Engaged in thinking, feeling, and doing, we find values that guide us in each area. If truth is the headmaster in the school of thinking, and goodness governs the school of doing, then beauty conducts the school of feeling.
Basing a life on a balanced plane of scientific, philosophic, and spiritual truth opens a new sensitivity to beauty. The first reason for this result is that truth, fully realized, is beautiful. At its height, truth is the realization of loving relations in the universal family. Those who emphasize the biological and social-psychological dimensions of aesthetic experience may agree that the widest possible realization of truth opens up the widest possible appreciation of beauty.
There is another reason why an integrated realization of truth opens the heart to beauty especially well:
SIMPLICITY! The simple realization of BEAUTY.
Such realization gives peace with reality on all levels. Reasonable thoroughness in scientific and philosophic responsibility and spiritual receptivity leads to a new quality of simplicity. Scientific, philosophic, or inner identity-search issues do not agitate most people's daily life. Most people's daily activities operate with truth issues in the background. When that background has a luminous simplicity, a warmth derived from integration, we have the relaxation that enables us to enjoy beauty around us and to express beauty through our own lives.
On the path from truth to goodness, it has been easy to skip beauty. Understanding a situation prepares a person to act. Why should a philosophy of living not then proceed directly to reflections on morality and ethics? Beauty seems unnecessary until we reflect. The very perception of facts begins with the organism's response to beauty, since it is the attractiveness of things against a comparatively neutral background that draws attention to them at all, to a brightly colored bird on a branch or an animal moving across a field. When divine values manifest in consciousness, they are felt as lures (to use a psycho-philosophical term). If we act on the basis of a grasp of truth without beauty, we can hardly express love. By contrast, once we experience beauty in truth, beauty in goodness, or beauty in nature or the arts, it becomes unthinkable that living could be full without beauty. There are countless testimonies to the benefits to health, sanity, and happiness from taking time to enjoy beauty. Thus a philosophy of living cannot afford to skip beauty.
The more we know beauty, the more we realize beauty's role in everything we do. Even though beauty, too, usually rests in the background of most people's daily tasks, it is there, not lost, not out of the field of awareness, and there is a gentle transition as we turn to focus on it directly. Beauty has been the most thoughtlessly pursued of values and the most neglected by thinkers, but it is beginning to see a renaissance of genuine recognition. The voices of Amerindian traditions speaking about "walking in beauty" are getting a wider hearing today. Environmentalists are rediscovering the joy of natural living. Cities are discovering the blessings of giving over walls in public spaces to mural paintings done by gifted and trained artists after community discussion of what they want to represent.
The Beauties of Nature
Sometimes a spurt of personal growth has to wait until the person turns to a neglected activity. Once the missing piece of the puzzle is supplied, a leap of integration occurs. The missing piece can come from anywhere on the diagram of levels of value. I have seen many spurts of growth occur when people took a vacation or in some way relaxed the pace after a season of intense striving. The enjoyment of natural beauty is often the missing piece of the puzzle--or makes room for the missing piece of the puzzle to appear.
What is it about natural beauty that touches us so deeply? How can we expand our appreciation? If a child's delight in natural beauty is the beginning of this trail of appreciation, where does the trail end? Should it not be possible to combine the experiences of a naturalist, philosopher, mystic, artist, and ecological activist?
Imagine a film in which the camera first slowly takes in a beautiful scene, picking up the sounds of wind and water and insects and birds. Footage may be taken at dawn, morning, midday, afternoon, sunset, evening, night; in spring, summer, autumn, winter; in fair weather and in storms. After several minutes in the simplicity of this opening evocation, attention turns to geologic features, to meteorology, to the details of a particular shrub or tree, a bird's nest, an insect colony, some animal behavior, to rouse our recollection of the complexity that awaits us beyond the surface of what we notice first. Commentary adds scientific description. Then the camera goes back to the initial level of focus, completing the first of several cycles in the film. Returning to the first scene, simple enjoyment harvests something of the previous foray into science.
In another cycle, one sees artists' renditions of the scene or something like it; in another, words of poetry depict the scene. A historical tableau could be constructed, recalling dramas of historic and prehistoric peoples. What conflicts have transpired? What exploitation, protection, and restoration of the land? What sports and games have flourished there? What have past peoples appreciated about this area? What are the possibilities for the area in the future?
