Modern Beauty in the Natural World

How the individual’s notion of beauty in the natural world is tied to the context it's perceived in.

  • Snow Geese Flying at Sunrise
    “And we remain tied to an explanatory system that, no matter how well it explicates the ebb and flow of energy or the interdependencies of processes, explains away the intrinsic, immediate worth of the natural world."
    Photo by Fotolia/Delmas Lehman
  • Keeping the Wild Cover
    A wide range of scientists, writers and activists provide insights into the heavily-debated topic of technology vs. nature in “Keeping The Wild,” edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist and Tom Butler.
    Cover courtesy Island Press

  • Snow Geese Flying at Sunrise
  • Keeping the Wild Cover

In response to those who claim that wild nature is no more, and that human-caused extinction is nothing to be concerned about, Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth (Island Press, 2014), edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist and Tom Butler, presents essays from scientists, writers and activists who have a powerful point to deliver about the importance of nature. This excerpt, which was written by Sandra Lubarsky, is from her essay, “Living Beauty.”

Finding Modern Beauty in the Natural World

In his essay, “Goose Music,” Aldo Leopold admits to having “congenital hunting fever,” and that, coupled with the fact that he has three sons to train in its virtues, keeps him shivering in his jacket at daybreak, fingers so frozen that the geese have nothing to fear from his aim. It’s not clear how many shots he fires, but they are all wide of their mark. The hour is early and the cold is intense, and Leopold has just missed what he describes as a “big gander.”

But Leopold gives no indication of aggravation or disappointment. Almost as quickly as that big gander veered away from his gunfire, he rejoices in the morning’s outcome. “[M]iss or no miss, I saw him, I heard the wind whistle through his set wings as he came honking out of the gray west, and I felt him so that even now I tingle at the recollection.” Hunting, it turns out, is not only about the pursuit of game. It is also about the pursuit of beauty. “Poets sing and hunters scale the mountains primarily for one and the same reason—the thrill to beauty.” Whether with weapon or recorder, game hunters, fishermen, “field-glass hunters,” “rare plant hunters,” “nature-loving poets,” and “professional conservationists” all hunt for “living beauty.” To be fully human, Leopold declares, we must participate in the natural world; to be fully alive, we must experience the living beauty of the natural world.

Leopold’s notion of beauty exceeds the conventional confinement of beauty or aesthetics to art or art history. If we think of beauty only as having to do with appearance or pleasure or art, we won’t understand the new philosophical territory on which Leopold planted the science of ecology. Leopold’s allegiance to the standards of careful observation led him to trust his direct experience of nature as evidence that there was something more at work in the world than either scientific or economic materialism could measure. When he invited his readers to enjoy the early spring sky dance of the woodcock or to sip a cup of coffee as field sparrows, robins, orioles, and wrens welcomed the new day, he was beckoning readers toward a way of experiencing the world that presupposed a sweeping metaphysical shift. And when he sat out after sunset next to the Rio Gavilan in northern Mexico, listening to the music in the river, he knew there was a grandeur and richness to wilderness that exceeded its usefulness and monetary value.

Leopold’s reference to beauty as essential to land health is the most important signifier of this new worldview. He understood nature as a network of social relations between incalculable varieties of beings, all filled with resident vitality and intrinsic value—and yielding beauty. For Leopold, beauty was the “key-log” in unjamming the whole mess made by economic and scientific mechanism. Beauty, he maintained, is fundamental to an ecological worldview. Not to recognize this was to make a place of great aliveness into a mere repository of commodities.

The importance of Leopold’s insight should not be underestimated. When it is, Leopold is made into a much more conventional thinker than he was. And we remain tied to an explanatory system that, no matter how well it explicates the ebb and flow of energy or the interdependencies of processes, explains away experience of the intrinsic, immediate worth of the natural world.

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