A few weeks ago, in a Goodwill store, I came upon a $2.99 laminated classroom copy of Thomas Cole’s “Oxbow”…this unleashed a torrent of memories. Memories of art history class, discussing the symbolism in the painting between the civilized view of Nature on the right–golden, easy, pastoral–versus the untamed, sublime version on the left. A dark, raging thunderstorm, broken trees, driving rain… it’s the quintessential image of contrast between our two ideas of Nature– the Wilderness vs. the Garden. Then there’s the Artist, a tiny figure camped with his easel on the cusp of this frontier, a voice in the wilderness. The most talked-about feature of this painting, the Oxbow, winds sinuously through the landscape below, forming a question mark. Cole scholar William Cronon has suggested that,"in the lazy turn of the great oxbow--echoed by the circling birds at the edge of the storm-- we can make out the shape of a question mark: where is all this headed?"
Of course this took me back, way back, to a lecture hall at UW-Madison where I first listened to Professor Bill Cronon talk about this painting in his American Environmental History class. It was that defining moment where finally, in my mind I saw the possibility of synthesis of the artist and environmentalist in me. Art was not just about “pretty pictures”…it could define our attitudes toward Nature.
A few days ago, I went again to this place I feel called to watch, record, and define – the Sioux River. This spot has fascinated me, where the river’s current meets the incoming Lake Superior waves, depositing sand and forming a new landscape almost daily. It is a place of active energy and forces that I am just beginning to try to understand– now it too had formed an Oxbow, seemingly overnight. The question mark was upon the landscape again, urging me to contemplate …”where is all this headed?”
As I sit on the frozen beach, looking out at the Lake, I’m aware of the river behind me, and how it winds down through a watershed of farms, homes, and forests. I watch the water empty in, mixing the collected elements of civilization it carries, with the wild Lake water in a swirling vortex. I wonder how much she can absorb. I wonder about the balance between Wilderness and the Garden, and what is our human role in creating and maintaining that. Then I pick up my brush, and attempt to paint the Oxbow before me… another artist, in another time, on a different kind of frontier.