Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Thoughts on a Holographic Aesthetic of Nature

Aesthetics deals with beauty, the nature of beauty and how we relate to beauty. Aesthetics raises questions such as ‘does beauty have an intrinsic nature or do we ascribe beauty to an object or scene? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or are there specific things or arrangements in nature that project beauty? Elsewhere, I have suggested that training and experience in ecology allows for a multidimensional aesthetic of living systems. I’m increasingly convinced that 'holographic' is a more complete description of what an ecologist sees when he or she views a living system.  The beauty of the vision or perception is not simply two dimensional and what is obvious to the eyes but at least three dimensional. Think about this as if you were looking into a round, clear plastic cylinder, perhaps a cylindrical aquarium stretching floor to ceiling. A crystal tube without distortion. The cylinder descends into the sand of a lagoon. Your eyes move upward passing the roots of aquatic vegetation such as rushes then up the stalks …through the water into the air above the water where a mollusk rests near the top of one of the stalks. All of this in three dimensions with small fish darting about and among the stalks..snails crawling along the stalks, small crustaceans buried in the muck below…Can I see all of those things at a glance? No. But I’ve seen this type of system so many times, in freshwater and salt, over the decades of my professional life that I see them, in my mind’s eye. I am immersed in them. They surround me...envelop me. Ecologists who work in a watery environment, with snorkel and mask or SCUBA, may experience this envelopment more than others. Perhaps learning to look holographically is a good teaching/learning tool. A holographic appreciation of the beauty of the site helps develop an aesthetic appreciation that includes an in depth understanding of nature in in depth and in motion. Holographically, one looks into a living system rather than simply onto a two dimensional representation of the system. Beauty is , indeed, more then skin deep.

Note: Several of us have formed an Environmental Aesthetic Study Group. Contact me at in order to join.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Ecological Restoration

The field of Restoration Ecology began to develop and formalize at about the same time as Environmental Aesthetics. Like Environmental Aesthetics, Restoration Ecology developed organizations, recruited members, established journals, and held conferences, and still does. As an ecologist, I became involved with Restoration Ecology during those years I worked on urban greening and habitat restoration projects. Although my professional work has shifted, I’ve kept track of the restoration folks.

 For example, some interesting restoration is underway with the Los Angeles River in Southern California. From 1914 to 1938 a number of floods caused much devastation and substantial death along the river. In response, in 1940 the US Army Corps of Engineers began to channelize the river pulling it between concrete walls.

Shortly after work began, in 1941 I was born in Los Angeles and for all of my young life frequently drove back and forth across the concrete channel…from homeplace to grandparental place…from the university where I worked to the one where I studied…and finally taking girlfriends to the beautiful beaches (I married one of those lovely California girls 54 years ago).  I’ve watched many films with the cops chasing the cons up and down the concrete channel…actor Arnold Schwarzenegger struggling to save humanity from future machines and, most recently in Fear the Walking Dead as a zombie apocalypse overwhelms Los Angeles.   

I’m now very pleased to see the work underway to restore the Los Angeles River.  And while some may find aesthetic pleasure in a concrete channel I think most of us would rather see rocky rapids, islands of emergent vegetation, and wildlife fill the channel. 

Several of us have formed an Environmental Aesthetics Study Group. Membership is free and by invitation. For an invitation contact

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Reflections on A Pool of Still Water

I doubt that there is anything in the environment that attracts me more quickly or engages my attention and fixes me so raptly, than a pool of still water. The context doesn’t even seem to matter much. A pool alongside a path through the woods or bubbling from sandy desert soil in the natural environment or a decorative water feature in the built environment, are like magnets pulling me to them and through them and into them.

I never even feel the water close over my head as my mind and spirit slip beneath the glassy, still surface. I never feel my mental gills begin to function as I slip deeper and deeper into the water. The objective pool may only be inches deep but subjectively I am rapidly and fully submerged and enveloped.  My eyes never blur or burn as my spirit opens to the shoals of tiny, darting silvery fish, the vegetation reaching for the surface and the sun, or the quietly resting frog.

It has been this way since I was a child, since my Grandmother took me to a ‘pet shop’ where I peered into my first aquarium or sat by the side of the first fish pond I had ever seen with orange-gold fish, their tails and fins moving in wavy streamers in the green algae stained water.

