Excerpts from John Van Dyke's "The Desert"

John Van Dyke was a professor of Art History at Rutgers University. In the summer of 1898 he ventured into the desert for nearly three years to address the esthetic qualities of what he saw. The author of several well-received books on art theory, and one accustomed to spending vast lengths of time in the great galleries of Europe, he was the friend of many of the great artists of his time. Equally as interesting was the fact that the asthmatic forty-two-year-old, who was in rather poor health, headed out into one of the most inhospitable regions of our country accompanied only by his fox terrier and the pony upon which he rode. He brought along less than 50 pounds of supplies which included a rifle, pistol, hatchet, shovel, blankets, tin pans and cups, dried food and one gallon of water. (Today I see folks carrying more than that for a weekend backpacking trip!)

Although his wanderings took him into the Sonoran Desert, many of his impressions relate quite well to the Great Basin Desert, and particularly to the Red Rock Country of the Colorado Plateau. His acute visual perceptions of the desert environment stem from his life’s work concerning art theory and visual perception. His eloquent use of language serves as the perfect vehicle for conveying the mesmerizing beauty of the desert.

When Van Dyke entered the desert for the first time he beheld one of the grandest displays of art he had ever imagined. Like many other who have experienced the wonder of this extraordinary land, he struggled to convey in words the grandeur of the desert. In my opinion, he succeeded rather well. It’s pretty clear that Van Dyke had an intense and passionate love affair with the desert’s beauty.

His book, The Desert, is a classic account of desert esthetics. First published in 1901 it has been widely acclaimed by noted authors such as Edward Abbey and Joseph Krutch. Below are a few of my favorite excerpts. If you enjoy this small sample of his work, you will love the rest of the book.

Selected Excerpts

"This is a land of illusions and thin air. The vision is so cleared at times that the truth itself is deceptive."

"The waste places of the earth, the barren deserts, the tracts forsaken of men and given over to loneliness, have a peculiar attraction of their own. The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love."

"It is stern, harsh, and at first repellent. But what tongue shall tell the majesty of it, the eternal strength of it, the poetry of its wide-spread chaos, the sublimity of it's lonely desolation! And who shall paint the splendor of its light; and from the rising up of the sun to the going down of the moon over the iron mountains, the glory of its wondrous coloring! It is a gaunt land of splintered peaks, torn valleys, and hot skies."

"The desert mountains gathered in clusters along the waste, how old and wrinkled, how set and determined they look! Somehow they remind you of a clinched hand with the knuckles turned skyward. They have strength and bulk, the suggestion of quiescent force. Barren rock and nothing more; but what could better epitomize power! The heave of the enormous ridge, the loom of the domes top, the bulk and body of the whole are colossal."

"And there you have the most decorative landscape in the world, a landscape all color, a dream landscape. Painters for years have been trying to put it upon canvas - this landscape of color, light, and air, with form almost obliterated, merely suggested, given only as a hint of the mysterious. Men like Corot and Monet have told us, again and again, that in painting, clearly delineated forms of mountains, valleys, trees, and rivers, kill the fine color-sentiment of the picture. The great struggle of the modern landscapist is to get on with the least possible form and to suggest everything by tones of color, shades of light, drifts of air. Why? Because these are the most sensuous qualities in nature and in art. The landscape that is the simplest in form and the finest in color is by all odds the most beautiful."

"Are they beautiful these plants and shrubs of the desert? Now just what do you mean by that word 'beautiful'? Do you mean something of regular form, something smooth and pretty? Are you dragging into nature some remembrances of classic art; and are you looking for the Dionysius face, the Doryphorus form, among these trees and bushes? If so the desert will not furnish you too much of beauty. But if you mean something that has a distinct character, something appropriate to its setting, something admirably fitted to a designed end (as in art the preasante of Millet or burghers of Rembrandt and Rodin), then the desert will show forth much that people nowadays are beginning to think beautiful. Mind you, perfect form and perfect color are not to be despised; neither shall you despise perfect fitness and perfect character."

"Nature never designed more fascinating country to ride over than these plains and mesas lying up and back from the desert basin. You may be alone without necessarily being lonesome. And everyone rides here with the feeling that he is the first one that ever broke into this unknown land, that he is the original discover; and that this new world belongs to him by right of original exploration and conquest. Life becomes simplified by necessity. It begins all over again, starting at the primitive stage. The is a reversion to the savage. Civilization, the race, history, philosophy, art - how very far away and how very useless, even contemptible, they seem. What have they to do with the air and the sunlight and the vastness of the plateau! Nature and her gift of buoyant life are overpowering. The joy of mere animal existence, the feeling that it is good to be alive and face to face with Nature's self, drives everything else into the background."

"The Canyon country is well named, for it has plenty of wash outs and gorges. Almost anywhere among the mountain ranges you can find them - not Grand Canyons, to be sure, but ones of size sufficient to be impressive without being stupendous. Walls of upright rock several hundred feet in height have enough bulk and body about them to impress anyone. The mass is really overpowering. It is but the crust of the earth exposed to view; but the gorge at Niagara and the looming shaft of the Matterhorn are not more. The imagination strains at such magnitude. And all the accessories of the gorge and canyon have a might to them that adds to the general effect. The sheer precipices, the leaning towers, the pinnacles and shafts, the recesses and caves, the huge basins rounded out of rock by the waterfalls are all touched by the majesty of the sublime."

"In sublimity - the superlative degree of beauty - what land can equal the desert with its wide plains, its grim mountains, and its expanding canopy of sky! You shall never see elsewhere as here the dome, the pinnacle, the minaret fretted with golden fire at sunrise and sunset; you shall never see elsewhere as here the sunset valleys swimming in a pink and lilac haze, the great mesas and plateaus fading into blue distance, the gorges and canyons banked full of purple shadow. Never again shall you see such light and air and color; never such opaline mirage, such rosy dawn, such fiery twilight. And wherever you go, by land or by sea, you shall not forget that which you saw not but rather felt - the desolation and the silence of the desert."

"Look out from the mountain's edge once more. A dusk is gathering on the desert's face, and over the eastern horizon the purple shadow of the world is reaching up to the sky. The light is fading out. Plain and mesa are blurring into unknown distances, and mountain ranges are looming dimly into unknown heights. Warm drifts of lilac-blue are drawn like mists across the valleys; the yellow sands have shifted into a pallid gray. The glory of the wilderness has gone down with the sun. Mystery - that haunting sense of the unknown - is all that remains. It is time that we should say good-night - perhaps a long good-night - to the desert."


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