Artist: Mark D. Whitney, Media: Digital Photograph
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Nat101: Nature Appreciation 101

Remember those old freshman college appreciation courses like Art Appreciation 102? Classes that got you some easy credits and were intended to give you a well rounded education. You’re fresh out of high school majoring in English Lit and you don’t know jack about art. So they give you an overview of the major trends in art history and some basics on how to understand a pretty tricky subject.

One college course summary for an art apprec class that I found online sums it up like this, “Art Appreciation will encourage students to question the nature of art and its relevance to daily life…

Wouldn’t it be great if colleges included Nature Appreciation 101 in their course catalogs?

A class that encourages students to question the nature of Nature and its relevance to daily life.

Wait. What? Doesn’t everybody already appreciate Nature? It’s just comes, you know, naturally. We don’t need a class in that.

Actually we do.

There are a lot of people that look at Nature in terms of the ‘environment’ They’re all into recycling and green energy. That’s great. We need to conserve our dwindling natural resources and stop chewing up so much of our world. But an appreciation of the environment isn’t necessarily an appreciation of Nature. The environment is a concept, an abstract idea about generally not destroying the place where we live so we can continue to live there.

Many people like to get in the family car and drive to officially designated natural areas and stop for pics at view points pre-selected for their scenic value. Also good. If it weren’t for some pretty spectacular scenes that people liked, a lot of national parks wouldn’t exist. But we aren’t appreciating Nature when we do this. We’re appreciating the scenes. It’s like going to a museum and looking at a series of life sized landscape paintings. Again we’ve reduced Nature to an abstract concept – the picturesque or resembling a painting.

Still other people like to go to natural areas and do things like ski or mountain bike or snowmobile or rock climb. These activities can be a lot of fun and they do get people outdoors. Good. But once again Nature becomes a concept. It provides the pathways and the challenges and a pleasing backdrop for the activity we’re doing. Nature is now a stage or a stadium.

So how do we appreciate Nature as Nature?

Nature as itself. I wrote some posts on this a few years ago on one of my old blogs. I’m phasing that blog out so I thought I’d punch them up and bring them over here. They center around a book I read called “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” which was first published way back in 1966.

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.

This is very important for all of us not just philosophy eggheads. For one thing how we think about Nature will determine whether we value it or not and how we treat it. If we think an area is beautiful, pleasing, valuable to us in some tangible way, or perhaps just valuable in and of itself, we are likely to take pains to preserve it. Otherwise we’ll probably bulldoze it and put up a parking lot.

Learning to appreciate Nature appropriately also opens up a whole new level of personal enjoyment and insight. For example when I’m out taking photos I’m not only looking at the world in terms of artistic concepts. A stone in a stream is not just an isolated abstract sculpture. It has a genesis and a place within its environment. Proper appreciation allows newly realized aspects both beautiful and intriguing to present themselves and I have a framework that I can use to faithfully convey them to the people that view my work.

Evaluating the aesthetics of nature is not so easy

once you go beyond first impressions gained from a car window. What principles will we use to guide us in appreciating Nature appropriately?

Should we judge natural areas by how much they look like a pastoral painting? Then what about a marsh, also known as a swamp? Swamps are often smelly and not very appealing as roadside overview locations, but are quite interesting and beautiful up close.

Is science the true guide to our appreciation of nature? Forget all that pretty picture stuff. Only by understanding the inner workings of the natural ecosystem can we appreciate it appropriately. We can more fully understand a giant redwood tree because we understand the biology and environmental factors that allow it to grow so tall. But we can’t all be biologists and does that leave room for beauty, imagination and folklore?

Maybe we should judge Nature on its economic value. Can it supply us with medicines, lumber, energy, tourism? We appreciate Nature because it can be used for something. It supports our leisure activities or improves our lives in some tangible way. However not everything is “useful” or at least not in a way that we’ve yet discovered. Should we value those things less?

Over the next few posts I’ll pull some nuggets out of these essays that we can use as we try to be better at appreciating Nature as itself in our daily lives.


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