Driving across the southernmost coast I realize that New Zealanders are clean orderly people and that there are not many of them (just 4M compared to 37M in the state of California alone). There is no trash strewn about, there are no garbage cans in public places (not even gas stations), and there are recycling bins, even in the most remote hard-to-get-to locations such as Milford Sound. This observation is shocking considering that a developed city like San Diego does not even have a recycling program.
But they care here, or seem to. Much of this country is untouched, lush and green and filled with sheep. New Zealanders respect this land and nature and earth. Perhaps this is a value passed on from the Maori culture. In any case, it’s a general sentiment that I rarely feel in the US, save for hippie enclaves in California or intellectual oases like Ann Arbor.
I’ve been told of a time when leaders of America such as Roosevelt were praised as environmentalists, passing legislation to preserve forests and wildlife refuges and focusing on saving the land for those who would inherit it (I guess that’s me at this point). I try to imagine a time when such preservation of natural resources was considered a cultural value, something to be proud of. Now it seems, being an “environmentalist” has turned into something political and distasteful in mainstream America, with people bantering about obvious issues such as global warming and fracking. This reality can feel heavy if you let it in too much.
I once took a 19th Century American Landscape art history class at U-Mich and at first, found these paintings dull and insignificant. But with more knowledge came a revelation, and with it a fount of appreciation and wonder once I understood the history behind such overlooked masterpieces. These paintings came from a time of Manifest Destiny back in the early 1800s. Those first American settlers were awestruck with wonder for the sublime beauty of that once endless land. How insignificant they must have felt, standing beneath the shadows of such great natural creations.
I feel now how I imagine those explorers must have felt, here in this place, setting eyes on the New World for the first time. Looking out across Milford Sound, I imagine sailing here, discovering the great fjords, vast and untouched in all their natural glory. What overwhelming power nature has, when left untouched like this. Have we forgotten?
Human greed seems to know no bounds. Maybe it is easier to look away, to pretend you don’t see. But personally, I’d rather be standing here, looking up at the towering rock cliffs, rain pouring down, soaking my hair, shoes, jacket. It is too wonderous, too easily taken for granted.
Maybe I should clarify that as I was writing this post, I was thinking of Manifest Destiny from the perspective of visual art. The paintings from this timeframe are about the glorification of American landscapes. As a general concept, Manifest Destiny has a greater implication of greed and destruction. Visually though, this concept seemed to be representative of the sublime beauty those first American painters attempted to embody in their work.