There is a deep cleft in the middle of the Kaaterskill Clove, just east of the town of Haines Falls, New York. At its upper end, the gorge terminates in a vast rock wall with an imposing craggy front that rises to a height of some 300 feet. This massive rampart of stone is semicircular, and ascends in two tiers. From the uppermost of these, a bright stream of white water arches out, crashes onto a rocky basin 180 feet below, gathers itself in a confusion of feathery mists and sprays, and then surges over the precipice and hurls itself downward another 80 feet, where, growling and roaring, it struggles through a gloomy narrow valley overshadowed by twisted trees, downed trunks, and shattered rocks dislodged from the mountain wall. Even now in the bright lights of the twenty-first century, it is a vaguely ominous place, but in the midnineteenth century it must have seemed wild and demon haunted.
In 1820, a twenty-four-year-old English immigrant named Thomas Cole made his way to this site and was taken by the dreadfulness of the sheer power of the heights, the din and the cold shimmering mists and dank hollows that still characterize the gorge. Cole appreciated this aspect of wild free nature. He had spent his youth near the textile mills of Lancashire and was not unfamiliar with the squalor of the satanic mills in the industrial Midlands. From childhood he had favored natural landscapes; he used to wander the green hills beyond the town with his sisters, playing his flute and enjoying the fresh winds. Cole was also something of a bookworm, and one of his cherished volumes was a work that described the wilds of distant North America.
Eventually, Cole’s father moved his family to New York City, and it was there that Thomas began to follow more seriously one of his favorite pastimes—painting landscapes. One of these early works caught the eye of a wealthy patron who financed Cole’s first trip up the Hudson River to the highlands of the West Bank in the region dramatized by the writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. It was on that first journey to the region that Cole came upon the awe-inspiring mountain walls of Kaaterskill Clove and the Falls of Kaaterskill. He made sketches on the site and returned to New York to complete three paintings from the expedition, including The Falls of Kaaterskill. Word of Cole’s talent began to spread, and in time he moved from the city and settled in the river town of Catskill. Influenced by Cole’s unique perspectives, other artists followed, and soon there were enough painters and enough scenic views for the group to be given a name—the Hudson River School.
All this was taking place in the 1830s. The landscape of the Northeast offered a decidedly different aspect in those times. In that era, a farmer sitting outside his front door in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, could theoretically shout to his neighboring farmer who could then call out to his neighbor and thus communicate a message all the way to New Haven and beyond. It was all cows and sheep and pastureland, and stretching fields of wheat and corn with a few isolated woodlots in between the cultivated lands. No dense forests. No intriguing dark gorges where demons lurked. And no wildlife to speak of. Whitetail deer were rare, and beavers had been extirpated. No wolves, or bears, or turkeys; very few wood-warblers and thrushes; en fin, no wild land whatsoever.
For the complacent yeoman smoking his pipe beside his kitchen door that was just as well. The American psyche, which is to say, basically, the eighteenth-century English psyche, detested the dark forest. It was, in the words of one of New England’s earliest chroniclers, a heathenish, desolate place filled with wild beasts, and wilder men (aka Indians), separated from the civilized world by a boundless sea, and with no friendly taverns to warm a traveler. It took the new American settlers 200 years to beat back this devil-infested landscape, and, even as late as 1840, the atavistic memory of the dangers of wilderness endured.
But then along comes the Englishman Thomas Cole. He sails upriver to Kaaterskill, eyes the dense forests of the West Bank, and what does he see but wave upon wave of green-clad mountains retreating into the blue horizon. The savage beauty of cascades, mountain passes, wind-wracked blasted trees, storm clouds in the valleys—the terrible beauty of wilderness. Where the majority of Americans saw profit in the form of uncut timber or new arable lands, Cole saw beauty—“a land new to art,” as he later wrote.
Thomas Cole is a relatively unknown figure in our time; and, inasmuch as he is known, he is generally cited as the founder of the Hudson River School, which is now, in this sad postmodern age, considered a comfortable, somewhat insipid footnote in American art history, especially when compared with the innovative energies of the New York abstract expressions of the late fifties. But in fact Cole and company were prime movers in another field altogether, namely the creation of the wilderness conservation movement.
In the 1840s the increasing popularity of the landscapes of the Hudson River School, and later the vast canvases of the Western landscape painters, eventually generated an appreciation for wilderness in the American mind. Slowly, public attitudes began to change, and, although it took a stiff fight by early environmental warriors such as John Muir, saving land for land’s sake alone eventually became an accepted policy—more or less. Pressure to develop never really did disappear, and, of course, is very much with us in our time.
Mr. Thomas Cole, who was an essayist as well as a painter, summed up the coming deluge in an essay he wrote on American scenery.
“In this age, when a meager utilitararianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is called improvement, in its march, makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the imagination will be crushed beneath its iron tramp, it would be well to cultivate the oasis that yet remains to us.”