Stones in water by Mark Whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Appreciating Nature with Science

In my first post about appreciating nature we saw that appreciating nature as itself, as nature, and not as “the environment” or as merely a backdrop for our activities, etc. is a lot more difficult than we think. A proper appreciation for nature not only increases our personal enjoyment of it but also determines how much or how little we value it and therefore how well we care for it.

Allen Carlson takes a stab at laying out some ground rules for appreciating nature in his essay Appreciation and the Natural Environment in the book “The Aesthetics of Natural Environments”. To begin Carlson shows that we currently we have two paradigms for appreciating nature. He calls them the object model and the landscape model.

The object model simplifies things

by breaking everything down into individual objects. An oil painting or a piece of sculpture is an object and has defined boundaries. We can isolate that object from its surroundings and contemplate it alone. We can appreciate its forms, colors, and textures without needing to relate it to anything further.

The object model could be used on nature, but it has some problems. Say we take a rock from a stream in the woods, bring it home, and set it on the table. It is now an isolated object and can be appreciated merely for its form and beauty without the need to connect it to anything else. This is neat and clean, but it doesn’t really help us to appreciate “nature”. A visitor, not knowing where the rock came from, could think that it is an abstract sculpture that someone chiseled. It isn’t nature anymore, it is an object.

The landscape model, sometimes referred to as the picturesque model

, is something with which we are all familiar. Indeed it is really about the only model the average person ever uses when encountering nature. Here nature is divided into scenes. Each scene is then appreciated as if it were a painting. The beauty of each scene is gauged by how closely it approaches the ideals of art.

We pile into the car and trek to scenic viewpoints. These view points have been pre-selected for the best arrangement of elements. A majestic snow-capped mountain in the background with maybe a lake in the foreground surrounded by maple trees for that added autumn color (if you are european, toss in an old castle on the hillside for good measure). The area has been manicured to frame the view. Parking areas and fences have been constructed for safety and convenience. We hop out, walk to the fence, snap a few pics, and head for the next location.

Once again this model doesn’t do anything to help us appreciate nature as nature. Our view of nature is a series of what amount to very large landscape paintings. Only those portions of nature that look like paintings are valued. We are free to destroy our local environments while valuing only specific places like the Rockies. As long as we set aside a few picturesque sites that we can drive through once a year, the rest of nature can be ignored.

Carlson puts forth a new idea

to replace these imperfect models 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).

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. Knowledge can transform the raw experience and bring harmony, determinance, and meaning.  As he states:

In the way in which the art critic and the art historian are well equipped to aesthetically appreciate art, the naturalist 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 – like a swamp or an barren tundra.

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”. Why not? I think I should be able to appreciate anything that comes within my field of experience. Also many of the following essays in the book fault this model for relying too much on cold calculating science without leaving room for personal experience, imagination, intuition, and folklore.

We’ll explore some of those other ideas next time.


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