“I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.” The beauty of nature can have a profound effect upon our senses, those gateways from the outer world to the inner, whether it results in disbelief in its very existence as Emerson notes, or feelings such as awe, wonder, or amazement. But what is it about nature and the entities that make it up that cause us, oftentimes unwillingly, to feel or declare that they are beautiful?
One answer that Emerson offers is that “the simple perception of natural forms is a delight.” When we think of beauty in nature, we might most immediately think of things that dazzle the senses – the prominence of a mountain, the expanse of the sea, the unfolding of the life of a flower. Often it is merely the perception of these things itself which gives us pleasure, and this emotional or affective response on our part seems to be crucial to our experience of beauty. So in a way there is a correlate here to the intrinsic value of nature; Emerson says:
the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves
Most often, it seems to me, we find these things to be beautiful not because of something else they might bring us – a piece of furniture, say, or a ‘delicacy’ to be consumed – but because of the way that the forms of these things immediately strike us upon observation. In fact, one might even think that this experience of beauty is one of the bases for valuing nature – nature is valuable because it is beautiful.
Emerson seems to think that beauty in the natural world is not limited to certain parts of nature to the exclusion of others. He writes that every landscape lies under “the necessity of being beautiful”, and that “beauty breaks in everywhere.” As we slowly creep out of a long winter in the Northeast, I think Emerson would find the lamentations about what we have ‘endured’ to be misguided:
The inhabitants of the cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year….To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.
The close observer of nature sees a river in constant flux, even when the river’s water is frozen and everything appears to be static and unchanging for a time. Nature can reveal its beauty in all places and at all times to the eye that knows how to look for it. We can hear Emerson wrangle with himself on this very point in the words of this journal entry:
At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.
MS Am 1280.235 (706.3E) Houghton Library
So if we’re sympathetic to the idea that nature, or aspects of it, are beautiful, we might ask ourselves why we experience nature in this way. Emerson says that nature is beautiful because it is alive, moving, reproductive. In nature we observe growth and development in living things, contrasted with the static or deteriorating state of the vast majority of that which is man-made. More generally, he writes: “We ascribe beauty to that which…has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things”. He cites natural structures as lacking superfluities, an observation that in general has been confirmed by the advancement of biology. Furthermore, he says that whether talking about a human artifact or a natural organism, any increase of ability to achieve its end or goal is an increase in beauty. So in Emerson we might find the resources for seeing evolution and the drive to survive as a beautiful rather than an ugly process, governed by laws that tend to increase reproductive fitness and that we can understand through observation and inquiry. And lastly, Emerson points to the relation between what we take to be an individual and the rest of nature as a quality of the beautiful. This consists in the “power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality.” In nature one doesn’t come across individuals that are robustly independent from their environment; rather things are intimately interconnected with their surroundings in ways that we don’t fully understand.
Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole.
All of these qualities of beauty seem to go beyond the mere impression of sensible forms that we started with, and what they require is what also served as the basis of truth and goodness in nature.
MS Am 1280.235 (708) Houghton LibraryIn addition to the immediate experience of beauty based in perception, Emerson suggests that the beauty of the world may also be viewed as an object of the intellect. He writes that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things.” In other words, we can also experience the world as beautiful because of its rational structure and our ability to grasp that structure through thought. Think for instance of the geometric structure of a crystal, or snowflake, or nautilus shell. Or consider the complexity of the fact that the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park changed the course of the rivers due to a chain reaction of cause and effect through the food web, a process called a trophic cascade. This reinforces Emerson’s emphasis on the interconnection between all members of the natural world; as observers of nature we are confronted with one giant, complex process that isn’t of our own making, but that we can also understand, and get a mental grasp on, even if only partially, and be awe-struck in that process of understanding.
There is thus an emotional or affective component in the beauty of the intellect just as there is in the immediate beauty of perception. If we destroy the natural world, we take away the things that we can marvel at and experience awe towards in these two ways. And this experience of the beautiful through the intellect may reinforce our attributing value to nature here as well, but a deeper kind of value, the intrinsic value I talked about in the last essay. Here it is not only that nature is valuable because it is beautiful, but nature is beautiful because it possesses intrinsic value, grounded in its intelligible structure. Thus we see a close parallel between goodness and beauty in nature. We can find an objective basis for goodness and beauty in nature, namely its intelligible structure, but also see that nature is valuable and beautiful for us, with the particular apparatus that nature has given us for navigating our way through the world.
So that which is the basis of truth in nature and provides it with intrinsic value is also that which makes it beautiful. Emerson himself ties these three aspects of nature into one package himself:
He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good: and this, because of the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle
This is the unified philosophy of nature that I set out to explicate in the first essay – nature is the source of truth, goodness, and beauty, because of its intelligible structure, and because of its production of organisms that can recognize that structure, us. And this view of nature includes an inherent call to protect that which is true, good, and beautiful. These are the things that we as human beings are searching for, are striving after, and yet they’re right in front of us if only we would listen with our ear to the earth.
Although I’ve been advocating an approach to nature based on its intelligibility, we are far from tying down the giant that is nature with our minds. Emerson writes that “the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth.” Although we shall continue to try to uncover nature’s secrets, let us also continue to take pleasure in our immediate encounter with her. Let us continue to be awe-struck, like the child on the seashore, or clambering up a tree. Let us hold onto that experience, and fight for the environment that makes it possible, both for the child in each of us, and for those that come after us.
Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at email@example.com. His series "Emerson and the Environment" is part of a larger project which was awarded a Student Sustainability Grant. Quotations taken from Emerson’s journals, his book Nature, and his essays ‘Nature’, ‘Art’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Spiritual Laws.' He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.
NATURE – THE WORLD’S BEST TEACHER
Nature is a great teacher. No wonder our ancestors used to look up to nature to understand about life itself. Our ancient scriptures are filled with hymns devoted to nature, as we treated nature as God in many instances. The Sun, Moon, Trees, Rivers, etc. all were treated as Divine creatures. Let us also see what we could learn from them:
SUN: The giver of light, energy, seasons … the list is endless. But what we could learn most from it is how we should be when we are in a position of power. Many a times the sun is covered by the clouds … yet, what does it do? It does not wrestle with the clouds to show who is greater; it does not take away the cloud’s moment of glory, that the cloud could overshadow somebody as great as the sun. Instead, the sun gives the cloud a halo, its silver lining, making the cloud look more beautiful. Humans, especially leaders need to learn this from the sun.
When one is great, is in a position of power, it is not necessary to take away the limelight from others all the time… Appreciating others not only add to that person’s glory, it also makes others look forward to seeing YOU again.
MOON: The bestower of calm, cooling sensations to the aggrieved or restless mind. The moon changes its shape every day, it is called fickle … but have you ever visualized the moon with a sad expression? No, never. In any shape, it always seems that the moon is smiling. Whether it is a wide crescent smile or an open-toothed half-moon smile or a peaceful full moon smile … it’s always happy and filled with love. It doesn’t matter that it is faced with a change every single day. It still inspires hope and love.
RAIN: We love the rains; we look forward to a break from the heat. It bestows life into the parched earth. It helps the crops grow. But beautiful rains create messy, dirty roads. Much like Life – this beautiful life of ours creates messy, ugly situations sometimes. These situations make us understand life; they make us realize the value of everything that we have. They help US grow. Dirty roads don’t make the rains any less lovely; bad situations shouldn’t make us value and love life any lesser.
TREES: Nature’s ardent helper, giver of oxygen, provider of shade to the tired traveler, health giver, shelter provider to the birds and other creatures. The tree never knowingly harms anybody. Instead, it feeds the hands that hurt it, whether one pelts it with stones for the fruit or cuts it for the wood. The first knowledge of virtues like patience, forgiveness, generosity must have come by observing the trees.
RIVER: The river is one of the most important eco-system in the world. It is the giver of life to the fields, animals, trees and humans alike. It finds its way through the mountains & hills, through rocks and stones. It is playful in some places, tumbles down with a roar or is very peaceful sometimes. It finds its own sweet music, makes its own path and there is nothing that can stop it, no, not even the biggest boulder. And best of all, it accepts its merger into the big, wide sea. Can human life and its final journey be any different?
SEA: There is nobody on earth who can claim to know how many treasures the seas contain in their depths. Perpetually attracted by the moon, they heave and ebb in response to its closeness. Look into our lives … we can never measure the depth of human emotions, can we? Every emotion is a treasure which does not have to be displayed to one and all. Being peaceful and humble despite our richness, remaining within our limits almost always should be the most important lessons that we can learn from the sea. Never forget that there is always another wave even if the earlier one returns … there is always more to life, irrespective of the setbacks.
FIELDS: Barren sometimes and sometimes slushy, a verdant green sometimes and brown otherwise, the fields reflect the seasons so beautifully. They are willing to bear the pain of ploughing and weeding, to give the farmer their best crops. Even when the crops are cut and they are neglected, they sprout grass to feed the cows. To bring out from the depths to give and then give some more selflessly, is what we can learn from the fields. Remember that the lush fields also lay bare from time to time. That is the time that the field replenishes its reserves. In business when we face a downturn, that is the time to start collecting our energies and build up our reserves so that when the time is right, we are able to give our best.
Divinity exists in all aspects of life. When we are aware of ourselves, we become aware of the God in all, big or small. We then learn to live life well. We become complete.