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Thursday, 11 June 2015


Postcards of the Redwood Highway
 “The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.” 
Theodore Roosevelt

During the 1920s Ansel Adams photographed the Sierra Nevada and the Californian forests, establishing the image of a world that was sublime and pristine. Adams said wilderness was sacred and some influential people believed him. At the same time Charlie and Leslie Payne were running their postcard company Art Ray out of their van on the Redwood Highway, while Alexander ‘Zan’ Stark travelled the same road as well as others across the mountains ad into Nevada. To them the Redwood Highway was a rather more trashy experience, about as reverential as a plastic Jesus winking on the dashboard. It was a world where once great redwoods and Sequoias were turned into road tunnels, houses and even public toilets. But if honesty has anything to do with reflecting public taste, then Art Ray and Zan were much more honest than Adams. Their image of the highway accorded more closely with the official and the popular image. Between the wars, the more people who visited wilderness the more its status was validated.  The notion that wilderness ought to be protected from people never entered anyone’s head.

Today we are driving along the Redwood Highway, in the company of Art Ray, Zan Stark and Frank Patterson. It is the late 1920s (or thereabouts) and the towering trees have inspired two responses among Americans. One is to be overcome with awe at the power and majesty of nature and the other is to calculate how much cash could be made from cutting down a single tree. Some Americans can experience both simultaneously and not be aware of any contradiction, not the least Theodore Roosevelt, who died in 1919, before any of these were taken. Notice how Roosevelt chooses his words in the quote above, advocating neither the protection nor destruction of forests but responsible management; two words America has always struggled with when appearing together. These postcards epitomize the schizophrenic attitude to wilderness that infected the American psyche in the first decades of the last century. The Redwood Highway was a place to worship nature, and it was also a theme park. 

During the period when most of these photos were taken, the USA had the best environmental policy in the world. Every other country that had wilderness it wanted preserved adapted the American model. But for something to be the best in the world does not mean it has to be good, merely better than what anywhere else has to offer. The American model, such as it was imposed at Yellowstone, had parcels of wilderness that were not protected from development so much as dependent upon a particular type; tourism. There was nothing inconsistent in having thousands of tourists visiting places like Yellowstone and Yosemite and each individual being asked to imagine they were in some pristine wilderness. Even those two words were dubious. The ecosystems were barely given a moment’s thought: wolves were hunted to extinction in Yellowstone by the mid-1920s and being a national park never gave an area protection from grazing farm animals or logging. As for pristine; it conveniently avoided any idea there had been people living in these areas prior to the arrival of Europeans.

The dense fernbrakes are what we expect to find in an ancient forest, but only because we’ve been told to. Most genuinely old growth forests have been subject to thousands of years of human use. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the west coast was the most densely inhabited part of North America. We can be sure that fire was used to control the ground cover and promote particular plants. Thick undergrowth like this would have made hunting and movement difficult and when we look at the historical record, it is more common to read descriptions by Europeans remarking on how open the forests are. This photograph shows us what the forest was like after European intervention, when the Native Americans had been forced out of the redwood forests and the undergrowth was allowed to run amok. Our modern idea of wilderness as untouched and untamed is as much propaganda as the idea that First Nations people were passive caretakers who did nothing but watch plants grow.  

The redwoods of the Pacific coast and the Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada are different species of the cypress family. They owe their exceptional height to two factors. One is the competition in a densely populated forest where each tree was involved in a race to the sunlight that over several thousand years became increasingly distant from the rootstock. This can’t explain everything, otherwise all forests would have enormous trees. The second factor is their locations between the broad Pacific and the high Sierras. We don’t consider this part of the world tropical, it’s in the wrong place and it’s too cold, but if we think in terms of humidity, northern California rivals equatorial jungles. For trees to reach 75 metres or 250 feet tall, they don’t need vast amounts of rain but a steady, relentless damp.

