Natural Aesthetics Wrap-up



In my last post I said that all this talk of whether it is better to appreciate nature through the steady empirical eyes of science or the soaring imaginitive eyes of the soul had put me in mind of some books I have read by Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir.

I must admit that Emerson is often beyond me. His writing is verbose, lofty, full of imagery and references to classical works, and thoroughly nineteenth century. He can write page after page on the subject of circles. He can write an essay with the title “The Over-Soul” and get away with it. Working in his fields, I have trouble harvesting the whole and am reduced to gleaning among the stalks for nuggets that I can take home.

Emerson is my poster boy for the ethereal imaginative unbounded other worldly end of the spectrum in nature appreciation. His writings represent a great store of thought that is worth every bit of the effort needed to grasp their meanings. His life and works inspired and influenced many great writers – Thoreau, Muir, Hawthorne, Whitman, Frost – the list goes on and on.

However, encounters with nature for Emerson were less about the actual things that he saw or touched or heard and more about using nature as a mirror to reflect upon the soul of man and enlighten him to spiritual principles. If we had only his writings as a guide to aesthetically appreciating nature, we would love the beauty of place and we would harmonize with nature on a spiritual level, but we would know little about nature as itself, as nature. We would look at nature and only see ourselves.

flowing water

Thoreau was a neighbor and friend of Emerson and greatly influenced by him, but he tempered his transcendental flights with some practicality and earth bound insights. John Elder in his introduction to “Nature Walking”, pictures Emerson motionless gazing “through nature’s surface to its spiritual substratum” while he pictures Thoreau as “A walker rather than a gazer, an ironic, punning undercutter of his own lofty assertions, a serious field naturalist, and a pioneering environmentalist, Thoreau complements Emerson and introduces enduring elements into American nature writing.”

Now we are getting somewhere. I can get a handle on this. There are still the ethereal raptures and transcendant insights, but now too there is action near at hand rather than in the mind only. Nature, real and solid, is under our feet, in our ears as well as our eyes. Thoreau reflects on nature, but also reaches out and touches it.

I think Muir takes this blend of imagination and action to a higher level (practically as well as figuratively). No sunset walks through farmer’s fields for Muir. No quiet contemplations on the common in Concord. The wild mountains were his home. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.”

stream and rocks

Muir could wax lyrical about the “glories” of nature, but running through all his writings is the thread of natural science and practical observation. Muir wandered in the mountains and reveled in the pure experience of nature, but he also undertook serious scientific studies that still carry weight today. Edwin Teale writes that “Even his records of scientific studies read like adventure stories.” and John Burroughs said that when Muir told the story of the preacher’s dog, Stickeen, you got “the whole theory of glaciation thrown in.”

So in the end my personal take aways from all of this would be:

1. that failure to appreciate the free gift of nature is a mistake. As Emerson says in Nature, “the simple perception of natural forms is a delight…To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone”.

2. that there is room in our dealings with nature for both imagination and science. Indeed these two should go hand in hand.

The beauty of nature, the colors, the forms, the sounds, the textures, the scents can set our minds soaring with insights into ourselves and the world of which we are a part, but science and knowledge keep us from losing our way among the clouds and chasing after mirages.

At the same time science can reveal to us portions of nature that we might overlook, hidden worlds that come to light only through careful examination but it is imagination that animates the facts and figures and brings home to us the beauty and worth of these new insights.

In this way not only can we enjoy a beautiful sunset over a pristine lake, but also the more subtle beauty of a fallen tree providing home and sustenance to a myriad of insects, plants, and animals.



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5 Responses to “Natural Aesthetics Wrap-up”

  1. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Greetings Forest Rat,
    Thanks for bringing boiling down all this “Nature and Aesthetics” literature into a manageable form.
    I have never heard of John Muir and must take time out to look him up.

  2. forestrat Says:

    Muir was a wild man. He would throw a loaf of bread in a rucksack and wander off into the woods for weeks at a time. He was the founder of the Sierra Club and credited with helping to preserve many US wild areas including the Grand Canyon.


  3. fencer Says:

    Although I often come across references, I’ve never read anything by Muir. Your post makes me want to correct that… .

    I also have a great fondness for Emerson and Thoreau. A pity that they aren’t more central in the general education.


  4. forestrat Says:


    Muir doesn’t seem as popular as other nature writers – don’t know why. My local bookstore only had one book “The Wilderness World of John Muir” in stock – kind of a Muir sampler.

    Amazon has a pretty good selection Muir books.


  5. Natural Abstractions | Mark Whitney Photography Says:

    […] Part Two, Natural Aesthetics – Part Three, Nature, Aesthetics, Science, and Experience, and Natural Aesthetics – Wrap Up. A major point in the discussion of how to properly appreciate nature, as opposed to man-made works […]

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