Some Old-Fashioned Wilderness Voices
I recently had the pleasure of receiving an electronic copy of An Honest Silence: A Celebration of Wilderness, a hot-of-the-virtual press e-book featuring photography, prose and poetry by Greg Russell, P.J. Johnson, and Ann Whittaker. The collection clearly draws strong inspiration from the old Sierra Club coffee-table books which played such a prominent role in the early days of the conservation movement, and inspired restless youngsters like myself with wanderlust to go and torture our lungs and joints on alpine scree or spend our leisure dehydrated and cliffed-out in nameless sandstone canyons. The book’s aesthetic inheritance is emphasized by an excellent forward from the pen of David Leland Hyde, son of the granddaddy of conservation photography, Philip Hyde.
Viewed beside much modern landscape photography, with its extreme compositions, intense colors, enhanced dynamic range and unfortunate overuse of a short list of famous locations, the photos in An Honest Silence seem at first glace subdued. All three photographers gravitate towards more intimate scenes, simpler comps, subtler color pallettes. Johnson and Whittaker especially embrace the kind of details most of us usually stride impatiently past: a cactus flower, stony veins on a sandstone cliff, pines by a lake in the blue twilight, a ponderosa trunk beside a granite wall. Russell’s images are more immediately eye-catching, but he too gives us not pure eye candy, but rather perfectly-framed scenes of canyons, mountains and sage hills that gain their power from his insightful photographer’s eye rather than simply pointing a lens at the most dramatic object in view. All three succeed in creating a collection of the gentle moments, gloriously anonymous locations and intriguing glimpses that entice and sustain us intruders into the wild and fuel the urge to return and explore further into hidden corners of remote country.
The book’s writing is similarly understated but effective. Russell gives us short, contemplative prose meditations on subjects such as empty space, sense of place, the Anasazi and the underrated wonders of sagebrush. Johnson’s short essays are more hortatory and more fiery, placing wilderness quiet in its context amidst an encroaching and threatening society. Whittaker gives us two passages of free verse and one of prose, full of a delight and enthusiasm for the red rock desert that can hardly contain itself; her words seem increasingly breathless with excitement on the page as one reads.
The unspoken theme that seems to run through An Honest Silence is that of “things taken for granted,” from the understated subject matter of the photography to such emphases in the writings as Russell’s sagebrush or Johnson’s thrill at the slap of a beaver’s tail. In this light, it’s interesting that both images and words bias strongly towards the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau (other regions such as the Sierra Nevada, the Great Basin and the north woods of Minnesota make their appearances too, but the trend is unmistakably towards the desert Southwest). I find this choice striking in that, superficially, the Colorado Plateau is arguably one of the least taken-for-granted landscapes in the world. Its scenery has become iconic worldwide in fine art photographs, inspirational posters, western movies, SUV commercials: bare red rock formations are striking and remarkable, and the world seems to know it. Images of this country, by Philip Hyde and others, spawned the modern environmental movement and once gave much of the nation a sense of the value of this surreal and undeveloped country.
But reflecting further, the prevalence and iconic nature of redrock landscape images is rapidly causing that country to be taken for granted once again. Shots of Monument Valley just don’t have the same impact they did before we all saw them in a hundred pickup truck ads or as a battleground for giant robots in Wild Wild West. And I expect that many people would be surprised to learn that the Colorado Plateau’s wild qualities are nowhere near as protected as they might assume. The area hosts a high density of national parks and monuments, it is true, but its acreage of legally protected wilderness is shockingly small for a region so undeveloped, spectacular and globally unique. National park status is not by itself any guarantee of wilderness preservation: parks are managed with a much higher emphasis on visitor safety and convenience, and hence development, and while the modern Park Service strives for a relatively low impact where possible, this was not always so. A different administrative philosophy (one far from inconceivable in an ever more cash-strapped nation) might choose instead to emphasize road building, cable cars, commercialization and increased revenues, and there are people who would applaud such a change. Our current legal system’s long-term tool for preservation of wild terrain is not park or monument status, but wilderness designation, and Utah has the nation’s most shamefully poor ratio of wilderness acreage to deserving country. Fifty years along, canyon country and conservation photography sadly remain a natural pair.
Thus, it’s fitting indeed that a modern book which urges us to see and appreciate the softer scenes of wilderness and take nothing for granted should return to the roots of environmental publishing, both stylistically and geographically. An Honest Silence is a worthy and beautiful, if comparatively modest, attempt to follow the path old classics of the genre like Time and the River Flowing, On the Loose, The Place No One Knew and many others. I hope the authors will keep honing their ample talents to bring us more (and perhaps more ambitious) writing, and many more of their fantastic images. In the mean time, you can get your electronic copy here for $5, with a portion of proceeds going to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
An Honest Silence is not all things to all men, however: it celebrates wilderness for its serenity, calm and beauty, but there are other worthy approaches. After a good dose of calm, quiet and contemplation, I like a reminder of the grit, the heat, unfriendly flora and fauna, occasional panic or pain, the frisson of impending doom when you realize you’re in over your head, that if the cliffs and flash floods don’t kill you the drive out the god-awful rock-strewn access road will surely kill your car. And, goddammit, we like it that way. For such a remembrance of wilderness as a sweet refuge of misery, a last welcome death-trap in our ever more safety-obsessed and comfort-managed world, there’s still no one better than Ed Abbey. Born too late as I was, I knew the man only through his pen, so it’s a real joy to see him in the flesh in this short and fine film essay from 1985:
It makes me weep for Arches and overcrowded Zion, for the Cedar Mesa of my youth that required no permit system, for the Grand Canyon that now faces a resort and tramway at the Little Colorado confluence like a dagger to its heart. I don’t spend as much time in true canyon country as I used to; but I seem to be getting a lot of reminders lately that no one ever regretted visiting a wild place too soon.