Natural Aesthetics – Part Three


Hawthorn Berries

Last time we were talking about Allen Carlson’s ideas on how to appreciate nature as nature rather than as isolated objects or as mere scenery. Carlson puts forth an idea that he calls the natural environment model.

The premise is that nature does not have clear boundaries like art works. Nature is “frameless”. Sitting in a forest is different than viewing a painting of a forest. The real forest surrounds us – there is no picture frame or concert hall stage to tell us what is to be included for consideration and what is not. Sights, sounds, odors, physical sensations, animals; all are free to come and go as they please and we need to decide either to include them in our aesthetic experience (a deer walking past) or exclude them (the noise of a low flying airplane).

Wild Ginger

Carlson includes an excerpt from a work by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (Topophilia) which runs through a laundry list of sensations included in a typical natural scene. He then concludes:

Tuan’s account of how to appreciate the natural environment fits well with our earlier answer to the question of what to appreciate: that is, everything. This answer, of course, will not do. We cannot appreciate everything; there must be limits and emphases in our aesthetic appreciation of nature as there are in our appreciation of art. Without such limits and emphases our experience of the natural environment would be only “a meld of physical sensations” without any meaning or significance.

Carlson’s plan to bring order to the chaos is to use the framework of natural science so that knowledge can transform the raw experience and bring harmony, determinance, and meaning.  Thus:

In the way in which the art critic and the art historian are well equipped to aesthetically appreciate art, the naturalist and and the ecologist are well equipped to aesthetically appreciate nature.

If we are informed about nature through natural history and ecology, then we will be inclined to appreciate nature and especially we will be able to appreciate nature for what it is rather than imposing human centered constructs on to it.

Looking at a rock in the stream as part of its natural environment rather than as an isolated abstract object, appreciates it correctly. Our knowledge of the type of rock and its location allow us to comprehend how it was formed and how it has been shaped by the actions of the water and how its chemical composition might in turn influence the water.

Our knowledge of ecology will enable us to view expansive natural scenes without the need to impose the framework of idealized landscape paintings onto them. We can appreciate any view based on its ecological makeup and interactions even if on the surface it doesn’t conform to classical visual forms.


This idea seems like a good start. It points us in the direction of appreciating nature as nature and gives us some quantifiable guidelines that can be applied across all the many different kinds of environments. I have a background in science and environmental studies so there is plenty for me to like in this model.

However, I’m not completely sold on Carlson’s statement that “we cannot appreciate everything”. I’ll have to think about that some more. Also many of the following essays fault this model for relying too much on cold calculating science without leaving room for personal experience, imagination, intuition, and folklore.

Next time we’ll see if we can wrap this up.



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4 Responses to “Natural Aesthetics – Part Three”

  1. lookingforbeauty Says:

    “Sitting in the forest is different from viewing a painting of the forest.” – That whole paragraph got me me thinking:
    A big difference between the two is that the living forest is forever changing – not only in its immediate view but by variations in light and in seasonal changes. The work of art is static. It has been frozen in time. It captures a moment – and only a fragment of the whole.
    That is not to denigrate the work of art. The pleasure that some may get from seeing another person’s interpretation or another persons vision of the forest through their action of freezing that image in time is incalculable.
    As an example: I don’t and can’t get out into the forest much but my appreciation is enhanced by your photos of the forest. The photos bring back memories of when I had no impediments to climbing over rocks or logs, skipping down slopes hanging onto branches, etc. And that is one of the values of art – to share one’s vision with others who can appreciate and respond to that portion of the scape that has been recorded.
    Similarly this applies to paintings, but a person’s paintings are more imbued and perhaps limited, by the artist’s vision and sentiment coupled with their technical ability to set down their response to nature around them.

    You might be interested:
    Allan Chung Hung, Vancouver Artist (1946-1994) erected a huge steel sculpture called Gateway to the NorthWest Passage in 1980 in Vanier Park

    I’ve always seen this work as a picture frame one could walk around, constantly framing up the views of the port, the city or the beach, depending on which angle you were looking through it.
    I find the concept rather clever. It illustrates this concept of the landscape not having any borders, a vast continuum that, in painting and photography, can not be described except by multiple images – it’s too big to contain the scape in a single view.
    If you connect with the web site provided above, you will be able to see a photo of the work – and also the unfavorable critiques that emerged at the time of it’s placement in Vanier Park.


  2. fencer Says:

    Another thought provoking post on this subject, and an intriguing angle on it cited by lookingforbeauty…

    The more natural approach to apprehending nature rather than through the lens of some classical idea or whether it conforms to what might be seen in a landscape painting appeals to me too. Although I love evocative landscape painting…

    But we are necessarily selecting what we focus on, in both the cases of photography and painting, and that choice is interesting.


  3. forestrat Says:

    I finally got around to viewing the link that K mentioned about the “Gateway to the Northwest Passage”. It does indeed look like a giant picture frame. By changing one’s view point different elements can be included inside the “frame”.

    I hope to eventually extend this discussion of natural aesthetics to works of art that depict natural scenes (photos in particular of course).

    As fencer says, when we create a work we must choose on what to focus – where to draw our frame. Our choice can really make a difference in what others see and where their imaginations may go when they expand that frame in their mind’s eye.


  4. Natural Abstractions | Mark Whitney Photography Says:

    […] of the natural environment – Natural Aesthetics, Natural Aesthetics – Part Two, Natural Aesthetics – Part Three, Nature, Aesthetics, Science, and Experience, and Natural Aesthetics – Wrap Up. A major […]

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