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)