In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World

In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World

In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World

In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World

Excerpt

Here, sensitively and with complete understanding, is presented through the medium of a new art that very world of American Nature which Thoreau, practicing one of the oldest of arts, taught us to see better than anyone ever had before. Eliot Porter makes no attempt merely to document the selected passages. To have done so would have been to produce no more than documentary illustrations. Instead--guided by sure artistic instinct--he has realized that the way to add to what Thoreau had written was to catch Thoreau's spirit, to see with his eye the kind of thing he saw and loved. As a result Porter's pictures are truly in the spirit of Thoreau.

What this means, first of all, is to discover how new and beautiful the familiar can be if we actually see it as though we had never seen it before. Other writers and other photographers are prone to seek out the unusual, the grandiose, and the far away. They shock us into awareness by flinging into our faces the obviously stupendous. When they are successful in their attempt they inspire in us that special sense of surprise, wonder, and a kind of pleasing terror which the eighteenth century defined as "awe." But the effect they produce is at the opposite pole from that aimed at and achieved by Thoreau.

John Muir is our great poet of the awesome aspects of the American scene. His subject matter complements that of Thoreau. But there could hardly be celebrants of nature more different. Thoreau's theme is not the remote and stupendous, but the daily and hourly miracle of the usually unnoticed beauty that is close at hand. He does not range the world seeking out the sensational. The chickadee and the violet are to him as striking as the flame tree or the bird of paradise. What we need is, he felt, not the unfamiliar but the power to realize that the familiar becomes unfamiliar once we really look at it, and that every aspect of the natural world is in its own way "awful."

One phase of the romantic revival of interest in nature was concerned especially with the "awesome" aspects. Byron illustrated this new interest when he wrote with a characteristically flamboyant rhetorical flourish his description of a thunderstorm in the Alps:

And this was in the night, Most glorious night
Thou wert not meant for slumber. Oh, let me be
A sharer in thy fierce and far delight,
A portion of the tempest and of thee.

Thoreau is far closer to Wordsworth and Wordsworth's even more familiar "The meanest flower that grows . . ." What one will find in Porter's pictures is the world of calm beauty at which one must look twice to find the awesomeness which is, nevertheless, there.

He with his camera--like Thoreau with his notebook and his "spyglass" --has "Traveled a good deal in Concord," and roundabout. The result is the very New England Thoreau saw . . .

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