In the first decades of the twentieth century, rising standards of living and the availability of the automobile allowed many Americans the freedom to set out to explore the countryside. At the same time, the picture postcard industry provided these travelers a convenient and affordable souvenir to remember the interesting sights they'd seen along the way.
This was the Golden Age of interest in Stone Faces. Before television and cheap jet travel enlarged their ambitions, many travelers were content to set out on small-scale highway vacations, staying at rustic campgrounds and simple auto motels, to see America at 15 mph. Long before the wide superhighways funnelled all traffic into streamlined tunnels of speed, gravel byways and new auto tour routes took motorists close to the rugged cliffs and hills of the landscape.
The rock formations that had once been seen as earthy manifestations of divine powers became the "curiosities" and "freaks of nature" marvelled at by a new, restless populace eager for entertainment and novelty. These tourists of the sublime came seeking not a connection with the mineral world, but proof of God's carelessness in creating it.
The fame and tourist economy of New Hampshire's famous Great Stone Face inspired other towns in New England and across the country to search out recognizable stone profiles and promote them as local tourist attractions. No doubt many of these formations were discovered by enterprising postcard publishers simply to compete for attention and souvenir sales from other stony celebrities. Like the hardened explorers of olden days, the intrepid photographers must have braved mud, heat and rattlesnakes to find the right angle to capture the perfect rocky images.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, the eponymous rock profile is a prophetic sign guiding human destiny toward an inevitable convergence with the mountain heights of greatness. Unlike the tourist trap carvings of man-made Mount Rushmore, the many natural stone images of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington scattered across the country provided early twentieth century travelers occasion to reflect on a divine Manifest Destiny written into stone itself. How many eons had Lincoln Rock watched over the Columbia River in Washington state, waiting for Hawthorne's prophecy, until the boy Abraham Lincoln was born and gradually assumed the countenance of that Titanic visage?
We are left with the still mysterious phenomenon that, wherever we look in this world we are designed to inhabit, we see reflected back at us images of our own features
— John Michell, Natural Likeness
The Golden Age of the Stone Faces has faded into the past. What do these unusual natural wonders have to say to us today? As curiosities they are puns of nature, a one-line joke image to be traded on Instagram, shared quickly and easily forgotten. No longer do we plan our vacations to visit these oddities, or ruminate on their metaphysical implications, but they are still worth a laugh when we come upon them now and then.
The modern caretakers of such wonder spots as the Garden of the Gods, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, seem too embarrassed to mention the strange rock formations once known as "Mushroom and Toad Rocks" or "The Kissing Camels," which were touted as major landmarks and must-see attractions for park visitors a hundred years ago. Nowadays these formations are marked only by discrete notes on the park map, or hidden references such as "Scotsman Picnic Grounds" or "Siamese Twins Trail." All too often, the old names assigned to these unique formations reflect the stereotypes and possibly racist attitudes of early park boosters and travel agents.
Rather than re-label them in more politically-correct fashion, it is better to let the rocks remain unnamed and undefined as silent forms. In the modern park visitor center, exhibits expound upon the wonders of "ecosystem management," "transitional ecotones," and the "recolonization bioreserves" that define the importance of the land to today's natural world. With the urgency of climate change and rising suburban development lapping right at the edge of the park, paying attention to the forms of misshapen boulders and outcrops seems frivolous, a waste of precious time.
Our modern sensibility has no patience for subtle entertainments of the natural kind, and even less interest in the metaphysical implications of pebbles. We are consumed primarily with the man-made entertainments of the spectacle — the wonders and curiosities of modern civilization and culture which threatens to shut out the natural world entirely. Many citizens experience the non-man-made or "natural" world only through television or in short visits to highly curated parks and gardens. Our attempts to connect with the natural universe are hobbled by disinterest, as these places have no direct relationship with our busy lives except as lightly engaging, pleasurable entertainment. We cherish the frivolous and simple lives of domestic animals, or are calmed by endless waves on ocean beaches, but these are simply white noise in the background of our constructed reality.
And so the Stone Faces have fallen silent. They have no longer have anything meaningful to say to us.
Unquestionably there has been in past ages a mighty struggle here between the "fragments of an earlier world." These grim and splintered rocks, rising hundreds of feet above the lake, present to us a profound impression of the works of nature, when great volcanic upheavals exerted their mighty power, and when mountains of glacial deposits were strewn upon the earth.
— E.A. Bishop, Devils Lake postcard souvenir
The Stone Face images featured in this exhibit are postcards antique and contemporary from the Collections of the Minnesota Museum of the Mississippi.
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