How Harry Jackson made me a conservationist: exploring the intersection between conservation and the humanities

by Milward Simpson

Trips to Cody, WY were always special and exciting occasions growing up. My brother and sister and I looked forward to going to the family ranch down the south fork of the Shoshone to go horseback riding or fishing in the Ishawooa river or listen to ghost stories about the legendary horse thief, Jack Bliss. Going to town was always something we looked forward to as well, especially the chance to visit the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, now the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Whenever we visited and whatever part of the museum we were there to see, I’d always end my visit by going to the far end of the Whitney Gallery to see the two massive and forbidding Harry Jackson masterpieces, Stampede and Range Burial that dwarfed my childhood frame. They depict cowboys caught in a giant stampede on the sage brush plains in a huge thunderstorm and its aftermath. Looking at those paintings, your senses quickened with the fearful anticipation of the storm coming in and you could smell the rain soaked sagebrush, feel the awesome wind and experience the human drama of our powerlessness against the sheer force of nature – out there in one of Wyoming’s vast, wild landscapes.

Staring up at those huge paintings, I could feel what it meant to be from Wyoming. I felt I understood my place in the world – how I fit in. I knew I loved art, I knew I loved the natural world and I knew I was a part of a particular culture defined by the experience of being closely tied to the land, being subject to it and drawing subsistence from it.

I’ve been blessed to pursue a career that has allowed me to focus on both. I’ve worked as a professional music and theatre artist, as a nonprofit arts administrator and as a state government cultural and natural resources manager. I began pursuing my passion for conservation in earnest during my years as Director of the WY Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources. I now work for The Nature Conservancy, a science-based organization whose mission is to “conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.”

So, what about this question of the intersection between conservation and the humanities?

First of all, I’d say that part of humanity’s soul is rooted in nature and so conserving nature is an expression of our humanity. Conservation is a human impulse that manifests itself in cultural institutions, in certain mindsets, traditions and ways of being in the world and ways of relating to others. It is born of personal and collective values and beliefs that have their origin in our essential ties to the natural world and our ultimate dependence on it and how that those ties have expressed themselves in our cultures. Conservation is enshrined in religious traditions as a spiritual duty for stewardship of the earth. It is expressed in philosophical traditions such as transcendentalism that define the meaning of human existence in terms of our relationship with nature.

Conservation also intersects with the humanities through art. Conservation is an impulse that, inescapably, is born of the aesthetic impulse. I believe that, for artists like Harry Jackson, the natural world inspires an artistic expression of human concepts, emotions and experiences like awe, majesty, wonder, surprise, stillness and repose, splendor, humility, vastness, the joy of the senses being fully engaged as they are in nature more than in any other mode of living. Those expressions can, in turn, inspire conservation.

One of the most powerful illustrations of the power of the arts to influence conservation is the 1860 Hayden Expedition of the US Geological Survey. The expedition was dispatched by President James Buchanan to explore the Yellowstone region. Among the 32 participants in the 40-day expedition were the photographer William Henry Jackson and the artist Thomas Moran. Hayden included their artistic documentation of over 30 sites in his report to congress. Ultimately, masterworks such as Moran’s breathtaking painting of Yellowstone falls, and Jackson’s photographs of the energy and majesty of Old Faithful helped convince congress to establish Yellowstone National Park.

Examples like this abound and are just as influential today. Earlier this year, at a conservation conference in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to meet long-time National Geographic contributing photographer and National Geographic Fellow, Joel Sartore. He gave a keynote presentation about the making of his new book and accompanying travelling art exhibit, “Photo Ark,” which enjoyed a successful run at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson last year.

Photo Ark is a collection of photographs of the world’s most endangered animals, many of which now exist solely in the world’s zoos and aquariums. He has photographed over 5,000 wild creatures to date and he frames them each individually and in equal size, irrespective of actual scale, against a black background. This stark artistic approach heightens the intimacy of the encounter with these fellow travelers on our fragile planet and the immediacy of the crisis that they represent to the world’s rapidly vanishing biodiversity in all it’s overwhelming variety, fragility and wonder. Each creature was beautiful and striking in its own way, and each successive picture evoked a powerful, almost empathetic emotional response in the audience. I was deeply moved and found my professional commitment to conservation reinvigorated by the experience.

We don’t feel compelled to conserve what is ugly or unnatural to us. We conserve what is beautiful to us, what has moved and inspired us. One wants to conserve out of love, out of what one cares about, what one values. We conserve what we have grown to identify a crucial part of ourselves with. Therefore conservation becomes intimate – it becomes self-conservation.

The vast, wild spaces depicted in those two paintings that I first encountered as a wide-eyed child exploring the Whitney Gallery were a part of me, and the impulse to take care of them was an act of self-preservation.

Harry Jackson helped me understand the depth of my love for Wyoming and part of why I serve on the board of Wyoming Humanities and work for the Wyoming chapter of The Nature Conservancy is because I want my granddaughters to see those paintings some day and know that they can still stand out on the wide open western plains that he depicts, feel the power and awe of nature, and know that they belong to a culture that was shaped by those who stood long ago in the same place having the same experience, and that they love Wyoming …as they watch the thunderstorms come in.

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