This is what a wilderness painting looks like. Courtesy of the tang museum

An artist from New York once told me that what struck him about Seattle was that on Monday mornings, people didn't talk about what art or theater or music they'd seen over the weekend. They talked about hikes. Gardening. The spotting of eagles. The weather. He concluded that Seattle's consciousness is more about nature than art. I would like to propose that perhaps his perspective was more about what New York is not than what Seattle is. Because my Seattle Monday mornings involve talking and hearing about eagles and video installations, lakes and paintings, hills and sculptures. Which helps to explain why I was pleasantly unsurprised to discover the origins of the title of a new exhibition about forests at Cornish College of the Arts.

The title is Old ghost ranges, sunken rivers, come again—a lovely series of words. At the opening last week, curator Cable Griffith told me that they come from a poem by Gary Snyder. In hunting it down, I expected to find something like a neoclassic pastoral, going only from the prettiness of the words and the ubiquity of mindless pastoral in the world: that timeless, dateless, asocial, "pretend[ing at] simplicity," as Marxist critic Raymond Williams described it. Instead, I found Snyder's sly counter-pastoral, a poem made of translations and transactions. The poem is not about mountains and rivers.

It is about a 12th-century Chinese painting of mountains and rivers. Several stanzas quote writers who've seen the painting over the centuries, describing who owned it and where they saw it; the mayor's house in the town of Ho-tung in the year 1205, for one. The poem ends when the poet tells you these "endless" mountains and rivers are now contained inside the Cleveland Museum of Art, itself located on the edge of a lake. There is no separation between culture and nature. They feed back into each other, caught in a loop. In short, Snyder's poem is very Seattle, and a good choice to represent the 12-artist show that Griffith curated at Cornish, full of reflections, translations, and wit.

You have to love the paintings of Peter Scherrer. They're perfectly serious, thick and virtuosic and painterly and dark, and funny at the same time. Cabin Window (2010) is a semi-childishly rendered nighttime view of a dense forest out the window of a log cabin (doubling as the painting's frame). A cartoonish still life rests on the sill—heart shapes and the splayed body of a bird—yet there's an underlying foreboding to the scene's tone. Would you rather be inside this weirdo cabin or out in that hungry forest?

Whiting Tennis's large Wilderness Painting alone justifies the visit. Owned by Skidmore College's Tang Museum, it's only temporarily on loan back here in the city where it was made in 2011. It pictures a clearing where a tree recently has been chopped down, stump still jagged and blond, wood already refashioned into various objects, including a railing along a stone path that leads back into the forest and a picture frame resting in the foreground, waiting for a picture. Also in the foreground: a subtle stretch of plywood, as if the forest rested on a false floor of compressed fragments. The painting is an erudite, butch manifesto on changeability.

Bird and storm sounds emit from a dark, curtained-off room at the back of the gallery. Inside are three lightbox photographs of the Peruvian Amazon. One lights up at a time for a stretch of several minutes and then slow-fades to black; then after a pause in which the room is entirely dark and silent, another comes up, with its sounds. They rotate this way continuously, synchronized with the sounds that were recorded during the long exposure time of each photograph. Eirik Johnson is the artist; he's typically known for more straightforwardly documentary imagery, but this cinematic/chapel-like experience is arresting and enveloping, fictional and nonfictional.

It's easy to see how the real and the unreal come together in the Northwest context. The Peruvian Amazon sounds exotic and foreign, but its appearance in these photographs—lakes and gnarled trees in wet and mossy scenes—may as well be lifted from the depths of Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, a jog away from nearby strip malls.

"We are the second peoples," some of the artists in this exhibition once wrote, as a kind of manifesto about creation in this place, about the way invention and tradition, making and finding, overlap and feed back into each other. You see it in Matt Browning's Landscape #6, a "painting" made by coating a wood panel in a perfect layering of bubbly sap, its innards brought to the surface. (Browning is having flatness and dimension both ways; die-hard modernists are rolling in graves, as flatly as they possibly can, of course.)

The inherent, fertile monstrosity of a "natural city" can be found in fine works also by Gretchen Bennett (sticks encased in street stickers: Sticks), Allyce Wood (a life-size ghost of a fallen log, shedding its skin), Zack Bent (photographs of landscapes that depict evidence but no crime), and others. You will probably notice Stephen Chalmers's pictures of sites where bodies have been dumped. These are interesting not as much for their concept (at least one other photographer, Susan Seubert, has deployed this idea previously) as for their execution. Faced with the baffling world of the Northwest forest, the lens has to decide where to focus, leaving entire other areas in the frame fuzzy. Attempted control strikes such sympathy in the soul.