Sunday, August 09, 2009

A thing of beauty

             A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
                                 --John Keats

             The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass,
              it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.
                                 --Henry Miller

             It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.
                                 --Leo Tolstoy

I frequently walk by a nearby lot on which a modest one-story home sits amid a vast sea of the greenest grass you will encounter outside a golf course. The man who lives there with his wife is often tending his lawn: removing weeds, watering, riding his lawnmower. There are a couple of small flower gardens. But mostly it is grass.

The man told me last summer that one month he paid $230 for water. For him the enormous resources in water, fertilizer, and gasoline seem well worth it; his lawn is a work of art. Possibly he learned his aesthetics from a lawn fertilizer commercial or possibly from wealthier neighbors who live not too far from him--neighbors who mostly hire other people to get the same effects. But the origins of these aesthetics do not matter to him. His lawn is a flawless piece of monoculture rivaling the best lawns to be found anywhere in the city.

Americans are quite capable of appreciating the kind of beauty that is not created by man and machine. It is a country with magnificent natural parks and untouched wilderness. And, it was the desire of determined devotees of nature's own aesthetics that such places be set aside for posterity.

We grow up recognizing the natural beauty around us, the rich hues of the flower garden and the deep green of the forest. We are made for this. Michael Pollan in his book, The Botany of Desire, posits that humans and plants are co-evolving. The plants are as interested in enticing us to do things to propagate them as we are in getting them to do things for us. One way they do this is to appeal to our sense of beauty through color and symmetry. Otherwise, how could one explain the human attraction for flower gardens which yield no food?

But we learn to like other kinds of beauty: The kind that leads modern architects to build strangely monstrous steel and glass boxes. The kind that entices drivers to buy stylish, but wildly impractical cars. The kind that causes shoppers to choose perfect tomatoes that are oftentimes perfectly tasteless.

None of this is sustainable. But it is not merely an engineering problem. For those concerned about a sustainable future, changing the reigning industrially-conditioned aesthetic--which is now deeply ingrained in the public mind--will be as much of a challenge as changing the underlying system that created it.


Anonymous said...

I very much agree with the points made, in the UK, DEFRA has just announced a war on the japanese knotweed, a newly introduced plant which is spreading like wildfire across Britain. It isn't the prettiest thing, but its edible and would be a perfect home grown food source with no fossil fuel expenditure to boot. If they looked like roses, they would be sought after and prized, but just because they look like a weed they are despised. All that glitters is not gold.

JC said...

I suspect that your neighbor's attention for his lawn has not much to do with attention to aesthetics. It looks to me like a conspicuous behavior.

Your conclusion remains valid nonetheless: "changing the reigning industrially-conditioned conspicuousness--which is now deeply ingrained in the public mind--will be as much of a challenge as changing the underlying system that created it"

Sarah Edwards said...

I agree with your point, of course, living as I do in a natural forest. I also think there will be a larger sense in which we we will need to re-define beauty. Our image of beatiful men and women will need to change, because what we call beauty requires an enormous amount of money to maintain if one is over the age of, say 16? Also our idea of a beautiful home or building is again something very artificial, time-consuming, and expensive. Getting our minds from here to there will be a very intersting process.

Anonymous said...

Kurt, you're spot on. However, I'd say all that one needs is a good understanding of our current / emerging crises with how we've "changed our ecosystem".

I used to love walking in Malls because I liked being in bright places. But the idea of a mall repulses me to no extent ever since I realize how stupidly adolescent humanity has really been.