Schools offer courses in the appreciation of art and literature, but rarely does one find a class in the appreciation of Nature. I wonder why? It requires considerable knowledge to fully appreciation the beauty of great works of art and literature; but is any less required to appreciate the beauty of Nature? If I were to teach a Nature appreciation course, this might be my syllabus:
Section One: Introduction to What Is There. We will investigate the variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, trees, flowers, ferns, fungi and others. We will also take a look at land forms, rocks and crystals, clouds – the earth and sky. And to put the earth in context, we’ll explore the night sky. We will investigate all this, because you can’t appreciate what you don’t see, and often you will fail to see what you don’t know.
Section Two: Seeing Without a Frame. Paintings have their frames; theater, dance and music have their stage; books have their covers. Frames, stages, and covers point to the availability of an aesthetic event. But Nature has no equivalent. Nature is an open, but un-signified, invitation to an aesthetic event. (An exception is the roadside overlooks on scenic highways. I suspect there are people who never stop to look except when the highway department tells them they should.) In this section we will explore how to stop, look and listen, even when unbidden.
Section Three: How to Read a Tree. The poet Joyce Kilmer famously wrote: “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Poems are full of words, little signifiers, and our brain loves signifiers – we look for them everywhere. A tree, seen under the aspect of beauty, signifies nothing. It is the thing signified; it is the referent. How do we move the brain from its fascination with signifiers and signification to fascination with the thing itself? How do we move from the map to the world? Artist are the people who go to the world itself and feast on it. Following this metaphor down the alimentary canal, the work of art is the artist’s poop, a plop of well digested signifiers. Why settle for that. In this section we will explore how to be creators rather than consumers, learn to feast on referents rather than the signified.
Section Four: How to Seriously Become Un-serious. How often do we journey through the world with our mind in turmoil – filled with the endless problems, big and small, of our life? To stop, look and listen, we have to take the world as seriously as we take our selves. The great advantage here is that if we learn this, not only will we gain more joy and delight in the beauty of the world, but we might also learn that most of our problems are the fabrication of our own mind. How practical is that? So in this section we will also explore the link between the appreciation of Nature and wisdom.
Section Five: What Is Nature? Searching out the beauty of Nature, one might hike through forests and across prairies, wade ponds and swim rivers. One might stand by the ocean and feel the pounding of the waves. But are such journeys necessary? In the final section we will search for the boundary that separates Nature from humanity, the natural from the artificial. The final grade for this course will partially be determined by how long does it takes to realize that no such boundary exists?