Nature's Aesthetics

The root word definition of aesthetics could be translated as sensory knowing, so an aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are fully engaged. It indicates deep emotional involvement. Emotional investment drives engagement and excitement; therefore emotions must be acknowledged as being integral to aesthetic responses. Because of the emotive power in nature encounters, nature experience can reach the emotional threshold needed for aesthetic engagement. These experience can also be value laden as values emerge in the interaction of subjective perception and objective experience. Aesthetic experience allows an individual the space to look within for purpose and meaning, to discover who they are and what they value.

Natural environments are an authentic context that many people find aesthetically inspiring. Natural environments are an interconnected aesthetic experience of life in its fullness. Nature, the most information rich environment people will ever encounter, offers the extraordinary diversity for building knowledge and sharpening mental abilities as well as unlimited opportunities for creative inquiry, critical thinking, problem-solving and intellectual development. An aesthetic experience in nature can also be a visceral experience of connectedness with the life force that animates the world.

In addition to the beauty of nature, there is also adventure in nature. These emotionally distilled activities heighten and sharpen the senses to focus fully on the present moment. Often, these challenging experiences bring participants to an aesthetic or peak experience (Maslow, 1967). These engaging experiences cannot be contrived, but the context and challenge of a natural landscape allows for the possibility of an aesthetically, deeply moving experience.    

Dewey (1934) writes about the enriching possibility of aesthetic experience that can change a person’s relationship with the world, a new way of seeing, a new way of being in the world that is transformative. Nature offers a vivid, experiential gestalt of symbolic concepts that, until very recently in human evolution, was common to all people. The experiential gestalt of nature is most apparent in myths and art of indigenous people whose lives are still intimately intertwined with nature.

Returning to the notion that aesthetics is concerned with sensory knowing, addressing aesthetic experiences must include the role of subjectivity in epistemology. Alternative ways of knowing are often overlooked within Western societies which value reductionist, rational ways of knowing. From an indigenous perspective, Cajete, an indigenous educator, recognizes four ways of knowing: thinking, feeling, intuition and sensation. The rational forms of intelligence, logical and linguistic, seem to be valued over other ways of knowing because these frame empirical standards. Focusing on the objective rather than the subjective ignores the power of feelings, which does not inspire personal engagement.

This is why facts alone will not persuade people to care about the environment, climate change or pollution. This schizophrenic division of the human mind from the sensory world allows people to rationalize the objectification and alienation of the environment, other people and other ideas. So many urbanites have no relationship to nature, why should they care about it. For that matter, why should anyone sacrifice short-term economic gain for long-term sustainability practices that might not be convenient? We do it because we care, we are emotionally connected to a natural space. We crave the aesthetic experience of natural spaces, magical encounters with wild animals and majestic trees. The aesthetics of nature brings joy, well-being, and meaningful experiences. It takes us to the heart of the wild without and within. It is relationship and emotions that will change people’s perspectives, behaviors, values, which, for me, are intertwined with the aesthetic possibilities in nature.