“No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.” –John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley In Search of America, 1962
I pondered Steinbeck’s words on a recent visit to Muir Woods National Monument in California. Just the sheer size and majesty of these Sequoia groves can leave one dumbstruck. It made me wonder how does one begin to interpret a place of awe? How does one describe the indescribable? Or does one even need to?
Edmund Burke, the 18th century British philosopher, did what philosophers do best and thought about this very topic. He separated these jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring landscapes from those that are merely beautiful or picturesque. He instead called these places sublime, as they can cause intense emotions by just experiencing the vastness of nature (Burke, A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful, 1757). Shortly after Burke’s treatise, early American painters such as the Hudson River School embraced this concept by painting sweeping views of the American wilderness.
The folks at the National Park Service have done an outstanding job with the interpretive signage at Muir Woods National Monument. The signs are infrequent along the main trails, and usually just signal the arrival into a new area. I was impressed with the behavioral signs, such as the one pictured above, which advises visitors to “walk quietly.” Amazingly, it worked, and with the thousands of visitors per day at that park, hardly a human noise could be heard.
While the signs were informational on the age of the redwoods, impacts from fires, and so on; they successfully conveyed a strong sense of place. By incorporating richly detailed graphics of forest life (see above), and having provocative titles (Spirit of the Forest), the signs seemed at home there. They didn’t contrast the landscape but appeared to be organic and grow from the forest floor.
In my opinion, sublime landscapes should not require a lot of signage or need to announce why they are special. That’s already apparent to the visitor. But they should tap into the spirit of the place– in graphics, content and design. It may not be possible to adequately sum up a place that is deeply layered in time, culture, and amazing biota; such as found in Muir Woods. But it is possible to embed a level of respect and care about the environment that tells a far greater story.