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Natural Aesthetics, gardens and bushwalks

Natural Aesthetics, gardens and bushwalks

Two short extracts from: Natural Aesthetics, free talk by John Bennett, May 10, Nexus

Humans are ecological creatures evolved to interact skilfully with their environment through the spectrum of all the senses, but we live inside walls that contract and dissociate any sense of place. Encountering nature through bush walks or gardening, or an ecological art nourishes a love of nature so important so that people care what happens to the world.


Nature inspires art and art inspires us to attend to nature. Claude Lorrain’s paintings influenced the English appreciation of nature, as did the critic Joseph Addison, the poet James Thomson, Turner, Constable and the landscape gardens themselves. Art and gardens share an aesthetic that bears witness to and explores reciprocity with the natural world.

Gardens, like art, possess meanings. In reaction to Dutch and French styles, relatively natural 18th C English gardens symbolised political freedom. A wild garden collapses the personal / political, human / non-human, art / nature dichotomies.

Such gardens aspired to art using statuary and classical allusions as features and displays of learning.

Stourhead Pantheon & bridge
Stourhead Pantheon & bridge

Of course artists create gardens – Monet at Giverny, Ian Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta, Scotland. The Getty Centre’s central garden was designed by an artist, Robert Irwin with a team of engineers, soil scientists and plant experts that helped him experiment with colour and sculptural form (like an artist). And like a photographer, he took into account how the sun shifts during the day and the seasons.

Is a garden more than art? A poet, Finlay battled the local council for many years refusing to pay rates on a barn they said was an art gallery, which he said “developed naturally into one which performs the normal functions of temples in classical gardens”.

Little Sparta_wave
Little Sparta, Wave

This is Arty’s Finlay page.

Gardeners are aware of impermanence, of the cycles of life and death. Garden is verb and noun, process and place. Nature will have its way and no garden remains the same – so is it a living piece of art?  Why can’t an artwork evolve?

As well as visual and other sensory pleasures, gardens provide food and habitat for fauna and flora. Gardens are becoming more important for maintaining biodiversity as habitat destruction increases and modern farming techniques turn agricultural lands into deserts for wildlife.[ii] See earlier post Gardens are important for biodiversity


A Bushwalk

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of taking walks daily . . . who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.  Thoreau, Journal, Jan 10 1851.

This entry by Thoreau led to ‘Walking’ an evolving work through public lectures and revision, considered the seminal work of the environmental movement.[iii] He thought walking was an art involving training and learning and attention.

Dorrigo, Gondwana rainforest,bushwalk
Dorrigo, Gondwana rainforest bushwalk

A walk is performative, like performance art. Using Coleridge’s definition, bushwalkers and gardeners are geniuses, able, ‘to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances, which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar.’ In a bushwalk we are porous to the scents and surround-sound, to our movement, sights and textures – it’s a multi-dimensional art!

The body is important in how we experience the world and feel about it, yet philosophical aesthetics derives from Immanuel Kant’s attempt to distinguish a mode of perception as aesthetic by criteria of distance and disinterest. It is an absurd ascetic aesthetic that discounts embodied pleasure and emotions.

[ii] The decline in invertebrates affects the whole food web and long term effects are unknown.

[iii] The essay marks a shift, half-way through drafting Walden, from a poetic to a more empirical (or as he put it, ‘distinct and scientific’) way of depicting nature.


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