Nature, Aesthetics, Science, and Experience



I sit by the stream munching on some chips, downing a soda, and scribbling in my journal. What I am really doing is waiting. I’m waiting on the sky to open up.

Early this morning the rising sun somehow found a way through or around or under the great billowing clouds of white and grey scattering toward the east – the last remnants of a stormy night. The rain provided a little shot in the arm to a stream depleted by summer heat. At the intersection of the bright sun beams and the clear water currents, I took some photographs.

Now the clouds have decided to close ranks; dousing the light and stealing away the shadows. It is cold and a bit dreary. I can see some patches of blue sky here and there trying to push the clouds apart. A sunny patch develops downstream so I gulp the last of my drink, stuff my gear back into my pack, and head out. It’s gone when I get there. It is now up on the ridge a hundred feet above me, but I can’t get there from here so I move on down the gully.

All morning long I chased the sun. Always it stayed tantalizingly frustratingly one step away. In the afternoon I crawled down the side of a long waterfall. The rocks were wet and slippery. My boots got filled with water. I was cold and wet and tired, but at the bottom I perked up because I had finally caught the sun.

The gully makes a wide slow turn to the left here and it opens wide to the sky. Sheer walls of grey rock rise tall and straight on both sides. The only trees are sparse stunted ones up at the very top that lean precariously out over the edge and peer down at me. The water, churning and frothing just seconds before, now spreads out into a thin smooth sheet of glass sliding quietly across the wide flat floor.

waterfall and logs

Everywhere is sunlight. It streams down from the open sky. It reflects off the surface of the water. I bounces back and forth between the walls. The heat seems intense after so long in the cold damp shadows, but I’m glad of it. I lean back against the wall and spread myself out to drink in all the energy that I can. I close my eyes and revel in the warm touch on my face. If I squeeze my eyes tight shut and tilt my head directly toward the sun, I can see the red glow of life illuminated by the intense light as it seeps through my lids.

It is quiet here. The waterfall is tucked around the corner. With my eyes still closed I listen. There is a soft irregular pitter-patter sound. Tiny fragments of stone pried loose by wind or water or sunlight sprinkle down. The chips litter the floor forming a crunchy edge around the water. Eventually some deluge will sweep them away and others will take their place. How many years? The slow carving of the gully goes on and on whether we stop to recognize it or not.

I stayed in that place a long time. Several times I tried to leave, but each time I would stop to photograph something and afterward I would go back to my spot on the wall for a while. Finally I decided I had better get a move on. I sloshed through the water toward the exit.

The walls narrowed, pushing the water back together. They urged it on faster and faster and then unceremoniously kicked it down the stairs of another waterfall. The sheet of glass was shattered into innumerable sparkling shards.

I paused at the edge. Behind me was light and warmth and quiet solitude beneath an open sky of blue and white. In front was a plunge down into a close, shadowy, noisy, splashing world under a thick green canopy. I filled my lungs with one final breath of warm air and followed the water down and down over the rocks – although with a little less wild abandon so as to avoid being shattered myself.

So what has this story got to do with aesthetics? Well, although this story ain’t Shakespeare, I hope that it illustrates in a practical way some of the objections that folks have brought against Calrson’s view that science must be our framework for appreciating nature “correctly”.

smooth water

There is so much more to our experience of nature than can be explained by science. Something ineffable in nature stirs our souls. As Emerson says in Nature; “…the simple perception of natural forms is a delight.” A post by fencer discusses the “spirit of place” in appreciating nature.

As I have mentioned before, I have a background in environmental science and I have spent a lot of time in the woods. Maybe I know a little more about the workings of nature than the average Joe, but most of the time when I am walking around the woods, I’m using the artsy-fartsy side of my brain and not the analytical side. The simple joy of felling the sun on my face trumps weighty thoughts of geologic history or solar radiation calculations.

Thinking about the relative importance of scientific understanding versus the warm fuzzies has put me in mind of several other books that I have on my shelf – works by Muir, Emerson, and Thoreau. Perhaps I had better touch on those next time.



Tags: , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “Nature, Aesthetics, Science, and Experience”

  1. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Your first photo here is tremendous. The smoothly falling water looks almost metallic and the spray, like fibre optical threads – it’s almost unreal.
    Your comment about the sensation of sun falling on your face: It’s so true – the feeling of the sun’s warmth on cool skin is delicious. It’s healing.

    We can analyze and philosophize on nature but there is no substitute for being there and absorbing it. The beauty it contains in even the most minute things is astounding.
    Thanks for another great post.

  2. forestrat Says:

    Thanks K.

    I had to crawl on hands and knees underneath an overhanging slab of rock to shoot the water as it came down through an opening from above. I fiddled around with the camera settings for quite a while and took a slew of shots trying to get it the way I wanted it. Glad at least one came out decent.

    Fortunately we don’t always need to be in the Sierras to enjoy nature. The sun shines everywhere, the stars (as long as the city lights aren’t too bright) span the sky, the wind and rain, flowers in a garden – we don’t have to go far to enjoy these things. I stood on my back deck one day and watched a summer thunderstorm sweep past. Lightning flashing, thunder crashing, the wind trying to lift me off my feet – all I had to do was step out the back door.


  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    It’s so true.
    I revisited this post and enjoyed it second time along.
    In the discussion of art versus science, we sometimes miss the sheer visceral feel of nature that has neither to do with art nor science. It’s simply our very human reaction to the power forces that shape our physical world.

    This may seem obvious when speaking of storms and torrential waters, but less evident when considering the quiet almost unobtrusive hive of activity that make be going on in a serene setting – just lift a log to see the frenetic activities of ants, wood bugs and other hard working members of the forest community.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: