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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.1 (2003) 77-89
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Engaging Nature Aesthetically
Joseph H. Kupfer
Acting in Nature
For the most part, most of us appreciate nature as spectators. Some portion of a natural scene is viewed as if it were a painting or photograph. We look for the picturesque in experiencing the real thing because our aesthetic approach toward nature has been filtered through pictures — a canyon's spacious contours, a spectacular waterfall, a weeping willow swaying and billowing in the breeze. And there is certainly nothing wrong with this approach. I like a splendid sunset or majestic peak as much as the next person. However, thinking of nature solely or chiefly as an aesthetic scene to be observed
is unnecessarily limiting. Regarding natural phenomena as material for detached, pictorial observation overlooks the aesthetic features revealed only through our active intercourse with nature.
In what follows, I outline an active aesthetic of nature appreciation in particular, a series of physical responses to nature which yield a spectrum of aesthetic possibilities. Our active relationship toward nature is expressible by the relevant prepositions, as action can be in or into nature, against or with nature. Of course there will be overlap among these modes of dealing with nature aesthetically, but they are nevertheless fairly distinct and distinguishable. Moreover, the types of activity are arranged so that each succeeding way of addressing nature encompasses the aesthetic virtues of the preceding types of activity. As we move from acting in nature to acting with nature, therefore, our aesthetic experience becomes richer and more inclusive. 1
The first active departure from the role of mere observer is found in acting in nature. When we act in or within nature, natural phenomena are the medium of our movement. Whether, hiking up the valley or swimming in the lake, we participate in the natural environment. And that participation [End Page 77] uncovers aesthetic features of nature not available to the mere spectator or observer. Walking through the valley, the prospect of wildflowers shifts from a distant, cascading carpet to a direct encounter with individual shapes, colors, fragrances, and textures. Our aesthetic experience includes appreciation of the shift in perspective itself, from long-range floral vista to more intimate perception.
When we swim in the lake, it is no longer simply a thing viewed — a shifting montage of patterns of light playing on its surface. Instead, the lake is experienced as a translucent medium which alternately resists and yields to our arm, leg, and torso movement. Immersed in the water, we feel warm and cool patches, and hear sounds muffled and transmuted by the lake. The sound of our breathing is also modified by the watery medium, as well as by our physical labors.
Acting in nature provides two aesthetic opportunities absent from mere spectating. First, the fact that we are active in the natural environment brings home a sense of ourselves as causal agents. Instead of change merely taking place in the natural environment, we are directly bringing about the change. Because we walk through the valley or swim in the lake, otherwise unavailable sensory experiences are enjoyed. Our movement, moreover, enables these experiences to develop from one moment to the next, at best, in an integrated sequence. In addition, there are the specific aesthetic features created for us by our physical activity — our bodily involvement beyond the more typical visual panorama. For example, tension and relaxation in our muscles, the feel and sound of our breathing and heartbeat correspond to change in our natural surroundings. Our bodies furnish us with responses to the natural environment because we are moving in it, not simply observing it.
A more homey example of acting in nature is the case of standing or climbing "inside" a tree. Most of us enjoy the aesthetic experience of walking in the woods, among clusters of trees and other wildlife. But the individual tree also offers an opportunity for acting in or within nature. Enclosed within its branches and leaves, whether on the ground or alight a limb, we gain a new aesthetic perspective. The...