What imagery does Irving use to portray nature in "Rip Van Winkle"? How is nature portrayed?

In "Rip Van Winkle," Irving uses extensive imagery to portray nature, painting literary images of the Catskill Mountains investing a powerful sense of place in his story. The Catskills are characterized as timeless in nature, and largely untouched by humanity. In having created that impression, Irving is then able to build upon it, introducing the supernatural and otherworldly themes and imagery on which this story depends.

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Note how, as you move beyond this story's introductory section, it actually opens with a literary picture of the Catskills. From there, it transitions to the village before finally introducing the character of Rip Van Winkle himself. Before everything else, Irving invests within "Rip Van Winkle" this powerful sense of place.

We have here a series of literary images (all visual by nature): first, there's the image of the mountains rising up beside the Hudson, which is followed by images of the change of season and of weather and how these changes transform this visual impression of the mountains in question. Thus, Irving writes,

When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.

In doing so, Irving invests in nature a timeless and eternal quality that transcends the day-to-day minutia of human existence. Even as Rip Van Winkle's own life bridges between the colonial and the post-Revolutionary eras, so the Catskills themselves represent a far deeper and more profound bridge across eons. Though generations come and go, this world of nature (and this world which Rip himself experiences as he treks into the mountains) remains fundamentally unchanged.

This sense of timelessness invests in nature a powerful contrast with human contingency. As Rip leaves the village and travels upwards into the mountains, he is entering into a wild and untamed world. Again, the imagery is largely visual and simultaneously extensive and intensive, as Irving attempts to paint a vivid impression of the scene, such as in the following passage:

On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely, and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun. For some time Rip lay musing on this scene; evening was gradually advancing; the mountains began to throw their long blue shadows over the valleys

These evocative descriptions and the characterization which Irving has invested within the Catskills themselves are then critical in shaping the remainder of Irving's plot. Having already instilled this sense of a world untouched by humanity and timeless in its fundamental nature, Irving is next able to introduce otherworldly motifs and imagery into his setting, as Rip has his supernatural encounter and prolonged sleep.

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