Dread was in fashion in the 1790s, when the word “awful” still had a precise meaning, and images of the vertiginous crag, the dark forest, the storm at sea were calculated to induce a delicious sensation of vicarious terror. It happened that the Pacific Northwest was discovered by whites at the same moment as the idea of the Romantic Sublime was gaining sway. The lonely and forbidding geography of the place perfectly fitted the reigning preconceptions of how a Romantic landscape ought to look. It conveniently combined, within a single view, the essential iconic features of the Swiss Alps, the German forest, and the English Lake District.
There was a single, unfashionable, dissenting voice—that of George Vancouver, known to his men (though never to his face) as Captain Van. At thirty-four, Vancouver was far behind his time…. His posthumously published Voyage gives a candid, heartfelt portrait of the Pacific Northwest as seen through the eyes of a young fogy who was out of touch with the intellectual currents of his own age.
Captain Van took a great shine to Puget Sound and its immediate surroundings. Among the low hills and forest clearings, he was able to imagine himself in a New Albion of close-shaven lawns, artful vistas, rolling fields, and country houses….
But his pleasure in this newfound land soon curdled into repugnance as the expedition sailed north and west into the narrow, mountain-walled channels of the Inside Passage. While his juniors, along with the expedition naturalist, Archibald Menzies, thrilled to dramatic sublimity of their surroundings, Vancouver recoiled from what he saw. The snowcapped peaks were “sterile,” the cliffs of dripping rock and vertical forest were “barren,” “dull” “gloomy,” “dreary,” “comfortless.” Of the much-admired waterfalls, he complained that their incessant noise made it impossible for him to hear any birdsong.
—Jonathan Raban, Introduction to The Pacific Northwest Landscape: A Painted History (Kitty Harmon, Ed.)
Young fogy indeed! Considering how many people come here to retire, and how they love to whack down the forest to put in a lawn that looks like every other lawn that ever was, I think Captain Van would fit in perfectly now. He probably never imagined that some day people would pay good money to travel the Inside Passage and gawk at his “barren” and “dreary” landscape.