping. One fell right between my eyes, down the length of my nose as I walked. Pinyon jays in the canopy and stellar jays on the ground with the squirrels. Acorns drop to the ground, some with the nudge of a jay and others just by time. Jays emerge with an acorn in their beak and the squirrels get the ones left behind.
I try to come here every week. Some days I take new paths and find lofty views. But most often it’s been a weekly pilgrimage, not to peaks or cataracts but to knolls and groves and baskets. It’s been walking the same path. Wendell Berry wrote that a path is “little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.”[i]
chased by a bull,
watched by an owl,
and taught perseverance by a pill bug.
In the seventeenth century, people carried into the natural world a device called the Claude Glass. The glass was a mirror—slightly convex and tinted—named after the French painter Claude Lorraine. Its shape and tint reduced colors and the visual field so to simulate a painting of the scene. This was a time when landscape painting began to elevate the natural world in the popular mindset. Paintings depicted grand scenes and so that is what the populace sought. The Claude Glass assisted people, even artists, to frame the world into the picturesque. But in order to see this instantaneous painting, the viewer had to turn their back on the scene.
In many ways, landscape painting was the beginning of the natural aesthetic of the West. The term “landscape,” after all, was first coined as a genre of painting. And now we preserve and care for landscapes—the vistas and scenes that resemble paintings.
As the philosopher J. Baird Callicot said, “Naturally occurring scenic or picturesque ‘landscapes’ are regarded, like the art they imitate, as precious cultural resources…. [While the] non-scenic, non-picturesque, non-landscapes are aesthetic nonresources and thus become available for less exalted use.”[ii]
I hear, most often, people describe the Oquirrhs as brown, ugly and small. We treat the physical landscape according to our mental landscape. Our stories color how we perceive it and then how we treat it.
I’ve wondered at times, what if the Oquirrhs were our only mountains? What if the Wasatch were not present here? What is the mental map of Wasatch versus Oquirrh?
Regional planners say that just 5 percent of development computes to 50 percent damage in people’s mental map of an area. “And the second five percent of development enlarges this damage by another fifty percent.” In other words, visual disruption and change in a landscape can disproportionately lead to discounting a whole landscape. [iii] The Oquirrhs are visually a land to use and privately own. The visual perpetuates a mental map, as it continues to be less known, less visited.
From a distance these mountains appear motionless, yet their calmness belies the life they hold. For, this world is not a static stage. It is moving, adjusting even if it’s imperceptible. As the poet Lew Welch once said, to the rocks the trees are just passing through.[iv] Movement is relative, and most often this world moves at a different pace. It is we who speed up the process.
How we move earth depends on how it moves us.
[i] Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2003), 12.
[ii] J. Baird Callicott, “The Land Aesthetic,” Ecological Prospects: Scientific, Religious, and Aesthetic Perspectives, ed. Christopher Key Chapple (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 173.
[iii] Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 167. “The environmental damage caused by the first development…varies tremendously from place to place…but the disproportionate initial-impact formulas seems to apply across the board.”
[iv] Welch either said or wrote this sentiment to Gary Snyder. See Iain Sinclair, “The Man in the Clearing,” London Review of Books vol. 34, no. 10 (2012): 35-38. Also, Gary Snyder quotes Welch in the companion film to Snyder’s book, The Etiquette of Freedom.