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