After cycles featuring various aspects that add meaning to the scene, the film ends with the initial setting. The realization dawns that the beauty of this scene tacitly reflects all these dimensions. Perceptual enjoyment is more than the organism's physical response, since it now engages the entire self. A film or a book or a flight of imagination can all bring home the idea that an interdisciplinary approach enhances the appreciation of natural beauty.
Think of walking among fragrant blossoms in spring, smelling the sweet, heavy air of a summer field after rain, seeing the brilliant reds and yellows of autumn leaves against the dark green of conifers, walking over newly fallen snow as bright sunlight illumines thinly iced tree branches, lying on sand dunes watching waves approach the shore, discovering an isolated cove where the beach is white and the water turquoise, riding horseback in the mountains, wading in a clear mountain stream, swimming in a river, coming across deer and staying with them in stillness for a long time, watching fog cascade over hills, gazing up the length of a giant Sequoia tree in a redwood forest, dozing on a thick bed of pine needles on the sunlit floor of a forest, striding through fields sprinkled with wildflowers, walking into the caress of a gentle breeze or the bracing tonic of a cool wind, running up hills and finding lakes.
Experiences of natural beauty could be variously classified. In some experiences a single sense is predominant, while other are more multidimensional. Some find beauty on the micro level, some on the ordinary level, some on the macro level. Some turn to the heavens, some to the earth. Some experiences are more receptive, others more active. The level of contrast between the focus and the background may be high or low. Some experiences are particularly linked to natural cycles such as seasons of the year or times of the day. Some are saturated with a sense of higher meaning and value, while others are more matter of fact. Most are centered outside the self, but some are enjoyments of the self or of the self in relation to another.
Places of natural beauty stand out against a background of commonplace landscape. The Scottish Highlands with their lochs, waterfalls, heather valleys, rivers, and sparse forests enchant the eye. The value of the spectacular spots doesn't of course justify neglecting the aesthetic values of the surrounding territory, but a beautiful phenomenon--like anything we notice--inevitably has the structure of a figure-against-a-background.
An unappealing scene has beauties that disclose themselves on a different scale. Shifting to a microscopic level, one finds wonders of biology and physics. Shifting to the macroscopic scale, one finds wonders of the planet and the solar system. The point of shifting scale is not to deny ugliness but to illustrate the freedom of a seeker after beauty and to suggest that, in well-chosen perspective, beauty is the last word.
Spending time outdoors enhances positive personal qualities. Backpackers tend to have a more simple and natural way of expressing themselves and doing things, a more natural attitude about the body and physical pleasure. A layer of social artificiality is gone. Physical effort disciplined by nature's rhythms keeps the mind from racing. The greatest lives show a joy in natural living and an appreciation for the beauties of nature. Their trust in nature and affirmation of the process of life combine with their commitment to improve existence on our polluted and disease-stricken planet on which hundreds of species become extinct every year. Persons are greater than problems, and in spite of everything these people go on noticing, enjoying, and enhancing the beauty around them. Beauty nourishes them for whatever tasks are theirs.
One reason we enjoy natural beauty is that experiencing it promotes health. Health of course is partly a gift of heredity and partly a matter of enjoying proper nutrition, rest, and exercise in a relatively unpolluted environment. But health is to an unsuspected degree a consequence of a living in a way that integrates truth, beauty, and goodness. Receptivity to natural beauty is not wholly passive, not just looking at photographs of picturesque sites. While there is a contemplative side to enjoying beauty, there is also an active side. The very effort to get to the vista is an essential phase of the temporal background of the experience. The quickening of the pulse, the exertion of muscles, the filling of the lungs--these are all part of the total experience.
Cultivating appreciation: Taking time
The first lesson in learning to appreciate some particularly beautiful natural scene is to take time to experience the scene and its qualities. The hasty "experience" of the tourist does not suffice. The vista sampled, the snapshot taken, the postcard purchased--none of these accomplishes the mission. Time is required for the experience to sink in, to make a lasting impression, adding to your gallery of memories, as you gather treasures to recall in time of need.
