Still in Eden

Thomas Cole, View Near the Village of Catskill, Oil on wood, 1827, 24 in. x 35 in. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, 1993.35.7.

We’ll never know, of course, what painter Thomas Cole, who died in 1848, would have thought of Scenic Hudson, the $286-million land trust and $28-million not-for-profit environmental powerhouse. There’s a good chance he would have very much approved of the organization’s mission of protecting the Hudson River and Hudson Valley land, of creating and enhancing parks, and of advocating for environmentally responsible policies and development practices.

We did find out on a recent Sunday afternoon a little bit of what Scenic Hudson thought of Thomas Cole from Scenic Hudson president Ned Sullivan’s talk at Joe’s Garage, a newly redeveloped events space on Main Street in Catskill. Sullivan’s lecture was entitled “Still in Eden: Connecting People to the Landscapes that Inspired Thomas Cole.”

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Sullivan was cautious in his identification with Cole, going no further than to say that the latter “was said by many to be the first environmentalist.”

“We are still in Eden,” Cole had written in a passionate 1836 essay on American scenery. “The wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”

Though Sullivan didn’t quote Cole’s further views expressed in the same essay, it wouldn’t be surprising if the two would have qualified as kindred spirits separated by more than a century and a half in time. “I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away,” Cole had written. “The ravages of the axe are daily increasing. The most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation.”

Though the road society had to travel might eventually lead to “refinement,” including a deeper appreciation of nature, the largely self-taught British-born artist had continued, “the traveler who sees the place of rest close at hand dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings.”

 

Scenic Hudson claims involvement not just in protecting rivers, watersheds, rural viewsheds and working farms but Hudson Valley urban centers as well. In one corner of a wall painting in a parking lot on Main Street near Joe’s in Catskill is an arrow marked “You Are Here.” The mile-away downhill view of the confluence of the Catskill and Kaaterskill creeks depicted at that location is completely obscured by undistinguished commercial buildings and mature trees.

Scenic Hudson, now 55 years old, took ownership this May of the 144-acre Mawignack (“where the two rivers meet”) Preserve, several thousand feet west of Joe’s Garage. A mile-long trail has been constructed there, managed by local partner the Greene County Land Trust and accessible via Snake Road. This hideaway at least has been spared inappropriate development.

In the opposite direction is the walkway over Rip Van Winkle Bridge, designated the Skywalk and connecting Cole’s home on the west bank of the Hudson and the state-owned 2100-acre estate of his most illustrious student, Frederic Church, on the east bank. The soon-to-be-completed mile-long-plus route walking trail will get additional aesthetic enhancements in the spring, Sullivan forecast.

Various Hudson River art trails encouraging visitors to visit the places that Cole and other painters portrayed have been developed in recent years. This summer the Cole national historic site organized a pop-up exhibition of postcard-size art works at these locations.

 

According to Sullivan, Scenic Hudson has “saved” more than 20,000 acres of land from shortsighted misuse. The wide range of topics asked in the question period after his talk revealed the range of its activities: PCB cleanup of the Hudson River, climate change, scientific research, water chestnuts, gas-fired power plants, fencing off river access, and more. He stressed its convening role: bringing people with different views together in the same room.

None of this comes cheap. Scenic Hudson has formed many innovative partnerships and initiated many ingenious organizational arrangements for support from governmental sources, major philanthropies and private giving. It has a staff of about 65 people, and IRS data shows that its top eight officers received $2.2 million in pay and benefits in 2016.

Throughout his life, Thomas Cole sought patrons, people of wealth and privilege who might want to support the arts. American patrons liked his landscapes of the untamed Catskills but shied away from the artist’s later preferences for series of pedagogical canvases that portrayed the rise and fall of civilizations.

Scenic Hudson has been a longtime recipient of patronage supporting environmental causes, the “refinement” of which Cole wrote. In its early years, it enjoyed significant support from Reader’s Digest stock. Since then, it has skillfully expanded that financial base to include other categories of New York philanthropy.

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