A Wild Surmise

There is a con­sen­sus that beau­ty in the nat­ur­al world is giv­en, along with the prop­er human response to it; that it is a set­tled mat­ter; that it will take care of itself. And this wor­ries me, since I am cursed to wor­ry about the wrong things. Maybe, since I want to draw out the expe­ri­ence of beau­ty, to make it linger, to pin the prover­bial but­ter­fly to the card; and since there is noth­ing to say about how it does work; I want to under­stand instead how it doesn’t work, how it is per­verse or unre­li­able, how it goes astray. 

To know this bet­ter, my course of read­ing over the sum­mer focused on nature writ­ing, tak­ing me through a few ever­greens on land­scape archi­tec­ture read­ing lists that I had nev­er got to before – Annie Dillard’s Pil­grim at Tin­ker Creek, E.O. Wilson’s Bio­phil­ia – along with one out­lier, a col­lect­ed edi­tion of Audubon’s writ­ings. If Dil­lard and Wil­son each stand up for the stan­dard account of nature – a frag­ile cos­mos to look into with rapt atten­tion – Audubon does some­thing alto­geth­er stranger. He sets off down the Ohio and Mis­sis­sip­pi, and on his way makes like the old saw about the army – trav­els the world, meets inter­est­ing birds, and shoots them. He mar­vels at clouds of pas­sen­ger pigeons, and shoots them; mar­vels at ten­der bird moth­ers, and shoots them; sees birds unknown to West­ern eyes, and shoots them. From the scenes he meets with in New Orleans, where the mar­ket is full of dead grebes, pel­i­cans, and anhin­gas, it seems that plen­ty of oth­ers were enjoy­ing the turkey shoot as well. 

We can con­trast his con­duct with that of his pre­de­ces­sor, Gilbert White of Sel­bourne, who would shoot a swift or a swal­low if he had to set­tle a ques­tion but was just as hap­py to only watch and write. But then, Audubon did not have a liv­ing from the Church of Eng­land, like White did; he had already lost one income and need­ed anoth­er to feed his fam­i­ly; or rather, he want­ed anoth­er to make his for­tune. And so he had to shoot as much as he could, to draw as much as he could, to serve a new audi­ence who would pay for knowl­edge of new birds. We prof­it today from his scheme in uncom­fort­able ways. 

Else­where, we see Audubon exper­i­ment with tag­ging birds to bet­ter know their move­ments, and we approve of his bet­ter angel; our default assump­tion is that he didn’t know any bet­ter, that he could not have fore­seen the con­se­quences, that he thought he was trav­el­ing in a prov­i­den­tial land of Cock­aigne. We might pic­ture a per­fect­ed Audubon of the late 20th cen­tu­ry, shorn of his rifle, an Audubon who would nev­er pity him­self for hav­ing lost his slaves to bank­rupt­cy. But it is hard not to take from recent his­to­ry that there is no path of progress set out already, for us to all dili­gent­ly help each oth­er along; but instead a series of fluc­tu­at­ing states ahead, arrayed upon very uncer­tain trend lines, each one refus­ing to fol­low the last one’s tra­jec­to­ry. We may yet live to see every covenant over ivory or pan­golin scales for­got­ten, and find ever rar­er ani­mals hoard­ed and cov­et­ed in ever more grotesque ways. 

This is all to say that an auto­mat­ic respect for nature of the kind that Wil­son advo­cat­ed is no nec­es­sary end. Our rela­tion­ships with beau­ty there­in are not giv­en, but con­tin­gent; the rar­i­ty and elu­sive­ness of an ani­mal gives rise to the blood­less way in which we val­ue it, and could as eas­i­ly give rise to an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way of relat­ing to it were some­thing else in the equa­tion to change. 

Here’s anoth­er form of the same prob­lem. I have been fol­low­ing along in Susanne Langer’s Feel­ing and Form, where she makes the case that the main point of art is to give form to the unsayable move­ments of the self – that peo­ple can rec­og­nize in the sys­tem of choic­es inscribed in art an ana­logue to the expe­ri­ence of being human. They find val­ue in a form that is not a straight­for­ward rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a human self, but what she calls a sem­blance, some­thing radi­at­ing a rec­og­niz­able sub­jec­tiv­i­ty that is not direct­ly rep­re­sentable. In a sim­i­lar way, a per­son well-advanced in chess can read a par­tic­u­lar form of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in a human’s chess game; but will be dis­mayed in read­ing the moves of an AI, a thing that does not play accord­ing to human log­ic, con­ven­tions, or preferences. 

You can imag­ine that an AI trained on visu­al pref­er­ence sur­veys could equal­ly select, or cre­ate, images of land­scape that tech­ni­cal­ly deliv­ered on the cri­te­ria while being nonethe­less alien­at­ing, in that they dis­re­gard­ed cer­tain unre­marked base con­di­tions – just as a chess AI dis­re­gards both the desire to be social, to play against anoth­er mind, or for an audi­ence, as well as the desire to amuse your­self, to fall into a lin­eage, to try things, to prove them for yourself. 

This would not nec­es­sar­i­ly be about bet­ter train­ing the AI, only because the pro­duc­tion and val­u­a­tion of images is part of a social sys­tem. That is to say, con­sid­ered in a soci­ety beau­ty is not only the appeal to what­ev­er acci­dent of genet­ic his­to­ry, but a move with­in a social game — Langer’s recog­ni­tion depends on know­ing a series of codes and read­ing art accord­ing to them. If peo­ple con­struct beau­ty out of the mate­r­i­al of nature, they do so accord­ing to a series of chang­ing pro­to­cols to be rec­og­nized. Above and beyond base pref­er­ences there is an unlim­it­ed work of scaf­fold­ing and ero­sion, like a cliff-dwelling soci­ety busy build­ing itself into rock. 

Any aes­thet­ic appre­ci­a­tion of nature trav­els through social cir­cuits to com­plete an impres­sion – wit­ness how ani­mals get plucked out of con­text to serve as parts of social arrange­ments. When I was a child a sloth was a minor, far­away ani­mal, some­thing you wouldn’t know if you saw it; sud­den­ly, it gained cur­ren­cy in my social milieu, and so it takes a place in t‑shirts and greet­ing cards and children’s books, and peo­ple in the Unit­ed States will now trav­el to reserves in Cos­ta Rica just to take pic­tures of them. In that con­text, an image of a sloth is not a self-explana­to­ry appeal to instinct; nor does it prompt a sim­ple instinc­tu­al response. 

An unsci­en­tif­ic sur­vey of the set­tled impe­r­i­al cul­tures reveals a pro­gres­sion of pre­ferred land­scapes from the ances­tral savan­na that E.O. Wil­son held up as the durable type of land­scape beau­ty – with the flower gar­den, the beach, the moun­tain path, the ski slope, all added along­side. What more remains to be added – or sub­tract­ed? How does the state of the every­day land­scape push us to one, or the oth­er? And how do our activ­i­ties mesh with these land­scapes to turn the machine of change still a lit­tle more? 

(August 2022)