THE PICTORIAL TRADITION AT
PICTORIAL TRADITION AT
The use of old representations and
depictions to make inferences about past natural conditions and character at
"All the historical evidence that we possess upon the subject [of recession] proves the falls to have receded: and, although there have been no monuments established, yet the representations of early travelers, when compared with the present condition of the falls, proves that a change has taken place, though we can not be certain of its precise amount."
Hall produced a facsimile of a print of
the falls seen from the west side of the gorge of the original published in
F. Louis Hennepin's work (1697). In this print Hall noticed a
"cross-fall" flowing from west to east from what is now the
Canadian shore. The print "represents a projecting rock upon the west
side of the river which turned a part of the water across the main fall, as
seen in the sketch." This waterfall did not exist in the later
Hall also mentioned the visit of Peter Kalm, student of Linnaeus, in 1750, who visited the falls seventy-two years after Hennepin. Kalm "distinctly alludes to the projecting rock, which forced the water out of its direct course, causing it to fall across the great fall. He speaks of this rock having fallen down a few years previous, and in his view of the falls the spot is indicated. In this interval of seventy years we find that the recorded observations of these two travelers prove precisely the same kind of change to have taken place, as we suppose to have occurred previously, and which has subsequently altered the outline and position of the falls."
The physiognomy or structural appearance
of plant communities can be seen in broad outlines from these early
Among the various cautions to be made in ascribing factual weight to aspects of any drawing of the vicinity of the cataracts, is the apparent practice of taking sketches or earlier depictions, especially those used as illustrations, and altering them, usually back in Europe in the earliest pictures, to improve, clarify or otherwise enhance the information provided by the earlier sketch. The tendency in this sort of practice is to reduce the visual complexity (and accuracy) of the view, to simplify and embolden the image. Another is to remove "blemishes" such as blasted trees, de-vegetated areas, and the like. Occasionally it appears that the conifer species (Pine and Hemlock) of the first drawing tends to resemble a European species, such as a Spruce, probably because the artists producing the second drawing were not the artist of the first, and were using imagery with which they were familiar.
One artist who did not "spruce
up" or repair his Niagara trees was Thomas Davies, who painted
This picture shows the peculiar conifer
It is obvious in this drawing that the forest had been cleared away to provide a greensward, or grassed and closely mown area on which picnics could be had. Such a lawn could not have existed here without personnel hired by the island owners to tend it. The crest woods had been stripped to provide a prospect out onto the river. This process of opening up the high bank forest may have created the condition of exposure by which the deciduous trees lost their crowns.
This particular depiction, and another after a drawing by the same artist (Adamson, 1985 No. 108, "The Falls of Niagara. View of Horse-shoe Fall from Below Goat Island, 1857") are valuable because they give some evidence of conditions before the invention and general use of the camera. Prospect areas in the vicinity of the Falls were probably the first forested areas to be cleared. By the time photography came into general use, these areas probably looked totally different than they had originally, if for no other reason than the reality of trampling by thousands of visitors. The two depictions drawn after Cockburn's drawings "originally engraved in 1833" (Adamson, 1985), one of Porter's Bluff overlooking Terrapin Rocks, or what is now known as Terrapin Point, and the other of the base of the gorge probably near what was known as the American Landing, or the American Stairs, now the base of Prospect Point, show how dense the coniferous element was - almost certainly Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), although this extraordinary density may be the result of later "touching up" of an earlier drawing. Later photographs of the wooded slope overlooking the Terrapin Rocks in the early years of this century, show a more open forest of younger trees dominated by deciduous trees with occasional conifers - probably not the primitive condition. A whole series of early, pre-photography paintings and drawing show a dense conifer forest on the islands in the American channel, the island and mainland shorelines, crested areas of hills and gorge, and particularly at the very base of the talus slope at the bottom of the gorge. Loss of this forest today, and by the time photographs were widely used disguise the ecological response of the primitive forest to early lowered water levels in the Niagara River here when the area was above the falls, and the extent of what is probably now a rare herbaceous community established on the exposed riverbed.
Saw mills were some of the earliest human establishments at Niagara on both sides of the river, coinciding with the need of explorers and voyageurs for planks for ships, continuing into the military requirements of later history in the region, and culminating in one of the largest log, paper and pulp milling industries in New York State (Recknagel, 1923; Scott & Scott, 1983). Baring a biological cause for the early loss of this forest community at Niagara, such as inability to adapt to higher pollution regimes, the paper and related industries, now mostly gone with the depletion of the region's forest reserves, might be presumed a reason for the disappearance of this forest component (Recknagel, 1923).
Out of this treasury of representation,
and compared with the visual characteristics of the present landscape at
Guessing the species of deciduous trees depicted in two centuries of drawings, is more hazardous than that of conifers, except where the bark is painted white and peeling, when Paper, or Canoe Birch (Betula papyrifera) is likely the species depicted, such as occur in the crest forests of the Niagara gorge, and which are frequent today on the crest of the gorge, especially on the American side.
We are fortunate in that the crest forest is frequently drawn, since all of the famous prospects take place within a framework of trees. The crest is a relatively harsh place, in the face of the prevailing winds on the American side, and with shallow soils on the Canadian when not on the exposed crests of slopes. Conifers and birches are frequently painted, and Oaks are as frequent, and Staghorn Sumach occasional - primarily in early paintings where the observer is on the Canadian side looking across the gorge at Goat Island, as in paintings by Edward Hicks around 1830. Even Arbor Vitae (Thuja occidentalis) is sometimes drawn sprouting, with its characteristic bent-back growth form, out of fissures in the unlikely habitat of the dolomite caprock, easily seen in the gorge today.