Theodore Roosevelt was an early supporter of the conservation of the redwood forests and was instrumental in having the Muir Woods protected. The land put aside for the national park belonged to a lesser-known Republican, William Kent. Like Roosevelt, Kent wasn’t at all opposed to a timber industry but he realized that unless some areas were given protection the likely result would be the total destruction of redwood forest. The first steps were taken in 1908 when Roosevelt had the Muir Woods preserved as a national monument.
I have a theory about Roosevelt. Today he is known for three things: his environmental policies, his pre-presidential years as an adventurer, rough rider, cowboy, and for being the last president of the Gilded Age, when the capitalist class showed off its largesse by building public institutions: universities, museums and art galleries and libraries. Think of the latter two reputes and the first takes on a new tone. Here was a man who was passionate about frontiers, the physical ones he could explore on horseback and in canoes,, and the frontiers of knowledge, and by the turn of the century even France and Britain were looking to America to lead the way there. What is it to such a man then when forests are cut down and office towers built in their place? Cut down the wilderness and you remove the frontier, and the world has no need anymore for a man like Roosevelt. His job is done. Preserve wilderness and he can still believe there is a frontier.

Talking about the sacred and the profane; on the back of this postcard stamped 1946, Anita writes that she, Helen and Jack are ‘having a swell time’. At the Cathedral Tree, ‘we sat and listened to the music and it was just like being in church’. Cathedrals are circles of trees that grew up around a dead one and were named cathedrals because the way the light filtered through from the canopy reminded some people of the effect created in great European cathedrals. Anita is telling us however that she, Helen and Jack could sit in the circle and hear piped music, probably one of Bach’s works for organ. These days we say the way to appreciate the wild is to stand still in silence. In the 1940s the idea was to experience comparisons with the great works of man. What nature proposed, we had done better.

 The redwoods are among the oldest trees on the planet, with a few getting close to 4000 years old (still falling short of some nearby bristlecone pines by a millennium). We see that this one’s life came to a premature end in 1930. The lumberjacks who set about cutting it down could probably tell how old it was to within a century so when it fell they sliced off a disc and sent it on to whoever was managing the tourist facilities. Dendrochronology is the art of reading tree rings to understand climatic patterns. To people that can read them, tree rings reveal a precise story of shifting weather conditions. Although they cannot tell us who or what was living in the vicinity 500 years ago they can provide an explanation as to why everyone packed up and moved out.  To the rest of us the best that tree rings offer is a timeline that appears astonishing but tells us nothing. Well, we can see here that this tree was already sturdy and mature when William the Conqueror landed at Hastings, which needless to say is nowhere near northern California. And height-wise it was impressive by the time Columbus landed on an island in another ocean. As history lessons go, it’s a bit non sequitur. Still, there’s an irony at work. You want to impress on tourists how old these trees are but the only way you can do that is by cutting them down.

Things could be worse. An ancient tree, just a sapling when the three wise men were on their way to Bethlehem, could end up being turned into what some Americans inanely refer to as ‘comfort stations’. Is this divine retribution, a credit to man’s ingenuity or is it an indignity? Back then the second would have been the answer. Even passionate advocates for wilderness believed that tourism was going to nurture and ultimately protect national parks, so turning dead or dying trees into toilets would have a harmless compromise. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the damage from 1920s era environmental policies became apparent, that people like Aldo Leopard proposed Washington rethink its environmental strategy while Edward Abbey insisted that everyone from Ansel Adams to Theodore Roosevelt and even the patron saint of the forests, John Muir, had got it wrong. 

Well it's been fun. We've witnessed the beauty of nature and the banality of man looking quite comfortable together, seen things that some of our contemporary Americans would rather we hadn't and others that remind us there was a time when the choices facing us were simpler We've saved the best for last. The drive through tree is most iconic image of the Redwood Highway. Even people who can't spell Sequoia know it's the tree you can drive through. During the 1920s and 30s there were several of these trees on the highway. Most, including the Coolidge, have died, which somehow doesn’t sound surprising. At least three are still in operation, and all owned privately so they come with a fee.  Adams photographed plenty of redwoods but it’s doubtful he ever photographed one of these trees – the car, Beaver and Wally Cleaver's faces pressed against the window, would have been anathema to his purist eye – but I can’t help feeling that his view is all the more deceitful for that.  Whether he was suggesting his view was what the Redwood forest looked like now or what it could look like in the future, it was created in the darkroom. He was like a good lawyer in that you had to pay attention to what he was leaving out. Zan Stark and Art Ray weren’t that clever but if you want to know how environmental policy worked in the 1920s and ‘30s, which is the same as wanting to know why some aspects don’t work today, they are the photographers to look at.


1 comment:

  1. Can there be a middle ground, where you portray both sides simultaneously? Perhaps not, because by its very position in the middle, it no longer does either.


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