It takes time to feel rhythms. There is a rhythm in any phenomenon, in the course of a day or the seasons of the year. A sunset comes to a peak of radiance and then it begins to fade. Some rhythms pertain to the experiencer. Each experience has its gradual or sudden onset, its culmination, and its phase of decline. In addition, the appreciative mind cannot respond fully for long. After a while, fatigue sets in, and the art of experiencing does not strain to sustain the experience unnaturally. Comprehending beauty involves recognizing something akin to melody insofar the movement of experience follows some primary focus of attention. There is melody in the flight of a bird as well as in the song of the bird. And comprehending beauty involves being able to grasp harmonies in complex appearances.
Taking time for natural beauty makes a difference in your perceptions at other times. You may start noticing more what is going on in the sky and how the seasons are changing. You may begin to wake up, not merely with the sense of awaking in this room or in this house, but on this continental landmass, for example. You may start observing the moods of nature more and their influence on people. You may notice how normal living is pervaded by other background pleasures that go unnoticed, including breathing fresh air and our ability to move as we desire and the mind's resting in the comfort provided by the supporting brain when the posture is erect.
Natural sciences and aesthetic appreciation
Experience of nature begins in perception of what is there and what is happening. In perception, lures to scientific and aesthetic exploration commingle. There is always more to experience than our senses can take in at any given moment. The very delight in phenomena attracts scientific inquiry, and each success of scientific understanding enables the growth of appreciation.
Of course, scientific and aesthetic attitudes toward a landscape are different. Science narrates the invisible structure of the trees and the geologic history of the hills, counts the populations of species, measures annual rainfall, and explores relationships within ecosystems. Aesthetic appreciation follows the visible structure of a landscape, its present look and feel, the balance of horizontal and vertical vectors and curves, and the sights and sounds and smells as they are felt by the experiencer.
Sometimes the scientific and aesthetic attitudes seem antagonistic; an aesthetic response does not suffice when science is required, nor can science satisfy the soul when it craves the beauty of nature. Too high a proportion of science crowds out aesthetic enjoyment. Science makes possible reductionistic analyses of the aesthetic response. It has been argued that the response of awe to the starry sky is basically due to the way the receptive eye is gently and approximately equally stimulated over the entire retina. This stimulation results in a sublime sense of space, an experience that underlies and gives emotional power to the idea of infinity. It has been argued that the pleasure we take in the prospect afforded by a high promontory is rooted in the organism's evolutionary biologic interest in overlooks from which an animal can watch for prey and observe its enemies. Every such observation tells part of the story, but not necessarily the heart of the story of our experience of the beauties of nature.
Nevertheless, with the qualifications just noted, the landscape is the locus of aesthetic enjoyment and a better understanding of the landscape makes for a better aesthetic experience. Background scientific knowledge enhances aesthetic perception in various ways. The first way is simply to draw careful attention to what would otherwise be missed. For example, learning about insects that one initially finds repulsive make it possible to prize them aesthetically by drawing observation to the more microscopic level where the details of the tiny creatures can be seen.
Figuring out how an island formed in a river just downstream from a dry creek bed through which water and silt once poured into the river gives a context for savoring the island as a phenomenon. One feels pleasure in having understood a moment of cosmic process; and there is something attractive in the very laws of gravity and inertia. These intellectual pleasures add to the delight in perceivable beauty.
Even modest information about the geologic history of an area can add a remarkable dimension to one's present experience. Usually a landscape seems static, except for such transient events as the blowing of grasses. Usually when we say "now" we refer to a narrow stretch of time. But a sense of process over long periods of time--when the region was, say, under water or when the glaciers of the ice age retreated leaving boulders in newly carved valleys--imparts a dynamic sense to the landscape and vastly expands the dimensions of our sense of the present.
Watch a sunset sometime keeping in mind that it is the earth's rotation that is responsible for the phenomenon. One can in fact experience a sunset as a consequence of the earth's turning, and this yields an uncanny sense of one's own motion as the earth turns silently with absolutely no felt trace of bumpiness or acceleration or pressure. The earth, along with its stability as a foundation we take for granted, involves us in a gentle dynamism of irresistible motion.
