Art and Trees

Island Life


Life on the road continues to be life on the road. The roads here in Kansas are straight as rulers and even the back roads will tolerate high speed travel between 75 and 80mph. this is good, because there are large distances to cover in the spaces between destinations, and for the most part, the view is a loop of crops at the end of the growth cycle as well as the new green of next year’s whatever, or this winter’s crop covering that holds the soil and perhaps rejuvenates it for future growth potential. As it is, after enjoying sun and warmth throughout most of the first part of this trip, Kansas has been pretty much all rain, with flooding threatening the edges of some of these secondary roads, and a twenty one gun salute from the thunder and lightning brigade when I rolled into Topeka a day and a half ago. On side trip drives through both Greeley and Osawatamie yesterday, roadside ditches were flowing with newly fallen sky water, and a few of the roads that dared to test lower elevations were sometimes shrouded in flowing, muddy wetness and sometimes barricaded from errant vehicle trespass.

I continue to watch the trees as being some kind of indicator of something- for the most part lately it has been the obvious, that we are indeed heading into Fall, and many colors are appearing that prove we are not in Summer anymore. And while the trees here in Kansas are moving to shades of yellow, I am noticing that they are appearing healthier on the whole than their counterparts to the west. I am not seeing as many dead and dying here, but that may be because there are more trees standing around, and a solitary death to the west is much more obvious and up front there, versus here, because here we have a forest where there it was only a tree, or former tree out standing in its field. There are a number of things that I have also noted about the standing dead. As I have said, their presence is obvious, and even though they are obviously dead, it would seem that nobody seems to be doing anything about them. Even the trees that have passed on in town settings are seemingly being ignored. In slowing down to safe township passage speeds, it has been noted that trees in various stages of departure are allowed to remain in yards and fields without apparent concern for falling dead limbs, branches or trunks as the decay progresses. It appears that some of these trees might be elms that are finally succumbing to the Dutch elm disease, while others seem to be cottonwoods of some variety. Whole sections, if not the entirety, of these trees are clearly gone, and yet they remain untouched and untrimmed. It is as though the elders of the community have passed on without much notice or concern, which may or may not be a metaphor of sorts for our times- I do not know.

As I draw near to the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers I am reminded of a lesson in landscape history that was imparted during one of those darn design classes years ago. It was about how large scale landscapes change and are changed over time. I have thought about that lesson a lot on this trip, especially as I passed through the large areas devasted by wildfire that were mentioned here the last time through. Some of those were caused by lightning strikes, others by human carelessness. But what I am remembering here from school room days had to do with the deforestation and change that occurred around our mighty rivers as we were growing and spreading out as a nation. The story is told- I and do not know how urban legendy it is- but it is said that before we were here or had just arrived, that if a squirrel were so inclined and of course endowed with super squirrel endurance and the capacity for unbound exploration, that it could have possibly gone from tree branch to tree branch from the Atlantic coast to the Mighty Mississippi without ever touching terra firma. Squirrels are however squirrels, and they do seem to have problems getting across a busy road, let alone embarking on a cross country trek via tree canopy, but you get the point. At one time there were a lot of trees, and now- not so many.

The story that Sheafe Satterthwaite told us in that class was that this landscape in the middle of this country that surrounds this giant watershed was altered by humans in order to build homes and to power riverboats in the name of progress and westward ho-ism. As I recall it, those classic old stern and side wheelers had a voracious appetite for wood to power their steam engines, in some cases consuming up to a cord of wood per mile. This is my 30 year memory speaking here, so that may be a bit off, but I don’t think by much. One can imagine the passings of Old Man Ribah and Mark Twain and all the traffic up and down these waterways through the years, and then picturing one of those timelapse cosmic films of the forests of this area being turned into grasslands and farms and expanding flood plains since these trees that were once are now so much carbon in the atmosphere and money in the bank. You can just imagine- just sayin.

But it’s not all bad thoughts out here on the road- we still have the Supreme Court.

But it’s not all bad thoughts out here on the road. There is still the serendipity of the road that keeps me going. Part of my concern and worry before I left had to do with all the books that I have been gathering about Horace Greeley and his westward trip in 1859 and about his life in general and the tangential things associated with that. There were many of these books that I had not read yet, and I was bothered by the fact that perhaps, having not yet read them, that I was still woefully unprepared for this experience. The fact is though, for the most part when I mention the name Horace Greeley I most often get blank stares in return. There was that lone figure coming out of the Post Office in Greeley, Kansas yesterday who, when asked about the origins of the town name responded that it was named “after that newspaper man, although I don’t believe he visited here.” And so it is that I convinced myself that I know way more than most people about Greeley, and that a big part of this trip would come in the discoveries along the way. I am not traveling blind- I do have the rough template that is laid out in Greeley’s tales of his journey from New York to San Francisco in 1859 in his book- ‘An Overland Journey’. Sometimes a rough sketch to go by is enough.

Besides talking with people along the way, what I have enjoyed is the chance of the road. You go somewhere without much planning or expectation and whatever happens, happens. This is not always the best policy- somedays have been complete busts, like arriving anywhere on a Monday and expecting to get into a public museum. But what I have enjoyed, and continue to do so, is stopping somewhere by chance and finding something I otherwise would not have discovered if I had intended it that way. I am thinking of my stop in Green River, Wyoming, which was forced by the dark and a growing road weariness. I pulled in, grabbed a cheap motel, and hunkered down with a sandwich and the google thing.

I found that there was a museum in town, which there seems to be in many of these towns. The next morning, after breakfast at the Hitching Post, I walked in to the museum and met Dave Mead at the front counter. As it turns out, he is connected with all kinds of trails groups throughout the west and had also worked for a while with the Pony Express Museum, which is where I am heading today on his recommendation. But as we were talking, I noticed some placards on the wall indicating that they were selling copies of Thomas Moran prints in the museum shop. I inquired about that, and it turns out that Moran had spent a lot of time in Green River doing sketches of the local rock formations, and Dave mentioned that the cliffs portrayed in the prints on the wall were visible from his back porch.

One of the main things I wanted to explore on this trip, was the notion that all along the way, Greeley had mostly ignored the beauty of this country while listing and cataloguing the exploitable resources for all to read about. I had been curious about how he could pass through this land and see nothing but the things that were there for the physical taking. Last year in one of Rebecca Albiani’s art history lectures about American landscape painting she talked about how painters such as Moran and Bierstadt and Church and Cole were responsible for capturing the beauty of the wilds of this country on canvas and showing it to the apparently unsuspecting public. And so it was, that after stopping here on a whim, I had found a direct example of a place where Mr. Moran sat down- or stood up- to sketch and paint a bit of American beauty. It happened again yesterday as I was going through photos in the archives of the Kansas History Museum and came upon stereoscopes of Kansas scenes from 1859. It turns out these were taken by the Bierstadt brothers, yes that Bierstadt. We will see what tomorrow brings.