Landscape Composition: Saint John in the Wilderness
Thomas Cole (1827)
Humanity’s relationship with wilderness has changed drastically throughout time. To early Europeans, it was a place full of danger and mystery. Later, wilderness was viewed as a sublime destination, a place, a frontier where one could go to escape the toils of daily life and have a religious experience.[1. Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. Print.]Today, wilderness still plays an important part in society. People see wilderness as a completely natural area, untouched by any form of human contact. In reality, people actually created wilderness, setting aside land (some formerly occupied by humans) and controlling it to make what they believe wilderness should look like.[2. Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. Print.] People’s perceptions play an enormous role in the definition of wilderness, as seen in Landscape Composition: Saint John in the Wilderness, Kitka River, and Feng Li’s photo.
The overall consensus of the three images is that humans are fundamentally separate from wilderness. As Saint John in the Wilderness depicts, people can escape to wilderness in order to experience the sublime. In this painting, Saint John stands upon a boulder with a cross, lit by heavenly light and surrounded by a natural cathedral of mountains. This is not an area inhabited by humans but rather visited and viewed as sacred. However, humans are still the main focus since they occupy the center of the painting. Kitka River shows a human-made structure towering above and enclosing a wilderness area. This symbolizes the separation of humans and nature along with people’s domination and efforts to preserve the “pristine” wilderness. It also gives the impression that wilderness is not as natural as it seems. Humans try to preserve what is left of what they think is the wilderness. However, the ceiling of the structure is made of glass, meaning that people will still be able to see through the glass into the wilderness, but their views will be slightly obscured. People’s views of wilderness are essentially shaped by their own creation. Furthermore, the enclosure is unfinished, meaning people still have much to learn about the environment. The third photo shows physical separation between the people in the middle of a city and an image depicting the mountains. The image on the screen represents a wilderness that humans seek to experience, a stark contrast to the heavily polluted city, while also representing the wilderness as a human creation. People live in a society where the wilderness they visualize is not reality but rather a projection of their own ideas. Each image contains an element of mystery, from the mist in Saint John in the Wilderness and Kitka River to the smog of Feng Li’s photo, representing that the future of such wilderness areas remains unclear. Society’s perceptions of wilderness, as expressed through these human-made images, play a major role in how individuals will respond in the future to the changing world. Wilderness may be only a human representation, but its influence is important.
Essentially all of the images present a fixation on natural beauty and wilderness that society can only dream to experience. The anthropocentric society that people live in today does not make it possible to achieve this dream. Humans can no longer experience the sublime wilderness, but they try to conserve as much natural land as they can. Humans try to control the wilderness in order to keep it alive. In reality, the wilderness they are trying to keep alive does not actually exist.