Scientific information can alter the perception of beauty. A scene with small patches of woods separated by cultivated fields and small villages might have seemed fully delightful until you learn about the need of some species for connected patches of forest, so that a habitat large enough for the species remains available. In the light of that, one may well find more beauty in a scene where wooded corridors connect larger forested areas. Visual appeal is linked to other kinds of appeal.
Science discloses pattern in nature. The organism's perceptual response is so attracted to pattern that it cannot sustain attention and awareness when confronted with something that it can only perceive as sheer consistency of texture or an uncoordinated jumble of data. Something must emerge into prominence for perception to occur. This is a pervasive trait that attunes an infant to the human face, especially the face of the mother. Perception is in the business of adequately rendering relevant features of the environment. It attunes a predator to its prey, an animal to its mate. The environment is not an incoherent mass of equi-significant detail, but an arena with at least biological significance to each type of creature. Some figure must detach itself as of greater moment than what thus becomes its background. What broader significance might there be to our orientation to pattern? And how far can mathematics and physics go in giving an account of pattern in nature?
How much unsuspected pattern pervades the world around us? A magnificent oak tree viewed from a distance approximates the shape of a parabola. As incalculable as the shapes of waves may be, they give the impression of an implicit mathematics and physics. Seashells and sunflower heads manifest a curve that can be generated from the Fibonacci series of numbers--1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on, in which the next member of the series is the sum of the previous two. The mathematics of fractals, where large-scale patterns are repeated on smaller scales, have drawn attention to the pattern in the seemingly random shape of a coastline.
Science gives mathematical accounts of patterns, but nature is always more complex than the mathematical description. The attractiveness of the thin sliver of moon depends on the spherical appearance of the moon and the shadow cast by the earth, though neither body is a perfect sphere. Nature shows a combination of regularity and irregularity, and the combination is essential to natural beauty.
Interpretation and nature
Nature stimulates the quest for meaning and creative design without ever satisfying it in an intellectually definitive way. Experience is suggestive. Watch the sun come up behind a range of mountains. Before the sun itself is visible, the gradual process looks like the unfolding of a slow-motion explosion. In the sudden moment of discontinuity you see a light shape whiter and brighter than yellow, which quickly rises to spill its basket of golden dust into the waking valley. The sense of something akin to generosity in the sun's pouring forth is spontaneous. Can this sense be explained in terms of the biologic needs of the creature for light and warmth? How much is the feeling dependent on the comfort of being safe from the harshness of the sun? What role do the cultural connotations of gold and white play in the experience? In the experience of beauty these questions are neither posed nor answered, but wonder stirs the soul root of such questioning. Comprehending natural beauty involves sensitivity to the way a scene almost speaks.
Given a human craving to find natural reflections of spiritual principles, what shall we make of the ideas that arise in a contemplative moment in nature? It is all too easy to read lessons into landscape and to see allegories in the seasons. Suppose you are wandering in the woods, wrestling with a problem, and you come across a quiet stream. As you watch the water in openness, its gradual, winding flow comes to symbolize the patience you need at this time in your life, and you quietly rejoice that nature has conveyed this insight. Caution counsels that realizations like this, however relevant they may be to the individual's need of the moment, and however charmingly they may be symbolized in the natural setting, may be more safely interpreted as the mind's harvest not only from nature but also from the confluence of subconscious and superconscious sources. When storm clouds darken the water and sunlight enters the scene most directly only through a small hole in the upper layer of clouds, reflected from there to the upper surface of a lower layer of broken clouds, only to bounce back up to the undersurface of the higher layer, and thence to reflect a pillar of light straight down onto the waves--the observer can be in awe without translating the scene into religious allegory.
The very interpretation of nature as a self-contained, autonomous realm independent of mind and spirit arose when early modern science separated itself from some of the religious and philosophic ideas associated with older science. The modern scientific concept of nature as devoid of purpose encouraged the study of nature's mechanisms. However, once the mechanistic thinking of the European "Enlightenment" had claimed the whole of nature for itself, Romantic aesthetic sensibility reopened the question of nature's relation to mind and spirit. Nature became a symbol of untold depth, where conscious, subconscious, and superconscious converge.