A full account of the illustrated
Kalm's facsimile print, used by Hall
above, also showed an interesting distinction between a perimeter habitat on
The primitive iconography of deciduous and evergreen trees is simple and without question - useful characteristics to employ in interpreting tree and habitat types from all sorts of illustrations depicting the falls: deciduous trees are drawn in oval or circular outline, evergreens in triangular, spiky outlines; deciduous trees are always lighter in color than the evergreens, and in autumn and winter scenes the contrast with the dark colorations of the conifers is unambiguous.
The coniferous possibilities are only four: White Pine (Pinus strobus), Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Arbor Vitae, or White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) with a small likelihood of Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), as this tree is and has been rare in the region (Zenkert, 1934) with a station reported for Niagara Glen, several miles downstream at the base of the Niagara River gorge (Hamilton, 1943).
I have taken it that the vegetation in most depictions of the falls environment is not distorted beyond credibility through attempts at idealization or romaticization of nature so much as it is simplified to signs indicating tree species and community types. Most of the depictions consulted in the present study were made by people attempting to report back to an incredulous but skeptical and well-educated public a stupendous natural phenomena during times when the intended readers were experiencing a cultural explosion in the elucidation of natural history. They had an interest in being factual knowing full well, as the eighteenth and nineteenth century seemed to produce many travelogues, that their presentations would be tested sooner or later - as would their pictures. Their ability to accurately relate their experiences in one particular would relate to their credibility as a whole.
Also, the floristic representations are corroborated through time by different authors and painters, so diverse in time and origin as to be unlikely that they deliberately participated in a tradition based on authority rather than their own experience.
Vegetational characteristics seem to correspond to the distribution of species as they occur today, and as they are likely to occur - for example, today Arbor Vitae enjoys cold, wet boggy soil as may have occurred in the saturated soil margins on Goat Island, as drawn, and it occurs today in rocky bluffs in the dolomite caprock of the Niagara gorge, the talus below and the talus slopes in the plunge pool basin area at the head of the gorge - none of which contradicts early drawings on conifers in these areas.
It is probable that at least the
shoreline visible around Goat Island was covered with Arbor Vitae because
Francois Andre Michaux said "Goat Island ... is seen from the banks of
the river to be bordered with Arbor Vitae" (1819). Wied-Neuwied (1843)
indicated that "The shores of [
White Pines overtop the deciduous canopy
of the primaeval forest, and several old paintings show this contrast (for
discussion see section on the central woods of
In Petrides' (1958) identification manual of trees and shrubs, in which silhouettes of various tree species are given, certain useful characteristics may be used to differentiate various conifer species. Generally, an attempt may be made to distinguish Red Cedar from Arbor Vitae, in that in the former, the branches may be higher off the ground, exposing the stem, than in the latter, where the branches descend almost to the ground, covering the stem or trunk. White Pine has graceful limbs extending horizontally with the extremities gently ascending. The long, bare trunk differentiated from a crown, and long plumelike needle-leaves growing in bunches of five and imparting a dense look to the limbs of the White Pine contrasts with the trunk covered with old or young limbs of the Hemlock, not displaying a distinct crown in its rather triangular silhouette. Hemlock presents a looser, tattered silhouette, with short needless, its branches not in the bold, heavy strokes of the Pine, but feathery, light tracery. In White Pine, the trunk may be seen in the crown as the needles are borne away from it out to the sunlight, but in Hemlock, the upper trunk is usually hidden in the foliage.
Habitat will also serve to separate Red Cedar from Arbor Vitae in photographs:
Red Cedar: intolerant of shade, open, sunny habitats, dry soils, isolated individuals, needles usually to the tree tops, sucessional: with weedy growth.
Arbor Vitae: tolerates shade, shaded habitats, wet soils [also along the calcareous rim rock where Red's might also grow], individuals clumped or contiguous, tree tops in old specimens frequently denuded, may be a climax species on river edges, with native growth.
One interesting study might be to
examine a century of promotional and souvenir photographs of the Falls on
postcards and other commercial printings to detect the relative distance of
the observer in these pictures from the actual surface of the vegetation. It
may be that with more and more destruction of the shrub communities,
eradication of the herb and shrub layers in
Aerial and other distance views distort the
impression of the extent of vegetation on
Pictures, painted or photographed,
constitute a rich resource for indirect evidence of the condition of the
early environment at
Facsimile of the drawing of the Falls
printed in Hennepin's narration, English edition, 1698 (
Squalor, naturally, is best emphasized in winter views (Disfigured Banks, Repulsive Scenery Around Visitor Approaching Goat Island Bridge for First View of Rapids," ca. 1879, Plate VIII from James T. Gardner, 1880, in Adamson, 1985).
Adamson, J. E. 1985.
Hall, J. 1843. Geology
Hamilton, G. H. 1943.
Plants of the Niagara Parks System of
Hennepin, F. L. 1697. A
New Discovery of a Vast Country in
Michaux, Francois Andre. 1819. Published edition 1841. North American Sylva; or, a Description of the Forst Trees of the Unitec States, Canada, and Nova Scotia, J. Dobson, Philadelphia.
Olmsted, F. L. 1880. in
Gardner, J. T., Director. 1880.
Petrides, G.A. 1958. A
Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs. Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton
A. B. 1923. The forests of
Robinson, W. 1875.
Alpine Flowers. John Murray,
Scott, S. D. & P.
K. Scott. 1983. The
Wied-Neuwied, M. A. P.,
Prinz von. 1843. Travels in the interior of
Zenkert, C. A. 1934.
Flora of the