Nature Appreciation 101

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 appreciate 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?  How much beauty do we miss because our mind is too restless to attend to what is there?  To stop, look and listen, we have to take the world as seriously as we take our selves.  That will be the challenge in this section.  No readings, no questions, just paying attention.  For those who think this whole course is totally impractical, we note that in the accomplishment of this section, not only will we gain more joy and delight in the beauty of the world, but we might also learn that many 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 practical 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, or stand by the ocean and feel the pounding of the waves.  But are such journeys necessary? Are there really natural environments and un-natural environments?  Where is the boundary that separates Nature from humanity, the natural from the artificial?  In the final section of this course we will explore this boundary.  If we find that it exists, we will attempt to survey its coordinates.  If we find that it does not exist, perhaps we’ll just roam the world a little freer.


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5 thoughts on “Nature Appreciation 101”

  1. I’d taken this course in a heartbeat! I’ve found appreciating Nature is very similar to the practice of meditation, about a learning the pay attention.

  2. I too think Thomas has come up with something wonderful here. Maybe after we have our Introduction to Spiritual Naturalism course up and running, Thomas might be interested in helping the Society develop something like this? 🙂

  3. Sign me up! Also, an exercise that might fit in sections 3 or 4. Back in college, an early bio lab assignment was to sit and look at a leaf for a long, long time and to note what we saw. By the end, the anatomy of the leaf was almost self-taught and I learned to stare at nature.

  4. Thanks for all the positive comments. I would actually enjoy leading a course on Nature Appreciation, but I can’t think of any way to make it work on-line. Nature engages all five senses, and the on-line experience really only engages two of them.

    I posted a piece in the Community area under Philosophy that provides some background on my interest and research on the question of the aesthetics of nature if anyone is interested. The piece is titled “The Love of Big Questions.”


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