For many of us, then, experiences of nature have profound religious overtones. The experience of beauty nevertheless offers a much-needed vacation from religious thinking, and philosophy and theology should not over-interpret. On the broad spectrum of responses to natural beauty, it is wise to avoid the extreme of indifference and the extreme of nature worship.
There is a temptation to impose our interpretations on nature as though they were insights. The variety of human experiences and interpretations of nature suggests that nature is comparatively passive to interpretation and that interpretation is influenced by convictions taken from other parts of one's philosophy or religion. The truth of these interpretations depends more on the truth of the associated philosophy or religion than on a simple ability to discern meaning in nature. Nature, then, is neither a meaningless chaos nor a text to be read. Nature's meaningfulness is its mysterious stimulus to interpretation.
The happy situation is that the experience of beauty is not primarily a discourse. Even the most active and thorough aesthetic exploration of a scene serves mainly to deepen the quiet of beholding. Even the remarks between friends taking a walk to enjoy nature, as one mentions something noteworthy to the other, occur in a cycles in which noticing precedes and culminates each remark. Enjoying the beauties of nature is a vacation from science, philosophy, theology, and ethics, and to shift into such topics abandons aesthetic experience. It is in quiet receptivity that other areas of activity tacitly convey their contributions to the experience.
From an interdisciplinary perspective, comprehension of beauty thus involves description of what is perceived, acknowledgement of the influences of areas of concern (science, religion, etc.) that are distinct but indirectly relevant, and confession of the incompleteness of one's grasp.
Our favorite places
What are the characteristics of people's favorite places in nature as they report them? The testimonies I have heard and read converge on a number of themes. The appeal to the senses is only part of the story. Often such a place is a protected location or refuge, somehow sheltered. Where one feels secure, a wide-open space will serve as well, a beach, a mountain summit. Adventuresome types prefer open seas, the face of a cliff, or wilderness areas shared with other predators.
The very expression "a place in nature" implies separation from ordinary society, relative solitude. People's favorite places offer a vacation from the daily pressure of other people's expectations, from social emotions, from the stress of refereeing the contest between egoistic and altruistic impulses--in short, from other human beings. Sometimes favored spots are places to go with a friend or with family. At the limit, for people among a crowd of strangers watching a sunset, the viewers have an unhindered view of the sunset.
To be sure, solitude is partial, even when we are all by ourselves. The place of relative solitude is such precisely in relation to the society from which we have temporarily removed ourselves and to which we will return. Moreover, in solitude we continue to be social beings, and our reflections go on in the language of our culture.
Many people seek solitude in nature in order to commune. A favorite place in nature is a place to get more deeply in touch with what is truest in oneself. It is a place for spiritual communion. The ambiguity of the word "commune" mirrors fittingly the indefinite and vague experience, so little verbal, so little busy with thoughts, so open to inspiration without any straining or striving, without any clear sense of the source from which inspiration is sought. It is a place to put things in perspective. The perplexing problems of the passing hour recede in their urgency. One recovers a sense that one is not, after all, the center of the universe; and, remarkably, this recovery of perspective does not normally bring a feeling that one's own life is negligible, meaningless, superfluous, or useless. Indeed, one often returns from a time of communing in nature with a refreshed sense of purpose. It is a prescription for groups suffering from tension to go for a vacation in nature, putting aside all conversation about troubling issues.
To be sure, nature functions in many ways other than through its beauty, and favorite places in nature need not be particularly beautiful.
Nevertheless, the beauty of a scene is a value that is distinguishable from other dimensions associated with the experience. The engine of the mind is not turned off, but neither is it engaged with the gears of the scientific, philosophic, and religious intellect. Practical goals are laid down for a while, as the harmony of physical contrasts absorbs attention.
Enjoying the beauties of nature in relative solitude has such satisfying appeal that people commonly experience the universe there as a friendly place. There is a sense of being embraced in something wonderful beyond measure, being part of something grand, a sense of invitation and welcome. The commingling of affirmation arising within oneself and the joy in what we perceive seem in such moments to disclose a deeper truth and goodness than we usually notice. Enjoyment gives way to rejoicing.
