Epic wilderness, expanding vision

THE New World's wilderness has long been linked to the deepest aspirations for America, from the earliest days of the European explorers and settlers to the builders of a powerful agricultural and industrial nation.

In the photography of naturalist Ansel Adams over the past half century, that vision of aspiration, of a grand energy in repose, was reflected in photographs of Yosemite and New Mexico in the Old West, and Alaska and Hawaii as the United States embraced the Pacific.

Adams's photos often showed a distant moon over a valley floor, or as a focal point above a rock formation. Such compositions suggest a particularly modern vision - of an earth in harmony with a much larger, accessible universe - suited to a technocratic society beckoned to space travel and exploration.

The American view of nature has changed over time. Early paintings showed a savagery and sense of danger in nature. A romantic view showed human figures as minuscule amid overpowering forests and vistas. Later works showed more of an equipoise between man and nature.

More recently, environmentalists have resisted the trashing of nature by a mechanized, chemical-spewing civilization.

Much as early settlers saw in forests a farm, so many modernists see in good farmland a potential shopping mall or computer-chip facility.

Change is not entirely irreversible. Nature has tremendous recovery powers.

If left fallow, for example, the American Great Plains would resume their yearly cycle of soil-building as native grasses and legumes and other plants reestablish themselves, scientists say.

Man's dominion over nature - and surely this is the American record - should be accompanied by an equivalent sense of responsibility toward nature. This is a moral conclusion many draw from the work of Adams, who passed on this week.

Also, many of us who ''lead lives of quiet desperation,'' as New England's Henry David Thoreau puts it, need periods of respite in nature, to reflect, to find the stillness of a universe that is more than civilization's commotion.

And as Adams's photographic art encourages, we respond with wonder to the epic scale and marvelous texture of a creation we are perhaps just beginning to envision.

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