The Soul of a River, a Town, a People
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
The Soul of River, a Town, a People
Reflections on the spirituality of art, nature and light- with a nod to Thomas Cole, the leader of the
Hudson River School of Artists and a proto-environmentalist.
An essay by Brian Keeler
It may seem presumptuous to address the quality or nature of the soul of a land and a town, yet on the other hand I feel a profound need to do just that. In fact, art for myself has been a spiritual endeavor and the process has brought significance and meaning to me personally, through the practice of expressing the form of these rivers, lakes, creeks, towns and the people that live here in northern Pennsylvania or in the Finger Lakes region of New York. I am preceded by many artists who have also sought to meld the spiritual and sacred with their own depictions of landscapes or of their fellows in portraits or in allegories.
Some who come to mind include Thomas Cole, the 19th century painter and leader of the Hudson River School of painters and George Inness but abstract painters too, like Kandinsky who wrote a book, “The Spiritual in Art.” This list of spirit and art melders would include William Blake, a host of Renaissance era artists, like Raphael and Leonardo, whose entire lives where devoted to creating religious art that served a didactic function. But the work of these American painters comes to the fore here, especially in this environmental crisis that I believe we are well into globally and in Pennsylvania too, as this region is on the cusp of a new phase with a fracking-related assault beginning with the bulldozing of history and beauty in my home town, Wyalusing, PA.
You see this environmental crisis has brought me to a deeper level of my connection to this community and the land and river and it could certainly broaden to the landscapes of the Finger Lakes and other areas and subjects as well. I have spent the better part of my decades-long career focused on the landscapes of the river and towns of Pennsylvania. And as it turns out, the exact location of this newest abomination by this fracking industry has been the inspiration of dozens of my paintings, often done during short kayak paddles on the river at Sugar Run, PA. My memories from childhood and family history before I was born are included here too, as my grandparents had cottages and homes on the river, in Quick’s Bend, Homet’s Ferry and Standing Stone. On the other side of the family, the Keelers go back five generations or more here. So with all the emotional content and love that our deepest held memories entail- this why this industrial onslaught is a deeply wounding one of a personal nature.
I recently visited the home of Thomas Cole in Catskill, NY where they were having a special exhibit of his work and others in Hudson River School in the museum there. Across the Hudson from Cole’s House is the magnificent view and palatial home of Frederick Church, Cole’s student. Part of the purpose of this exhibit of Cole’s paintings was the curator’s wish to show that Cole was a proto-environmentalist. This has been criticized by some as an attempt to retrofit sensibilities of our era back into 19th century. I disagree. Cole’s writings and paintings are in fact a testament to his love of nature and they record his disdain for the wanton destruction of nature by the wholesale leveling of entire forests. He cringed at train tracks invading this pristine area and he wrestled with the visual impact of industrialization in his work. He did however revel in the blending of the agrarian with plowed fields adding a pastoral charm to landscapes like his iconic view of the Connecticut River, the Oxbow at Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts. Cole was born in Lancashire, England during the height of industrial revolution, so he experienced first hand the toxic and densely polluted atmosphere of London and the dehumanizing aspects of factory work.
From the catalog for the current show at Cole’s home, Elizabeth Jacks writes the following, and it has corollaries to the LNG construction in Wyalusing, as the bulldozers are clearing 265 acres of beautiful and historic river acres now. “ If I were to discover one calamitous day that “ my” rock (I do not own it) and the rest of that timeless scene had been thrown aside by a bulldozer, I would be bereft. How much more deeply must the dramatic developments along the Catskill Creek in the nineteenth century have affected Thomas Cole, for whom the landscape was not only the central focus of his career but also a matter of religion. When Cole considers his most revered landscapes, the consequent associations are of God the creator.”
