Water photograph by Mark Whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Natural Aesthetics: Going Beyond Science

In my last post, Appreciating Nature with Science, we talked about Allen Carlson’s idea that the best framework for properly appreciating nature as nature is science. Knowing a bit of natural history and environmental science can give us guide lines to understand nature without reducing it to a series of picturesque scenes or mere economic calculations.

I like this idea, but I have some concerns that the approach ignores an aspect of appreciation that comes from our personal thoughts, emotions, and imagination especially during our direct experiences with the natural world. Perhaps Carlson would say that any thoughts I come up with in my head that aren’t backed by solid scientific evidence are likely to be wrong, but I’m just not comfortable with such a sterile approach.

Here’s a little story about my experiences as I walked along a stream in one of my favorite places.


I sit by the stream munching on some chips, downing a soda, and scribbling in my journal. What I’m 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. At the intersection of the bright sun beams and the clear water currents, I took some photographs.

But now the clouds have closed ranks; dimming the light and stealing away the shadows. It’s cold and a bit dreary down in this gully.

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 chase the sun. Always it stays frustratingly one step away. In the afternoon I crawl down the side of a long waterfall. The rocks are wet and slippery. My boots fill with water. I’m wet and tired, but at the bottom I perk up because finally I’ve 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.

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 toward the sun, I can see the red glow through my lids.

It’s 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 pop off the walls and sprinkle down around me. 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. The slow carving of the gully goes on and on.

I stay in this place a long time. More than once I try to leave, but each time I stop to photograph something and afterward I go back to my spot on the wall for a while. Finally I decide I had better get a move on and slosh through the water toward the exit.

The walls quickly narrow pushing the wide water back together and urging it on faster and faster before flinging it down the stairs of another waterfall. The smooth sheet of glass is shattered into shards that sparkle for an instant and then vanish as they fall into the shadows.

I pause at the lip of the cascade. Behind me is light and warmth and quiet solitude beneath an open sky of blue and white. In front is a plunge down into a close, shadowy, noisy, splashing world under a thick green canopy. I fill my lungs with one final breath of warm air and follow the water down over the rocks.

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”.

Much of our experience of nature doesn’t need a scientific back story to make it correct.

Something ineffable in nature stirs our souls. The joy of feeling the warm sun on my face trumps analyses of solar radiation. I can enjoy the sound of the falling stones without concerning myself with the geologic history of the area.

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.

I think science is a good guide and it keeps our imaginations from running away with us, but we need to leave room for less concrete yet still valid experiences.


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