Monday, January 28, 2013

Nature has its own aesthetic

As a birder and one who loves the beauty and elegance of all birds, and indeed the beauty of our natural world, I acknowledge that what I am about to write is biased.


This morning during my breakfast reading, I reviewed a post to a popular science-based blog that included a photo of an immature gull. The blog author described the bird as “ugly.”

I question characterizing this bird, or any animal, as “ugly.”

It seems that we have a sad propensity to label and mock anything that is a little awkward, not fully developed, not fully mature, not elegant, a little gawky...

The bird in the photo was immature gull; when it attains its adult plumage (a process that takes three or four years, depending on species), it will be “beautiful.” But for a young bird, that mottled plumage, which mimics the variegated colors of rock and sand, is the right sort of “beauty” to protect it against predators. Surely we can find beauty in the elegant economy of camouflage?

I admit to being sensitive to all this. The sensitivity stems in large part from my anger and despair about the steady destruction of habitat in my corner of the world, as I’ve written here:

People can cavalierly destroy habitat because they don’t think of it as habitat. They are not aware that hundreds or thousands of animals and birds live right in their yards and neighborhoods. They simply don't see the animals and birds that live around them, or if they do, they only have interest in animals that they perceive as attractive, or interesting in a gawkerish sort of way (generally large predators). No one cares about the “ugly” insects, “plain” birds, etc., etc.

A few weeks ago a raccoon died in our back yard. We left it there to see what would happen, what animals might make use of it, etc. We were delighted that two Turkey Vultures found the raccoon and feasted on it; crows and Blue Jays came the next day for the small pickings. (I have photos and will post about it eventually.) There’s not much of it left, a month after its demise, and many animals are better off for our leaving it to a natural process. Isn’t that a good thing?

I suppose that most people would think I was crazy to leave the dead raccoon in the yard, and even crazier to welcome the vultures, which are, in most people’s minds, “ugly,” “disgusting,” “evil,” and “icky” because they eat carrion. That’s all nonsense, of course. Vultures are interesting and useful animals, and without them, our world would indeed be more “icky.”

My concern is that when we assign human values of beauty, utility, and appropriateness to non-human species, we devalue them, and we make little of ourselves. When we close our minds to perceiving, appreciating, and protecting creatures that do not conform to our aesthetics, we make little of our world, and then it becomes all to easy to destroy, bit by bit. We do not see. We do not care to even look..

When we edge toward dismissiveness of certain living things, devaluing them because they don't conform to human aesthetics, or dietary tastes, etc., then we also devalue the diversity of life on this earth. To me, that’s an ugly attitude, and very sad.

Nature is just enough; but men and women must comprehend and accept her suggestions.
— Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825 - 1921)

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.
— Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC), Parts of Animals

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.
— E. B. White (1899 - 1985)

In wildness is the preservation of the world.
— Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

What nature delivers to us is never stale. Because what nature creates has eternity in it.
— Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904 - 1991)

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.
— John Muir (1838 - 1914), The Yosemite, 1912


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