Aesthetics and Beauty
In an article in the Pueblo Chieftain on February 14, 2008, Crestone Mayor Kizzen Laki was quoted referring to the shortcomings of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service draft Environmental Assessment, and expressed a sentiment shared by many Crestone residents: “We want to preserve our small-town, mountain beauty.” But how can one quantify the value of beauty in an official document? And why is the area surrounding the Baca Wildlife Refuge beautiful? Isn’t beauty a culturally specific concept?
Questions of the universal quality and value of “aesthetics” of nature or art, or questions pertaining to perceptions of beauty, are numerous and complex. This essay is not value-free or objective, but rather a brief inquiry into why an experience of natural beauty is relevant in an effort to prevent natural gas drilling. Joy Kells, a volunteer firefighter and member of Cottonhood sustainable co-op, expressed that an oil derrick is offensive to the sight, but didn’t think that appearance alone was a legitimate reason to reject natural gas drilling. She said:
“I don’t really want to sit in my garden mound in front of my off-grid solar workshop and have to look at somebody’s oil derrick. But that is a sort of self-serving sort of objection. That’s not why the decision should or should not be made. It shouldn’t be made on the basis of whether or not someone wants to look at an oil derrick. No one wants to look at an oil derrick anyway. I think we ought to just get off oil, but that’s not being done.”
The question remains: why shouldn’t the decision be based on whether or not someone wants to look at an oil derrick? Why do we value the preservation of the environment as a substance over the preservation of the environment as a fascination or pleasure? Veronica Strang writes, “Aboriginal cosmology is both practical and spiritual—there is no division between sacred and secular or between spiritual beliefs and the laws governing everyday life” (Bowie 2006:129). This same sense of unity must be employed in an effort to prevent natural gas drilling; the aesthetic and ecological impacts are not mutually exclusive and cannot be placed in a hierarchy of importance.
Would we, as a global community, stand back as the works of Picasso or Da Vinci, the Sistine Chapel or Prehistoric Cave Paintings were being changed or destroyed? Stan Godlovitch, in Some Theoretical Aspects of Environmental Aesthetics, writes, “Aesthetic and moral value taken together seamlessly warrant protective, respectful, even caring conduct. Differentiating them when they function so indistinguishably in context seems artificial. Hence the search for their common value source” (Godlovitch 1998:25). Perhaps the fact that people don’t want to look at an oil derrick should be enough.
Indeed, the unspoiled nature of the area is exactly what drew many to Crestone originally. The residents of the area often speak of an inexplicable initial pull, or attraction, to the land. Vicky Hess, a member of the Dharma Ocean Foundation said:
“The reason we moved here was not what most people would move here for, which is the spiritual centers, I moved here because of the mountains. But there was a pull of the mountains to bring me here, and it just so happened that I entered into the spiritual programs after the fact.”
Similarly, Lorrie Roth of the Crestone Creative Trade Company, could not articulate in words the importance of the presence of the mountains. She spoke about her reaction as a “sense”:
“I have a little hard time putting my finger on it. But it’s some kind of sense I get just by looking at the mountains that it’s here. I would say that it’s a little bit enigmatic, unfortunately it’s hard to say what causes it, its just here.”
Darlene Yarborough, a real estate broker in Crestone, Crestone Spiritual Alliance representative, and member of Humanity in Unity spoke about her first inclination to live in Crestone:
“The feeling we had was just one of wonderment. That this was a place so unusual that we felt that maybe we could live here. I remember laying on rocks at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center (it was Linden Farm at the time) and it was just magnificent to lay on the rocks, look at the mountains and see the experience of this place. I had never been to a place like this before.”
David, using fewer words, had a similar experience:
"I wasn’t sure I was gonna move here but as soon as I got here and saw how beautiful it was I decided to stay. Awesome."
Tamar Ellentuck, a Buddhist practitioner and co-founder of the Crestone Spiritual Alliance, also “fell in love with the place” because of “the physical, the beauty of the place, and the energy, the feeling of the place, and I just came into the valley and just fell in love with it and said this is where I want to be.” Crestone was a natural residence for the Shumei International Institute; one of the three fundamental practices of Shumei is the appreciation and promotion of art and beauty. Although many residents could not fully convey their sensual reaction to the land, the sensation of “beauty” informed their impression of the area, and subsequently, their lives.
In Shadows in the Sun: Travels To Landscapes of Spirit and Desire, Wade Davis quotes environmental activist Bruno Manser speaking at a panel on wilderness preservation: “‘When you live in the jungle you realize daily life doesn’t permit romanticism. One walks, the legs hurt, and the leeches and the rain and you see something beautiful—that is your wage. Then you remember we are all of one heart’” (Davis 1999:36). This train of thought moves directly from the appreciation of natural beauty to a realization about humanity; the two are deeply interconnected.
Godlovitchdiscusses environmental aesthetic movements as both moral and political. He explains that the “Green Aesthetic” movement aims to “generate action-guiding aesthetic-ethical imperatives that build on strong links between the value of beauty and goodness” (Godlovitch 1998:24). William Buehler, a minister in the independent and liberal “Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch” and resident of Crestone since 1995 speaks about natural beauty as a reflection of life and goodness. “Natural beauty isn’t just something pretty to look at. It’s an expression of the planet and humanity itself…beauty correlates with a particular state of grace.”
Christian Dillo, a Buddhist monk and Director of the Crestone Mountain Zen Center, as well as the Chair of the Crestone Spiritual Alliance, notes that the pristine nature of the surrounding environment is an important aspect of achieving a mind that is relatively free of culture and distraction.
“But if I imagine to take these activities that we are doing during that practice period and transplant them to a different environment: would it be the same? And I don’t think so… here it is very different. We have 240 acres. So when we do walking meditation we just walk on our property. The wild land—it is not cultivated. We also have buildings, you know, altogether ten buildings… And every time you step outside you see the mountain or you feel the really cold air…So when I talk about different minds being connected to different spaces. The wilderness is a space that can be connected to, what I have called, unstructured mind. A relatively unstructured mind—a mind that is relatively free of culture.”
Philosopher Immanuel Kant writes on fine art in the Critique of Judgment: “The very concept of the universal communicability of a pleasure carries with it [the requirement] that this pleasure must be a pleasure of reflection rather than one of enjoyment arising from mere sensation” (Kant 1987:173). Perhaps this also applies to the natural area surrounding the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. What if it is not the land in and of itself that gives way to an aesthetic experience in Crestone? The highest beauty may not be the simple enjoyment from sensation, but rather, the aesthetic experience is a pleasure of reflection. I’d say Crestone knows a thing or two about that.
For more information on the people quoted in this essay please see the “Voices” portion of the website. For further reading on a “sense of place,” visit the “Place” section of the website or The Crestone Spiritual Alliance response to the environmental assessment.
Bowie, Fiona (2006) The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Davis, Wade (1998) Shadows In The Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire.
Washington D.C.: Island Press.
Godlovitch, Stan (1998) “Some Theoretical Aspects of Environmental Aesthetics.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 32, No. 4., pp. 17-26. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0021-8510%28199824%2932%3A4%3C17%3ASTAOEA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-0.
See interview with Yoshiyuki Yominaga on the Voices page.
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