Aesthetics and the Environment


By Paul Warde

At the end of the Wicken Fen workshop we came round to discussing a few things that hadn’t got that much of a mention hitherto – beauty, and fun. Ben Cowell had previously mentioned that the National Trust’s mission was to preserve beauty – not nature, nor the environment, nor biodiversity nor any other ‘green’ concept which have become commonplaces for the most part long after the trust was founded.

This raises questions of course. What is beauty? I’m not going to resolve that one here. How have notions of beauty defined our perceptions, enjoyment and use of landscapes in the past? These subjects of course put me in mind of Carry Akroyd’s artwork that was displayed around us at Wicken, and about which she spoke so eloquently. It made me wonder about the ‘aesthetics of nature’.

In Carry’s earlier work it seems to me that the geometry and angularity of machinery and modern farming’s organisation of space are an intrusion on her landscapes, a diminution of her native countryside of east Northamptonshire. The straight line is an angry cut, a malevolent force. But Carry is also a twentieth and twenty-first century artist. She harbours a love for the line and the block of colour. And in the Fens, the power of the line seems to be something other than the hedge-stripping, bird-killing lines of post-war farming. In many British landscapes, straight lines, sharp corners and blocks of buildings, car parks, factories, pylons and the like often seem to jar our vision, to put the scene out of kilter. Yet in the Fens, it is hard to imagine a landscape without the line. Wicken Fen is something of an exception, although most of its lodes and waterways are linear. Beyond the ‘real’ Fen, the landscape is set out with Euclidean precision. Even great nature reserves of today like the Ouse Washes sit between the vast parallel slices of Vermuyden’s drains. The embankments of roadways and railway lines often provide Fen horizons. These cuts and triangulations frame and define the landscape, and have done for many decades or centuries. They even, dare I say it, have charm.

Straight lines get a bad press in environmental history. I am put in mind of James C. Scott’s highly influential book, Seeing like a state, or how certain projects to improve the human condition have failed. In Scott’s work the linear sensibility is associated with forest monocultures, purpose-built capitals of apartment blocks, vast agricultural projects, hydropower – the whole paraphernalia of an engineered, inorganic world. For him this is not simply the expression of the predominance of a certain kind of engineering, science or instrumentality in relation to the landscape. It is also an aesthetic, one that Scott calls ‘high modernism’; one where we play with the environment, almost as the modernist painters played with form. Scott argues that much of this sensibility is about control, and in the end has hubristic consequences. There is a truth to this, surely…

…and yet… we are undeniably impressed by it. In Carry’s Fen paintings, it is not only the visible lines that frame and draw the eye. In her meridian series, we see how a geometry of the mind also seizes hold of our mental landscapes and shapes our perceptions, and indeed gives us pleasure. Men did not, after all, die hauling themselves to the North and South Pole because of any particular charms they discovered on the spot. The power of those places lies in the web of longitudes and latitudes we have woven over the world (and now supports a vigorous tourist industry to the southern pole). Any view of a landscape is reductive, like a map, but the reduction opens up a new perspective we maybe hadn’t seen before. Yet it is also possible for landscape design itself to be reductive in a creative and exciting way as well as destructive (which it so often is). The tragedies that Scott catalogues were perhaps primarily designed to improve human welfare in a purely material sense, but great engineering projects equally bear in them the joy of composition, the pleasure of pattern, a creative impulse. And sometimes the higgledy-piggledy is all the more striking for its juxtaposition with the modernist aesthetic. Frederick Law Olmstead’s extraordinary Central Park in New York, in part homage to the original scenery of Manhattan Island, is all the more powerful for being an stunning rectangle snipped out from an equally astonishing concatenation of concrete, glass, brick and water.

What this suggests to me is that some of the things that have driven conservationists (sensitised, poetic types…), and some of the things that have driven those perceived as enemies of conservation (hard-headed number crunchers and bean counters…), may not be so far apart as we tend to think. The aesthetics of nature is not the preserve of the ‘green’, and there is not one artistic law for the gallery or the inner city, and another for ‘the environment’. Indeed, we recognise very readily now that the landscapes we admire in Britain are generally the longstanding products of intense human activity. But the aesthetic pleasures of human activity did not leap off the landscape and disappear into the picture frame and architect’s drawing board as soon as the seventeenth century surveyor got to work. No, the different ways we appreciate pattern and colour and movement remain in tension, sometimes creative tension, and also in conflict.

Recognition that modernism can produce something beautiful on the land – albeit much that is not, to my eye, beautiful at all, and much that has wreaked appalling damage – may be an important thing to remember. Even at Wicken there is a simple interest and pleasure in the appearance of the hides (the tower hide a prominent feature), the boardwalk, the visitor centre, as well as their utility, even if the latter was the primary reason for their construction (it is reassuring never to be too far from a cup of tea and some cake). The extension of Wicken and its paths and cycle-ways will mean an expansion of bridges, which are being designed with thrilling architecture, and certainly not to be as unobtrusive as possible. These are important aspects of our contemporary engagement with the land and can show that conservation is not all backward-looking. It is equally important to recognize some of this aesthetic excitement in the past, as an explanation for why people did things (some of which we may not like). Doubtless for many the struggles over hydropower and the damming of streams for water supplies was a straightforward fight between hard-headed hygienic and commercial issues, and delight in nature. Yet I remember being as thrilled as a child by the engineering I saw at Silent valley in the Mourne Mountains, or the Elan Valley in Wales, whose ambition then seemed of essence with the grandeur of the landscape than surrounded it.

Everyone has an aesthetics of nature. And this aesthetics is always social (how could a landscape not be social!?) This suggests to me that artists and architects as well as ecologists should have quite an explicit role in shaping our future landscapes, and we should pay close attention to how they have done so in the past (and not just in obviously landscaped gardens or palaces). Of course, everyone should have a say in the future of our landscapes, although that is easier to say than achieve. I asked Carry how she reconciled her obvious fascination with the striking and often straightline with her attachment and passion for the general non-linearity of natural things. She answered wisely that it is a question of balance. Indeed it is. But who’s balance? Or put another way, does democracy produce balance? Does nature produce balance? Environmental historians might wish to interrogate more what we think ‘balance’ has been and is. Environmental history should perhaps less be a question of ‘either/or’, of antagonistic priorities (while these must have their proper place), and more a question of different visions of balance that people have held or aspired to, which is very much a question of aesthetics.

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  1. chris smout says:

    A straight line is not always an angry cut or human. In nature it is the horizon, the join of sea and air, the distant, the scary, the challenging to seek the unfamiliar– or it is a sunbeam, alarmingly like the hand of God from the clouds. In engineering we are increasingly avoiding it; the motorways curve, the gherkin bulges, forest edges since the days of Sylvia Crowe (landscape architect and advisor of the British Forestry Commission in the 1960s – JO) have been wavy.