Myth No. 1: Beauty is merely subjective
To appreciate the significance of beauty, it helps to be free of two widespread myths about values. The first is that beauty is merely subjective.
The experience of natural beauty suggests important lessons about value that need clarifying today. One commonly hears, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." On the one hand, the statement is obvious. On the other hand, it is used to state something that is less obvious. People disagree about values, about beauty. Moreover the phrase about the eye of the beholder is designed to assert that value is subjective--relative to the individual or group doing the evaluating. A deeper look indicates that natural beauty illustrates the truth that value is real.
There is a universal pull in the experience of beauty. In an age where community differences are exalted in opposition to the ideal of universal humanity, the cross-cultural kinship of appreciative minds enjoying the beauties of nature provides access to common ground. In the presence of beauty we feel that we are not merely responding to something that happens to satisfy our personal preferences, but we want to share our discovery, and we feel that we are enjoying something that should appeal to everyone (or everyone with a comparable preparation for the experience). Though some prefer the mountains to the seashore, the beauties of each kind of place are widely recognized. The sublimity of the night sky has evoked awe and reverence in countless souls. How can a person not feel the pull of the ineffable in the sky?
Of course, in support of the thesis that beauty is real it is not enough to point out that there are places of beauty such as the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls that are sought out by travelers from all over the world. There are personal and cultural differences, and they are not to be minimized. Culture affects the extent to which nature is regarded as the home of ancestral spirits, the Creator's handiwork, a realm for mystical and allegorical interpretation, a stock of raw materials for human exploitation, a place for recreation and character building, or a precious support system for endangered life-forms. Nevertheless, when the stories of difference are told in sufficient fullness, difference does not seem like an ultimate, raw datum, merely a matter of subjective preferences. Rather, differences are intelligible as responses to the complexity of the landscape of values. For example, tourists flock to the beaches of Bali, somewhat to the surprise of the Balinese themselves, who traditionally regard the mountain at the center of their island as the dwelling place of the gods. There is a logic to the Balinese preference. From the mountain comes the pure water of the rivers that become more dirty downstream as they are used by more people as the rivers flow finally into the sea.
Another example of the logic of cultural difference in aesthetic perception is that Europeans did not appreciate the beauty of mountains and forests during the centuries when these were fearsome places. Factors of geography and climate put travelers at risk, and thieves would lie in wait. As Christianity demoted nature spirits to demons, the woods became more frightful. However, as poets, philosophers, and painters joined in conversation about the sublime and the beautiful and the picturesque, and when the lake country in England was celebrated in verse, aesthetic appreciation of nature flourished. This story illustrates the long cultural evolution required for values to be appreciated.
Our talk of the development of European sensitivity to the beauties of nature is consistent with the following thesis. People's aesthetic evaluations will converge so that, at the culmination of human evolution, everyone will agree. The convergence thesis, however, despite its merits, overlooks the fact that there are different personality types. The ministry of beauty in the personality is fulfilled by different experiences for different persons. One function of beauty, for example, is to facilitate relaxation and enjoyment; but some people need more complex or subtle stimuli than others to satisfy this need. Another function of beauty is to symbolize qualities of sublime living: one person gains this value by beholding a mountain, another by climbing it.
Myth No. 2: Beauty is incomprehensible
How far can we understand beauty? If natural science supplies the paradigm of comprehension, then we cannot comprehend beauty. In determining that an animal is a rabbit, a biologist applies an idea to an example; precision and certainty are normal. In telling whether something is beautiful, however, a person needs a sense of judgment that does not proceed in the same way.
To comprehend beauty does not require a complete, systematic, and authoritative exposition of beauty. It does not mean that words can substitute for experience. It does not mean that humans can construct an equally beautiful replica on the basis of our knowledge of the laws of the phenomenon. It does not require an exhaustive inventory of the subconscious and superconscious moments of our experience.
