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It Starts With a Song

First published in the Summer 2014 issue of Nature Alberta Magazine

By John Warden


My mother sang to me when I was little, which is maybe why I start most mornings with a song in my head. Then, puttering around the kitchen, I start singing to myself. Usually it’s something from the sixties, folk or rock, but there I was the other morning singing A Teddy Bear’s Picnic. I don’t know where that came from after all these years, but I’m glad it did because as the words came out of my mouth, I stopped to consider what I was singing.

If you go down in the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.

I like the idea of nature being full of surprises and that on any given day we may find ‘every bear that ever there was’, or a sunny meadow where we can imagine teddy bears having a picnic. And just like that, in singing those words, I had a much clearer understanding of what an appreciation of aesthetics in nature was all about.

Aesthetics is both a study and practice that is concerned with how we think and feel about the beautiful: the beautiful we find in ourselves, in others, in art, or in nature. In singing A Teddy Bear’s Picnic, I realized that the aesthetics of nature can be thought of as the very surprises we might find when we go into the woods, or any other wild and natural place. And, if we’re open to being surprised, if we’re open to the beautiful, then we’ll likely discover something amazing.

Canadian painter, Emily Carr would go down to the woods. She’d leave her home in Victoria, B.C. and go sit among the cedars, Douglas firs and Sitka spruce trees to seek inspiration.

You spread your camp stool and sit and look round. Don’t see much here. Wait. Everything is green. Everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places. Groups and masses and lines tie themselves together. Colours you had not noticed come out, timidly or boldly...The air is alive. The silence is full of sound. The green is full of colour. Light and dark chase each other. Here is a picture, a complete thought, and there another..." There are themes everywhere, something sublime, something ridiculous, or joyous, or calm, or mysterious. Tender youthfulness laughing at gnarled oldness. Moss and ferns, and leaves and twigs, light and air, depth and colour chattering, dancing a mad joy-dance, but only apparently tied up in stillness and silence. You must be still in order to hear and see.

In those three paragraphs, Carr teaches us how to look, describes some of the delightful surprises we, too, might find in the woods and then introduces some of the words that we use when talking about aesthetics: joyfulness, the sublime and the mysterious. Later, in her book Hundreds and Thousands, she cuts to the core of aesthetics.

Form is fine and color and design and subject matter, but that which does not speak to the heart is worthless. It is the intensity of feeling you have about the thing that counts (Carr, 1966).

Aesthetics in nature then, is about ‘that which speaks to your heart’. It’s about the intensity of feelings we can discover in solitude, simplicity, subtleness, majesty, tranquility and the mysterious. In Japan, where as a culture they are perhaps more attuned to the aesthetics of nature, they include some additional aesthetic values. Mono no aware is the poignant beauty found in the transience of things. Wabi – sabi is loosely translated as an austere, imperfect beauty. Then there is yugen which is the beauty of the suggested rather than the obvious and shibumi which means elegant, understated simplicity.

These words, these values that come to us from both the east and west, are the surprises that we can find in nature. Once discovered, we realize the importance of aesthetic values and that we can’t live without them. They become aesthetic requirements - feelings and values of the beautiful that we need in our lives.

Understanding and appreciating aesthetics also becomes a significant aspect of our self identity, because what we choose to look at, to photograph or to paint, what we regard as beautiful, becomes a part of who we are. For me, light is an aesthetic requirement. Light calls to me and grabs my attention, showcasing the beautiful. My wife Debra, however, said that one of her aesthetic requirements is patterns. For you, maybe it’s color, or texture or the rhythm of cloud formations, or all of the above.

How then can we know our aesthetic requirements? Perhaps by returning to the poetic language of Emily Carr, we can find the answer.

Something has called out of somewhere and something in me is trying to answer. It is surging through my whole being like a great river rushing on (Carr, 1966).

When Mother Nature calls to us, when we feel that connection, we can pay attention and say yes, this is important. This is a beautiful moment with an intensity of feelings that I need in my life. Sometimes we find value in the purple majesty of mountains and other times it’s the sound of frogs chuckling in bulrushes. I’m not sure that there is even a word for the feeling I get when I hear spring frogs, or sandhill cranes or trumpeter swans. Maybe it’s yoho, the Cree word for awe or wonder. What I’m sure of though, is that all those sights and sounds are beautiful and they have a personal value to me. My life would be less-than without them. So, for me, that makes them requirements - aesthetic requirements.

As I was sitting out on our deck in the late afternoon, trying to figure out how to link the ideas in this article together, the frogs were indeed croaking and the mallards were high angle gliding onto the surface of the storm water pond behind our home. The geese were loudly announcing their arrivals and departures and the red wing blackbirds were chirping, trilling and chasing each other. Somewhere in the middle of it all was the sweet song of a purple finch. The grass and the trees were greening up and swallows were zooming about, feeding on new mosquitoes. Bees were humming around new buds and people were walking by, on the pathway around the pond, with their children and their dogs. A little girl, maybe two years old, ran from the path, down to the pond and along the bulrushes. Her Mom called, but the girl kept running, so her Mom chased after her, laughing. Then, they were both rolling around on the grass, giggling. Beautiful!

If you go down in the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.

Bibliography

Bratton, J. W., & Kennedy, J. (Composers). (1932). Teddy Bears' Picnic. [H. Hall, Performer]

Carr, E. (1966). Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Toronto / Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd.

Parks Canada. (2013). Yoho National Park. Retrieved from Parks Canada: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/yoho/visit/faire-do.aspx

Reynolds, G. (2009). 7 Japanese aesthetic principles to change your thinking. Retrieved from Presentation Zen: http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2009/09/exposing-ourselves-to-traditional-japanese-aesthetic-ideas-notions-that-may-seem-quite-foreign-to-most-of-us-is-a-goo.html

Smart, T. (2013). Freeman Patterson's Artistic Journey. In F. Patterson, Freeman Patterson: Embracing Creation. Fredericton, New Brunswick: Goose Lane Editions.

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