Natural Aesthetics


Swirly Wood

I have recently been reading “The Aesthetics of Natural Environments” edited by Allen Carson and Arnold Berleant. This is a collection of philosophical essays beginning with Ronald Hepburn’s seminal work, “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty”, first published in 1966.

It is slow going. Working my way through the scholarly articles is like wading through the proverbial molasses in January. Packing years worth of thinking into a single volume makes for some real density.

The basic idea of Hepburn’s article is that while 18th and 19th century works on aesthetics focus significantly if not primarily on the enjoyment of beauty in nature, later works give natural beauty very short shrift if they even mention it at all. Aesthetics has moved from a general theory about beauty to a specific treatment of the merits of human created art works only. He goes on to discuss some of the reasons why this might be the case and what might be done to bring nature back into the fold.

Dark WaterfallNow, you might be thinking, so what? Who cares what some eggheads writing philosophical essays think about nature? Well, as I mentioned in my previous post, how we think about nature will determine how we treat it. If we think an area is beautiful, pleasing, valuable in some way, we are likely to take pains to preserve it. Otherwise why not just bulldoze it and put up a parking lot? After all it was just an empty field or a swamp or whatever, right?

Whereas the merits of what is considered art these days (like say ever since Duchamp signed a urinal and entered it in an art show in 1917) are largely opaque and absurd to those not on the inside of the “art world”, the aesthetic merits of the natural environment are very accessible to you and me, the average Joes and Janes of the world. We may not be able to see any aesthetic attributes nor any beauty in dime store rubber rats spray painted and hung in a tree, but at varying levels we can all participate in a discussion of the attributes and beauty of a wild forest.

Not only can we, but indeed we must all take part in discussions about natural aesthetics. As more and more pressure is put on our dwindling natural areas, we are the ones who through our votes and how we spend our money will decide what stays and what goes and how what we have left will or will not be used.

How will we make those decisions? What criteria can we use to judge?

Should we preserve just majestic mountain ranges like the Rockies or the Alps? What about the much smaller less majestic yet more intimate hills and valleys near my home? What about marsh lands (a.k.a. swamps)? Many people might not view them as beautiful and/or valuable, but other people do. What about a vast prairie with nothing but tall grasses for miles? How about a dry sun scorched desert?

Sunny Water

Evaluating the aesthetics of nature is not so easy once you go beyond first impressions gained from a car window. Should we judge natural areas by how much they look like a painting? Should rational science be our only guide to the value of nature? Where does that leave imagination and folklore? Is nature only valuable in so far as it can supply us with resources like medicines, lumber, and a place to ride our ATVs?

The essays in this book may be a bit on the dry side, but the issues they discuss, unlike the esoteric world of man made art, are going to become more and more relevant to all of us as time goes on.

Besides the big hairy deal of the environmental protection angle of natural aesthetics, learning new ways to more fully appreciate the world around me is a personal plus. On top of that there is the double whammy of trying to take aesthetically pleasing photos of natural objects. Not only is there the issue of appreciating nature as nature, but also the ramifications of isolating and manipulating an image of nature and presenting it to other people as a sort of surrogate.

I plan to touch on this subject from time to time as I learn. Being a practical sort of guy, I hope to cut through the philosophical mumbo jumbo and work out what the upshot of it all is for you and me.



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5 Responses to “Natural Aesthetics”

  1. fencer Says:

    Always great to hear a practical man consider well-meaning philosophers… and try and bring what they say down to (or over to) earth… Looking forward to descriptions of your encounters with those guys.

    I have an old-fashioned sense of esthetics, that it has something to do with beauty.


  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Well-said, thought provoking commentary, Mark.
    It’s interesting to think that each person (who is interested in the protection of nature) approaches the topic from their own education or point of view whether aesthetic, scientific, botanical, zoological, geographical or other.
    As for your dislike of modern day art starting with the tongue in cheek urinal of Duchamp, I would like to take the Devil’s Advocate position and defend it.

    I started to write it here, but instead it got long, so I invite you to
    for my latest defense of the weird and unusual in art.
    I hope you are out there chasing the rivulets of summer on this fine Sunday,
    Thanks, always, for provoking thought and for sharing your aesthetic journeys into the forest.

  3. forestrat Says:

    Hopefully I will have some decent information and comments to make on this subject. I feel like there is going to be some important insights here that I can apply to my own work, if I can just dig them out.

    K – I’ll check out your post ASAP – should be good.


  4. Natural Aesthetics - Part Two « Forest Rat Says:

    […] rat readers) that back in July I wrote a post about natural aesthetics. You can read that post here. I mentioned that I was reading a book called “The Aesthetics of Natural […]

  5. Natural Abstractions | Mark Whitney Photography Says:

    […] a while ago over on my old Forest Rat blog about aesthetics of the natural environment – Natural Aesthetics, Natural Aesthetics – Part Two, Natural Aesthetics – Part Three, Nature, Aesthetics, […]

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