Over the decades I’ve looked into hundreds of aquariums and many fish ponds and my response never varies. Mind and spirit gently slip beneath the surface.

There is a debate in Environmental Aesthetics between cognitive and noncognitive theories…objective information based on science and more subjective, less fact-based approaches.  I have to wonder who I am. Where am I in this debate? It has been several undergraduate and graduate degrees since those early pet shop visits and I can explain in the most intimate detail what is happening chemically, physically and ecologically in this special wet world of mine...I know its secrets. I have physically slipped beneath the surface, breathing from a cylinder on my back, and hung mesmerized over the void 120 feet down on a Caribbean reef. I have snorkeled among an incredible plethora of life in shallow lagoons, and have dived deep into flooded desert caves and I have substantial scientific knowledge of those habitats and ecosystems. But those shallow pools, of which I also have great scientific knowledge, continue to call me, not so much as a scientist but in a spiritual sense. I’m not a religious person so perhaps all of this is what  E.O. Wilson refers to as ‘Bioiphilia,’ the human bond with other species. Perhaps I’ll never know the answer but I’m very comfortable with the question.

Several of us have formed a study group to address Environmental Aesthetics. For those who are interested, please  contact me at

Monday, August 31, 2015

On Aesthetics

Is it enough to say that a particular place is beautiful and that it projects (or we perceive) aesthetic appeal?  In my work as an ecologist, I analyze biodiversity, and the context in which it exists,  and describe how various aspects of an area function as a system. 
Simply saying of a place that “this is an ecosystem,” isn’t enough. Even qualifying that statement by claiming the place is a ‘wetland ecosystem’ isn’t enough.  Taking it down a step further and announcing that the place is a subset of a wetland ecosystem, for example a Southern Appalachian acidic fen or a desert wet meadow complex may work a bit better toward an acceptable description offering shared meaning.  But even to get this far I use a consensual methodology and terminology developed over decades by others who also call themselves ecologists.

The same need for system, method, and terminology appears to hold true for philosophical field of Aesthetics, including the sub-field of Environmental Aesthetics…the focus of our forum. A number of scholars have suggested an ‘aesthetics of nature’ through which that beautiful scene mentioned above can be placed in a context that allows us to describe it with some degree of consensus.
Over the years, I’ve looked at several proposed aesthetics of nature and  I wonder if any one system can adequately describe the range of beauty of those places in which I work and my response to those places, or the response you or others may have. For the past five years I have conducted fieldwork in the fens of the Blue Ridge Escarpment in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina and in isolated wetlands in the desert lands of the Great Basin of the western United States.  These are two very different regions of the world, very different ecosystems, and very different wetland systems.  And yet, I find beauty in both systems including the pocket-sized patches of damp sand in the Great Basin and the densely vegetated mucky fens of the Escarpment, with their mosses and ferns.  I find beauty not only in their present but also in their past…in their evolutionary development. In fact, I find myself drawn more and more to considering the aesthetic beauty of the evolution of living system….like incredibly colorful and complex fractals evolving on a viewing screen. 
Several of us have formed a study group to address Environmental Aesthetics. For those who are interested, please  contact me at


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Footsteps III

Continued from preceding post)

The rocky gorge of the Walker River. (Photo by Tom Baugh)
Early that morning, we had driven east in the general direction of the alkali flats and salt pans of Carson Sink. In the days of the 49 er's the Carson River would have flowed down from the Sierra Nevada Range, through the Carson Valley, to spread out before vanishing in the Sink. Migrants moving west toward the lure of California gold would have passed through this area as rapidly as possible.   Our route took us west of the Sink and then south where we crossed the thin riparian band of the stream as it donates some of the last of its water to irrigate alfalfa fields adjacent to the river. A recent but rare rain have raised the level of the river by a few inches but just enough to encourage carp to spawn in the newly flooded shallows.  A while later we passed through the rocky gorge of the Walker River, another stream that brings life to this otherwise arid land and that literally gave life to thirsty immigrants and their livestock.    With the except of our final goal and an occasional almost dry irrigation ditch, we encountered little if any water. One final turn south and another hour brought us to our goal as emerald-green meadows opened in small valleys through which the desert road passed.
The Carson River after a rare rain. (Photo by Tom Baugh)

