Sunday, August 09, 2009
A thing of beauty
A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass,
it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.
It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.
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.