I have a quick thought that probably will go nowhere, but I want to get it down in writing. A few blogs ago I wrote about slogging through the novel The Moonstone. At the time, I did not mention that I endured 550 pages of meandering prose before coming across one sentence that jumped off the page at me. It read, “Looking back down the hill, the view presented the grandest spectacle of Nature and Man, in combination, that I have ever seen.”
How could one of the most verbose authors I’ve ever read summarize in seven words a theme I’ve tried convey for most of my writing career? “Spectacle of Nature and Man, in combination.” Other than the need to update the terminology by replacing ‘Man’ with ‘Humankind’ or Humanity’ (The Moonstone was published in the 1860s), this is an excellent phrase. It’s been two weeks since I read the book. I’ve already forgotten what landscape the narrator was referring to, but I’ll remember indefinitely “spectacle of Nature and Man, in combination.”
I recently returned from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The classic image of the Boundary Waters is an artful framing of water and northwoods with a single unoccupied canoe somewhere in the frame. The canoe is important. A photo without it is just nature. ‘Just nature,’ of course, is wonderful, but humanity and nature, in combination, can be spectacular. To be spectacular, however, humanity must do nothing to disturb nature, and of all of humankind’s toys, canoes represent intentional non-disturbance as well as any. Ancient Chinese landscape painting also captures this concept. Somewhere in an ink drawing dominated by water and mountains, there is almost always a small, small element of humanity. It sometimes is a solitary walker on a gently sloping trail. It sometimes is a pair of friends quietly sitting outside a gazebo. My favorite is a lone boatman poling a boat on a river. Usually the human element is so subtle that the observer of the painting has to scour the artwork to find it, but once found, it becomes a vital part of the piece, even a focal point. Much like the canoe in the Boundary Waters, a quiet figure in a Chinese landscape painting places humanity in nature, but does it in a way that suggests humility and solitude.