To affirm that we can comprehend beauty means that we can recognize and express the features of a beautiful phenomenon, its tensions and unity. In nature, that which is beautiful appeals to us by contrast with what is less beautiful. After miles and miles of highway through endlessly flat, treeless, dusty plains, the look of forested foothills and flowing water comes as a relief. After a long hike in the shadows of a forest path, emerging into a sunny clearing brings a lift. Without the contrasting background, neither the forest nor the clearing would be so attractive. Fashion design relies on contrast with previous styles. There is, nevertheless, a harmony of contrasts intrinsic to the scene that occasions the recognition of beauty.
After emphasizing the fact that the appreciation of beauty goes beyond discourse, it is time to balance that thought with the recognition that language does bring beauty to light. Just perusing the letters of Vincent Van Gogh, for example, heightens the reader's sense of natural beauty. Art history teaches a discipline of describing that conducts careful noticing, for example, of contrasts and their unification, of line and curve, of light and shadow, of horizontal and vertical, of color and tone and mood. Great appreciation goes hand in hand with the capacity to convey the realization of value to others, intelligibly. Thus we move back and forth between the simplicity of wonder to an articulate expression of thorough appreciation.
The arts and natural beauty
Some connoisseurs of the beauties of nature testify that the contemplative appreciation of the beauty of landscape is enhanced, above all, by geological and biological knowledge and by a knowledge of the history of painting. Artists devote extraordinary gifts to observing, feeling, and expressing natural beauty, and the non-specialist should expect to have something to learn from them. Painters' interpretations expand our aesthetic vocabulary as observers. Moreover, there are landscapes that invite comparison with particular styles of painting. To convey a mystic luminosity in landscape, some painters laid a white glaze underneath their forest greens, earthen browns, and atmospheric rosy pinks. The brightness of the glaze, rarely if ever directly visible, suggested the limited sense in which the divine is present in nature.
Artists lead people beyond the tendency to crystallize emotions. It is so easy to imagine standard types of situation calling for standard emotional responses. One strives to rejoice, for example, when it would be far more honest and effective to start with a very different feeling and move toward a different shade of culmination in the experience. Artists challenge stereotyped, conventional responses, lead us to open ourselves, for example, to the freshness of life in a desert. Years ago, walking with my wife in the hills of Umbria, having anticipated that nature would smile upon our excursion and show off its familiar attractions, I expressed frustration over the cloudy day and cold wind and lack of sunshine. My wife responded that Japanese people learn to appreciate all the aspects of nature. Indeed, painters have taught humanity to appreciate qualities of fog and smoke and wilderness, have noticed the green in the human face, the ways in which the two eyes differ, the link between the earth we tread and the personal history implicit in a pair of shoes.
Asian painters have often depicted mountains at whose base we begin with familiar human habitations from which a narrow, winding path leads higher and higher into a peak obscured by mist. In the form of a scroll, the painting provides an occasion for friends to recount stories over the course of an evening. Such art, as a background for natural experience, reminds us of our sociality as we venture into nature, of our increasing solitude as we continue our journey, of our humility before a vast universe, and of the limitations of our knowledge: the summit can only be inferred from below.
The gifts of poets are hardly less than those of painters in expanding our sense of the import of natural beauty. Musicians attune to nature. Perfumes and gourmet delicacies also present natural beauty. Massage brings pleasure, even to those who accept self-gratification only in connection with therapy.
Again and again we return with profit to the simplest lessons for beginners, for those lessons contain the seeds to be unfolded at each step along our forward path. The very openness for recreation, the very relaxation that permits us to seek anew a deepened acquaintance with experience capacity, the delight in simplicity.
To deepen your initial experience with the beauties of nature, notice the variety of the beauties of nature; and take time to appreciate natural beauty, letting the beauty sink into your soul, so you can recall the lovely scene when you need an uplift. To expand the comprehensiveness of your awareness of natural beauty, contemplate the mute near-significance to you of your favorite places in nature. Bring in your understandings of science, philosophy, religion, and the arts. Do not neglect the higher beauty of the gestalt in which the beautiful is nested in a contrasting environment of the plain.
Inputs from every section of the matrix of truth, beauty, and goodness expand our awareness of the beauties of nature. Conversely, appreciating natural beauty enhances the rest of our life. If we look up, the daylight beauties of local soil and blood and native language yield to the starlight beauty of being one family, the Human Family.
Now go and read some poetry here and there...