It was a strange experience to stand in what was, otherwise, such a dry place and to watch and feel cool water, ever so slowly, seep up around and into our shoes.  It seemed so counter-intuitive. After all, one has only to raise one’s eyes a degree or two above the level of the shallow basin to encounter baked sand and rock the silver-grey woody parts of sagebrush and the gnarled bark of short, seemingly stunted pinyon.  Surely, there are two worlds here, two separate realities, the one of the meadow and the one of the desert slopes. After a day wandering the wet meadows and the nearby sagebrush and pinyon-covered hills, with cameras filled with images and tablets with notes, we made the return trip to the Carson City area. Not all of the images of those emerald green meadows set among the pinyon clothed hills were in our cameras. That is the kind of experience it is hard to forget. But why should one want to?

(Final post in this series)  

Several of us have formed a study group to address Environmental Aesthetics. For those who are interested, please  contact me at

Footsteps II


(Continued from preceding post)

This is a place of vast stretches of arid land. (Photo by Tom Baugh)
We were searching for the emerald green of rare springs and seeps. (Photo by Tom Baugh)
Gold and Silver are evocative colors but on this trip and many others before it, we were searching not for mineral wealth but another kind of wealth and another color. It was emerald we were looking for, not the emerald of the gemstone but the startling plant-green of those rare oasis of  vegetation surrounding springs that very infrequently seep from the base of hills alongside the two-lane country roads. Native American people were the first humans to visit these small islands of green with their cool waters and sheltering willow and cottonwood trees. It didn’t take long for wandering Europeans, following the course of the Carson and Walker rivers and to stake their claim. Domestic livestock would soon graze in what would one day be called wet meadow complexes.  In fact, the complex we had been asked to visit was the site of an old stagecoach stop on the dusty gravel trail from one western Nevada mining camp to another. In our soon sopping tennis shoes we squished along trails where stagecoach stock had once been turned out to graze and moccasins and hobnailed boots had wandered.  In one way or another everyone who came here left their mark. In fact, our visit was, in part, to help erase at least some of those earlier marks. but there was really very little left for us to do because the current landowner had a strong sense of stewardship.

Ours were not the first footprints in these wet meadows. (Photo by Tom Baugh)
Several of us have formed a study group to address Environmental Aesthetics. For those who are interested, please  contact me at

(Continued in next post)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Footsteps I

Much of Nevada can be a harsh and difficult land. (Photo by Tom Baugh)
I recently traveled to the western edge of the Great Basin in the US State of Nevada. In almost all ways this is a very big and mostly very lonely land. Except for major cities such as Reno in the northwest and Las Vegas far to the south, most other communities are relatively small and compact as if gathered-in against the immensity of the surrounding sagebrush and sand that dominates much of the area. On the west, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range pierce the frequently blue skies...skies broken by the highest peaks and only occasional contrails of very high-flying military and civilian jets. These mountains block what little rain Nevada receives from the Pacific Ocean in this time of increasingly severe drought in the western United States.  Author Mary Austin once referred to the area south of the site I was visiting as the 'land of little rain' and, mostly, that is the case for much of the Great Basin and the other desert regions east of California. The earth in these places range from a sandy yellow brown, to beige, to alkali white. The vegetation the dark green of Pinyon and blue-grey of sagebrush. Although these colors and tones are the general rule they are not exclusive.
Wheeler Peak, Nevada. (Photo by Tom Baugh)

Cemeteries and mine tailing dumps remind us of early Virginia City, Nevada. (Photo by Tom Baugh)
It was the exception to the desert tones and hues that had brought my son Kevin and I to this site in the shadow of Wheeler Peak. South of the Nevada state capitol at Carson City, the interstate highways spawned smaller two lane ribbons of asphalt leading to communities such as Smith and Yerington and,  old mining camps such as Aurora and, further south Bodie. Occasionally, we would pass bluish metal markers noting the historical significance of a particular site. There are a number of these historical site markers in Nevada, especially western Nevada, because a lot of history took place here.  The 49 ‘ers crossed these lands before ascending the steep and rugged eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada range in search of the gold in California only to make the return trip in 1859 to establish the mineral-rich mines of Gold Hill, Silver City, and the queen of them all, Virginia City in Nevada’s Comstock Lode. 

Several of us have formed a study group to address Environmental Aesthetics. For those who are interested, please  contact me at

(Continued in next post)