Forty-four years ago today, a world-wide environmental movement began with the celebration of the first “Earth Day.” Immeasurable strides of progress in the fields of conservation and preservation have currently brought us to 2014, a year in which the practices of being “eco-friendly” and “going green” have been accepted and embraced by many. Protecting and preserving the world in which we live has been a worry that extends further into the past than some may actually realize—all the way back to the 1830s in fact, as evidenced in the transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Published in 1836, Emerson’s Nature discusses the eponymous subject in the context of themes that continue to be relevant in present day; given that it’s Earth Day, it seems only fitting to take a few moments to reflect on his analysis of nature as a commodity of man. “Nature,” Emerson prefaces, “refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf.” He expands upon the reciprocal relationship between mankind and the world we inhabit, placing an emphasis on nature as an enlightening environment that heightens our own awareness: “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.”
This spiritual connection between man and the wild, untamed landscape was a captivating subject for some of our nation’s first painters during the nineteenth century; Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt recognized the raw beauty of America’s rugged terrain, as well as its untapped potential. In their grandiose scenes depicting the American landscape, it was clear that every stroke painted was an effort to capture a sublime beauty, and that each color was carefully selected and applied with reverence to Mother Nature’s divine essence. To the Hudson River School painters, the American wilderness was an icon of our national identity—unspoiled and ripe with promise.
“We are taught by great actions that the universe is the property of every individual in it. Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will.”
Emerson’s words undoubtedly rang true as inspiration for members of the Hudson River School, as well as for the rest of American society as industrialization took off during the nineteenth century. While our country’s rapid development and progress launched the United States into the running as a leading world power, it came at a price that worried American landscape artists: railroads began to speed through the scenic countryside, atmospheric vistas became obstructed by the rising city skylines, and the industrial age ushered in an era in American history that stifled the traditional agricultural lifestyle.
While Earth Day cautions us of the dangers that can stem from over exploiting our planet’s natural resources, it also is a reminder of nature’s inherent and divine beauty. Emerson may have said it best when he stated, “The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship”—a sentiment clearly expressed by Hudson River School painters.