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Verticality

March 27, 2012

Playa is stuck in a broad flat basin bounded by the shallow lake on one side and a 3000 foot vertical rise on the other. Since I haven’t figured out a way to egress across the lake, on Thursday I decided to explore the trails which lead to the rim behind us. Several years ago a devastating fire destroyed the forest beneath the shadow of the ridge leaving a tangle of burned pick-up sticks in its wake. Most of the Ponderosa Pines had been weakened or killed by beetles leaving a tinderbox that burned so hot and that it left little to regenerate. The Forest Service roads I tried to follow up towards the ridge were a maze of fallen logs and new growth of Mountain Laurel, which has a peculiar sweet smell slightly reminiscent of burnt plastic. Despite 5 hours of effort, the ridge remained high above me, a vertical fortress topped by curling waves of drifted snow which threatened to thwart any final ascent.

In landscape painting, or landscape photography, there is a dialogue between the horizontal and the vertical. One complements the other. Architecture, formal design, and abstract painting all include a conversation between the two. The constructed world we live in is built on this relationship: posts hold up lintels, lines of prose form columns on the page, designs fit neatly into rectangles. A vertical element is like an erect figure; a horizontal line, the landscape that the figure moves through. A diagonal implies either the spatial rendering of perspective, motion like a leaning runner, or informality, like a slouching teenager half-sliding out of his chair. For a structure to feel whole we assume a system of horizontals and verticals working together to distribute loads uniformly. For a composition to feel whole we listen for this conversation between the parts, the bits and pieces all forming a larger gestalt.

The landscape here lacks a certain verticality. The bushy willows near my cabin which throw their arms about wildly in the wind are a poor excuse for a vertical. Aside from the cliffs of the ridge, the burned out remnants of the pines are the only relief from the incessant horizon and to view those one has to climb halfway up the ridge. While the horizontal view suggests the serenity of a figure lying on the beach, compositionally, it lacks the vitality of a more complex scene.

Yesterday, on my way back from a visit to Eugene, I stopped in the Cascades to snowshoe for several hours through the big trees. The landscape is the opposite of Playa: verticality reigns supreme. The old growth trees soar up beyond the field of view. The growth is so dense that nowhere can you see out. Just as I find it impossible to express the vastness of the open basins, the dense closeness of this forest is impossible to convey. First hand experience is required to understand these trees.

On the way back to Playa I stopped under a high voltage power line to photograph the procession of steel towers across the landscape. The cackle of electricity overhead sounded like a flock of electronic birds. There was something profoundly disturbing and aggressive about the intrusion to the serenity of the broad vista. Heavy insulators hanging from the arms gave them the look of metal aliens reaching for their six-shooters. But there was also something visually gratifying about the towers, their side by side arrangement in two orderly rows, leading your eye to the distant horizon. The visual order was defining the vast space but also implying a larger world beyond the containment of the broad basin; a world of people living in vertical buildings on a horizontal grid of streets. A world of dense closeness that exist in part because of what the wide open spaces of this country have to offer.

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