Can we place a value on spirituality, reverence for nature, or even rapture and mystical experience? Can we quantify the subjective and emotional connection we feel for land, rivers, towns and people? Yes these are rhetorical questions, of a sort, but they get to the crux of some of the support the materialists would confront us with in regards to the benefits of industrial exploitation. I recall an observation David Brooks, the NY Times columnist made on a television interview recently. In regards to Trump's penchant for touting the economic benefits of so many of his actions from the repeal of environmental safeguards to troop withdrawals, Brooks said something to this effect; he knows the price tag of everything and value of nothing. We view the desecration of our environment on an almost daily basis from the policies of the Trump administrations roll back of safeguards. Trump has become known in certain quarters as the "raw sewage in our streams President" for his doing away with regulations to protect our drinking water. Thomas Cole would be aghast to see his beloved land treated this way.
With seeking the spiritual through the practice of any art, one can experience the connection to a higher authority if not a transcendental quality. The sacredness of place is certainly part of this. The tranquility of nature experienced on this very stretch of river near Wyalusing, while observing and painting beautiful atmospherics and sublime cloud formations or while contemplating the land reflected in the glassy surface of the water is part of the process of connecting for myself. Cole often placed a solitary boater in his works of the Catskill Creek and this inclusion was to serve as an allegory for the journey of life. So a particular scene can be widened to be a symbolic representation. In fact Cole’s effort to define a new “American” identity takes the local into the national, international and by extension universal through the particular. Cole also mentions the importance of skies and clouds and I too have often considered the light of eventide sky and formations of clouds to be the main actors supported by the characters of land, barn, houses and roads. I have also devoted a good part of my work to the portrayal of light and this, as Cole probably knew as well, light has spiritual associations too. I also like to include a boater in my riverscapes, so I am finding common cause with Cole and inspiration in his example.
There’s also the sense of loss expressed by Cole and other Americans like Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Emerson. With our situation in Wyalusing and throughout the region we can relate even more poignantly as it seems so preventable and the result of corporate greed and institutions that should be protecting the land falling short. What about our souls and the souls of the land? This is another area that allows exploitation to run rough shod. Addressing the soul of a people and a land is beyond the scope of traditional religion, perhaps. On the other hand, saving of souls is precisely the mission of traditional religion in the west. Soulcraft in regards to the Earth however, does seem to be more a part of the Native Americans who lived along this river, as I am sure their spirituality saw no division between God and land. There are two terms, one new to me, and the other known for a long time, but certainly not in common usage, that succinctly encapsulate this interrelated nature. The first is “riparian zone” and it suggests the delicate balance of life along a river. It is often used by fishermen to show how the atmosphere, insects, birds, air, fish and all aquatic life are connected and in balanced harmony. The other, the near opposite of riparian zone is “Koyaanisqatsi” it is word from the Hopi Indian language to indicate being out of balance with nature. It was a minimalist film of 1982 with a musical score by Phillip Glass.
So what does it mean when a town, a region, a population becomes an accomplice with the desecration and environmental degradation of a beautiful land? It’s not good, in fact we could say it exemplifies being out of balance, as in Koyaanisqatsi . It entails allowing the perpetuation of lies and the abetting of corporate spin to further materialist goals. The supposed economic advantages of fracking are continually mentioned as a justification. They are bandied about in the press on the web sites and in conversations. There is little else to crow about though. I would argue that our history, as with the destruction of the site of the Friednesthutten settlement near Wyalusing, and our futures as well, because of the connection of all fossil fuels to climate change has imperiled the survival of the earth.
So this is where the local meets the global as this fossil fuel enterprise makes us complicit and participants in global enterprise of nefarious consequences. I am very disappointed in the local, regional, state and federal agencies and organizations that should be addressing this. For example I am baffled that the Wyalusing Museum has not stepped up more forcefully. We’ve not heard peep from them while our town’s history is obliterated in many ways. The township supervisors are regarded with most disfavor however, for voting unanimously to allow this LNG. And all the agencies that should have had a say in protecting us have been mum. This gargantuan assault has slipped through the cracks in other words.
This environmental crisis has however awoken me to qualities of soul in myself and my hometown and the land that I love. I hope my brethren do not sell their souls.
I organized a day of protest and symposium in Wyalusing on November 9th of 2019 for environmental responsibility that was called “Susquehanna- Save the Beauty” to express our concerns for ecological safety and sanity.
To view a video testimonial taped on the Susquehanna at the exact location of the planned LNG- visit this link
To view a video of the day of protest visit this link-