Wild Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In his 1894 essay, “A Near View of the High Sierra,” naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir contrasts his experience of the natural world with that of his artist companions, who are transfixed by idyllic mountain scenery. The artists, adhering to the “picturesque” philosophy, seek out choice vistas resembling the composition and subject matter of works of art. Muir, on the other hand, sees the entirety of the natural world as inherently beautiful beyond his own preferences and associations. As he articulated later, “None of nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.” This view, which came to be called “positive aesthetics,” attempts a non-anthropocentric position, wherein conventionally put-upon creatures, like snakes and insects, ignored topographies, like wetlands and barren plains, and frowned-upon events, like floods and earthquakes, are also things of beauty.

Muir’s philosophy avoids the pitfalls of scenery-obsession, subjective judgment, and selective preservation. By virtue of their pristineness, wild habitats are fundamentally beautiful, whereas humanity’s imprint—in whatever form and in whatever environment—invariably decreases beauty.

The starkness of this position invites criticism. To declare that all of nature is beautiful seems as erroneous as saying that all art is beautiful, or that all living things, including the deformed or nonviable, are aesthetically pleasing. However, this implies a thesis of equal beauty, which Muir does not. As Allen Carlson points out, positive aesthetics “holds not that all natural things have equal aesthetic value, but only that all have only positive aesthetic value.”

Soundscape ecology encompasses aspects of the two aesthetic approaches outlined above: positive and picturesque. Concerned with the effects of the acoustic environment on the physical environment, soundscape ecologists are sensitive to the balance and interrelatedness of sound signatures in a given habitat. They offer auditory tools through which to assess the health of an environment, specifically as it relates to the presence or absence of human-made (anthropogenic) noise, which tends to disrupt natural soundscapes and, consequently, threaten biodiversity. Following Muir’s positive aesthetics, the intrusion of human noise (anthrophony) into a wild habitat—whether coherent, incoherent, ordered, or chaotic—is generally considered disruptive.

Soundscape ecologists often appeal to our attraction to the picturesque, or “music-esque.” Bernie Krause, a pioneer in the field, theorizes extensively on ways animal and environmental sounds shaped the development of music and language in humans. Krause’s friend and collaborator Ruth Happel waxes poetically: “[Natural soundscapes] helped shape music, and if we lose the sounds of the wild, then we will also lose an important inspiration and resource for the arts. When you hear a chimp drumming in the woods against a buttress, that is the origins of drums. When you hear the melody of a bird, that is the origin of our own melodies. If they are gone, our own music will wither.” In other words, preservation of what is acoustically valuable for humanity is reason enough to conserve the natural landscapes that support those sounds.

This practical-sentimental approach bypasses complex philosophical discussions in environmental aesthetics. If nothing else, Muir, Krause, Happel, and others remind us that animals and landscapes conventionally seen or heard as beautiful cannot survive in a vacuum. The picturesque and music-esque require the totality of their supportive habitats, whether or not we find it all beautiful.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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