J. Baird Callicott, “The Land Aesthetic”


1.       Western appreciation of natural beauty is recent and derivative from art

          a.       Appreciation of natural beauty began in the West only after 17th century landscape painting opened people’s eyes to natural beauty

                    i.        “It seems that prior to 17th century, nature was simply not a source of much aes exp (in Western civilization)”

          b.       His argument involves noting that poets, philosophers, and religious texts spend little time celebrating or analyzing natural beauty

          c.       Plausible thesis? Mountains and valleys seen as “warts and pock marks” (John Donne). Rest of nature? Sunsets? Colorful birds?

2.       Result is that the aesthetic of the picturesque has dominated appreciation of natural beauty

3.       Aesthetic of picturesque

          a.       Viewing and evaluating nature as if it was a painting, or parts of nature as “well-composed subjects for painting”

          b.       People saw landscape paintings in galleries, enjoyed the aes experience and so turned to their subjects for similar gratification

          c.       Aes qualities of environment were thus evaluated by criteria appropriate to evaluating painting (not nature)

          d.       Claude glass

          e.       Muir story

4.       The picturesque and the “scenery cult”

          a.       Popular taste in nature has remained tied to picturesque

          b.       We continue to admire and preserve primarily “landscapes” “scenery,” and “views” according to tastes inherited from picturesque landscape painting

          c.       Like art is stored in museums and is admired by patrons who support the arts, so nature is stored in national parks and is admired and supported by nature tourists

          d.       Could it me that these types of nature are particularly beautiful and that the focus on them is not some kind of mistake?

5.       Prevailing natural aes is not autonomous (but is derivative from art)

          a.       Does not flow naturally from nature itself

          b.       Not directly oriented to nature on nature’s own terms

          c.       Not well informed by ecological and evolutionary revolutions in natural history

6.       It is superficial, narcissistic, and trivial


7.       Importance of natural beauty for environmental policy

8.       This natural aesthetic evaluation (i.e., aesthetic of the picturesque) has made a huge difference to American conservation policy and land management

          a.       Main reason set aside natural areas is because they are considered beautiful

                    i.        What kind of country we consider to be exceptionally beautiful makes a huge difference when decide which places to save, to restore or enhance and which to allocate to other uses

          b.       Environmental aesthetics is much more important in this regard than is environmental ethics

                    i.        Many more of our conservation and management decisions motivated by aes rather than ethical values, by beauty instead of duty

          c.       Sound natural aes crucial to sound conservation policy and land management

                    i.        Reason our national parts/wildernesses preserve only scenic beauty and ignore prairies, wetlands, deserts


9.       Its an autonomous natural aesthetic (not based on the model of art)

          a.       It’s both more cognitive and more sensuous

10.     Rejects aes of picturesque and embraces aes of natural history

          a.       Aes response based more on perceived and inferred evolutionary and ecological qualities than on scenic qualities

11.     Multi-sensory: Moves beyond visual appeal

          a.       Appreciator is in natural environment “as a mobile center of three dimensional, multi-sensuous experience

          b.       “Involves all sensory modalities equally and indiscriminately”

12.     Senses important, but cognition (mind) more so

          a.       Aes appeal of land should have less to do with its colors/shapes or its scenic expanses and picturesque proportions

          b.       More about the integrity of its evolutionary heritage and ecological processes

          c.       To promote app of nature is “a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind”

13.     Examples of how cognition informs aesthetic appreciation according to the land aesthetic

          a.       Kansas plains aes exciting less for what is directly than for what is known of their history and biology

                    i.        “They (the uninformed)seen the endless corn, but not the heave and grunt of ox teams breaking the prairie”

                    ii.       “They look at the low horizon but cannot see it under the bellies of the buffalo”

          b.       Crane:

                    i.        “Our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies the daily affairs of birds and men”

                    ii.       Experience of cranes is especially aesthetically satisfying only to those who have a paleontological dimension to their outlook

          c.       Native species are aesthetically stimulating, exotics (even pretty, “beautiful”) ones are not (objects of undisguised contempt)

                    i.        Note the aesthetic preference for naturalness (exotics are typically human introduced species)

          d.       Personality/character of a species (grace of deer, resourcefulness of fox)

          e.       Rarity and diversity value (rare species that are less tolerant of man), (German forest lacks natural diversity).

          f.       Aesthetic indicator species

                    i.        Importance of a grouse to the autumn landscape of north woods

                    ii.       Sandhill crane of northern marshes,

                    iii.      Pronghorn antelope of the high plains

                    iv.      Loon of glacial lakes

                    v.       Alligator of southeastern swamps

                    vi.      Elusive mtn lion and timber wolf:

                    vii.     These do not need to be seen/heard to grace and enliven their habitats; enough to know they are present

14.     Difficult aesthetic value: In natural aesthetics (as in art aesthetics) it is possible to appreciate and relish experiences that are not pleasurable or sensuously delightful

          a.       Hiking into a bog, getting bit by blackflies, and seeing a pitcher plant

          b.       Connections and relations of the animals and plants he experiences are not directly sensed in the aes moment, but known and projected

          c.       Conceptual act completes the sensory experience and makes it aesthetic instead of merely uncomfortable

15.     Land Aesthetic has (good) practical implications for env. policy

          a.       Such an aesthetic (and policy based on it) would value and save non-scenic, non-picturesque, seemingly plain ordinary landscapes:

                    i.        Swamps, bogs, dunes, scrub, prairie bottoms, flats, deserts

          b.       Awaken our aes response to the potential of these aesthetically neglected communities

          c.       Not biased in favor of some natural communities or places and not others

                    i.        All environments can be aes appealing on land aes

                    ii.       No matter where one may live, one’s env holds the potential for natural aes exp.

                    iii.      Equal aesthetic value? 

16.     Aesthetic competence in nature appreciation: Just as there is aes competence (and incompetence) in taste for opera and painting, so in taste for country

          a.       Those how are willing to be herded in droves through “scenic places”

          b.       Who find mountains grand if they be proper mountains (with waterfalls, cliffs, and lakes)

          c.       To them the Kansas plans are tedious