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| Curtis Hinsley, on: The Sublime Landscape
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Curtis Hinsley, on: The Sublime Landscape
Curtis Hinsley Q: I've been trying to imagine what it must have been like for him to climb out of this hole and get that view, that was available at the top and it was changing all the time, as he went along. This is an important part of the process he talks about a little bit, but what do you think might have been going through his mind, as he looked out, over the landscape.

CH: I would say that one of the hallmarks of Powell's writing and one of the powerful aspects of his writing is the contrasts that he establishes. One of them is the contrast between dark and light or between glory and gloom. And another is that the contrast between the close and the particular or specific on the one hand, and the long distance, the large far horizon views that he had. This is seen, of course, in his attention to details in the canyon, as he collects plants, he botanizes, in the canyons, on the one hand. And, then he climbs up, out of the canyon, and he sees this vast landscape, this vast canyon land around him with the blue sky horizons and the clouds and so forth in the distance. And there's a long history here of the theory about the sublime, and what sublime horizons do to the human spirit. And so, what is going on here with Powell is a process of, we might call it soul expansion, in which he is experiencing something sublime. He's experiencing something that is so big that his spirit is challenged. His soul is expanded by what he sees out here in this country and he, in a sense sees God.

Q: So, when Powell looks at this Southwestern arid landscape he sees what?

CH: When Powell looks at the arid landscape of the West, he sees a region of limits, a region in which only so many things can live because there is only so much water, on which to live. And, that whether it's plants or animals or insects or humans, they must understand that it is important to understand that this is a landscape of scarcity, that cannot be violated, that cannot be pushed too far. They cannot be over-populated by any form of life, or all forms of life will die. There is even in the early visions that Powell has in the West, a sense of community, of communalism, of different forms of life that must live together or they will all die. They depend upon each other. Visually it's a landscape of openness, of ah where one sees for great distances, where plants ah are spaced out, grasses even are spaced out. It does not have the thickness and the closeness and the confusions of the East. Ah it has a greater delicacy, the desert and the and the high desert of Northern Arizona, for example, are (stutter) Utah and Colorado, these are areas of great fragility. And, again to not take that reality into account, is to court the disaster, in setting the West. So, Powell's landscape aesthetics are essential to understanding his later irrigation policies, as he would have implemented them. And, the defeat of his irrigation policies, ah means that, those who are - the defeat of his irrigation policies meant that ah the land would be settled without regard to this very delicate aesthetics.

Q: Powell came back from this river trip, a hero, a popular hero. What was it that he had done that resonated so strongly with the public?

CH: Powell came back a hero because he came back with the gift of knowledge, ah the gift of knowledge of a ah strange, exotic and remote region that was at the same time, fearsome and forbidding. And, by so doing, by coming back with that new knowledge, to his culture, to his community, to his nation, he permitted the expansion it seemed to go forward across the continent. he removed a region of ignorance and replaced it with a place of knowledge, ah a place that could now be examined, could now be possibly settled. He had removed those myths of fear and replaced them with the certainty of knowledge, on which the country could now proceed. And, that is the role of the hero, the pioneer hero in American history, to go out and to return with new knowledge, about the dark and mysterious woods or the dark and mysterious ah mountains on the other side or the other side of the mountains. Ah Richard Slatkind? ah in his wonderful series that began with regeneration through violence, ah in 1974, I think (Sniffles) ah talks about this ah this ah myth of the hero in the return, the coming back with the boon of knowledge and how critically important this has been and central this has been to the hero pioneer of American history. Daniel Boone, of course is the one we think of the most, but Powell serves the same function. Now, the other side of that heroic status, is that the hero is very quickly displaced, ah because having done this wonderful deed, he is then asked to please step aside while we proceed to settle. And, Powell's tragedy is that he served that function but then continued to try, to guide policy, which he could not control. Whether he thought he would be able to, presumably he did think he would be able to, but he suffered the tragic fate of the pioneer hero that ah James Fennimore Cooper talks about in all of his leather stocking series, leather stocking leads the way for the community, to settle the wilderness. He is not afraid, he has the knowledge, they don't. They're afraid, but once he opens it up for them, they move in and push him aside and he must move on to some other place. Powell, in that sense, was a tragic hero.

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