As a guest blog this week I want to present an experience report based on Andrea McGhee’s project in aesthetics of nature. First, I’ll present the short, dramatic version. Next, for those who are interested, I include the full paper to give you an idea of what a full project report looked like in Aesthetics. The lesson is that we don’t get the highlights without the less dramatic preparation.
I am grateful to have had her in class, grateful for her diligence, and grateful for her permission make further use of her writing.
I hope that others may be inspired to try some new modes of experience in nature. The normal thing to do is simply to read and move on. But much awaits the person who acts on a good idea. The ideas that she is working with come from an analysis of the aesthetic experience of John Muir, available in greatly abbreviated form in this weblog. It was in July 2014 that I began an exploration of this topic: http://anewphilosophyofliving.com/2014/07/
In class, I never obliged anyone to accept the idea of divine beauty or the idea of a Creator; but I did refer to Plato’s ladder in the Symposium, insisting that there was more to beauty than only the different kinds of things that we can more or less readily recognize as beautiful. Here’s what she did with the challenge.
A student who accepted the invitation to strive to discover beauty itself, not merely things that had beauty; she persisted and wrote the story of her breakthrough. Born with only 30% of normal hearing, Andrea McGhee discovered nature as a realm as of solace. She diligently visited several places of natural beauty and found occasions to describe the layers of beauty noted in John Muir. As she approached beauty itself, free of any religious pressure, she began to feel free as she “dusted off the many layers of “personal protection” that I [she had] always used to insulate my soul from the fear of failure.” Alone on a grassy hill, in gentle sunlight, with a faint breeze on her face, her emotions began to intensify.
I almost wish I could hear on the right side of me. I feel I am missing something. This mystery is filling my veins. I cannot take this pressure. I wonder, what is this? I cannot go further. My impairment has refrained from going any further. I need to let loose. I need to try this again. . . . I had been waiting during this entire experience for an opportunity to connect with the spiritual. I came ready to conquer my adversity, head on. Ever since I was little, I have been fascinated with the idea that fear is just a state of mind. This was my time to shine. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my latest milestone. It was now or never. . . . I had played out this scenario in my head, week after week, for the past four weeks. There was no turning back now.
As I geared myself up to climb to the top of my emotions, I felt a rush of adrenaline pump through my body and a drip at my forehead. My body jolted. This was all about me. All of a sudden, I felt a mind numbing torture come over my body and I no longer had any control. The twisting and turning of my emotions, at what seemed like 120 mph, as they passed through my peachy pink face. Then a water drop from up above hit my eye, and I snapped back into reality. I was gasping for air and just could not catch my breath. My mouth pressed firmly together, my tears pooling around my mouth and nose, mingling with cool, crisp air. I wanted to escape from what was holding me back. I just kept telling myself, “Everything was going to be OK. I just need to focus.”
Then, something strange happened. A calming voice repeatedly replied, “You are all right now. You can get through this. Whatever you need, I am here to help.” But, I did not see anyone. When I finally emerged from my thoughts, I slowly concluded where the voice had come from. It had come from within. I was eagerly awaiting this happy ending. As I looked around, I was proud. I had waited for this moment to arrive, but never thought in a million years that I would feel so liberated. I had dug down deep to find my true self. All was needed was to keep trying until I let myself open up. It was a challenge at first, since I did not understand the process at first. But, finally, this day it hit me, after four weeks of enjoying the environmental realm of nature. Beauty within oneself allows one to dawn and grow. I allowed the spirits to dawn and my soul, my true inner self, came out.
[Aesthetics Fall 2011]
Now, the long version.
Beauty exists all around us. Many individuals live their entire lives never really understanding more than something looks “pretty” or makes them feel “all warm and fuzzy inside.” If asked to provide a deeper meaning, most just reply with a blank stare and return to their everyday routines. They do not have any interest in thinking “outside of the box,” or providing a “why” explanation. Others may reply with “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or it is just easier to believe “a book is judged by its cover.” Unfortunately, these short and simple statements are made by individuals, who are too quick to judge, consume, and blame. To fully experience the aesthetically pleasing elements of nature, all individuals need to slow down, stop, and smell the roses. If not, life will pass by in the blink of an eye and become a meaningless blur.
From my personal experiences, I have learned that life does not always equal the sum of its parts. Many individuals have 100% of their senses available to experience all of the world’s natural wonders. These individuals always appear to be in a hurry to accomplish tasks and never seem to appreciate the little things life has to offer. I, on the other hand, was born with only 30% of my total hearing. I have always had to work more diligently than my classmates to ensure that I did not miss any little detail. Recently, I have found that the striking beauty of the natural environment has become my solace when everything else appears to be too complex for words. I have always used my self-taught talents as a way to overcome my adversity. I applied this same strategy to describe my stunning “ah ha” moments and used my heightened senses to rise above the obvious dimension of keen perception. I began to feel free as I dusted off the many layers of “personal protection” that I have always used to insulate my soul from the fear of failure. All it took was a squirrel and a raindrop to release my emotions and make me realize my personal “spark of life.”
Accounts following the categories of Muir’s experience
Wholehearted engagement of the united powers of body, mind, and soul
The courtyard garden between the two awe inspiring buildings of the Cleveland Public Library is a sanctuary. The perfection of beauty lies in the garden filled with lilies, daises, and roses. This experience was a never-ending source of admiration and wonder. Every leaf in the area whorled around the tall polished stalks of green leaves as finely as the petals on the flowers. The light and heat glistened in through the gate slits of the entrance and tempered in passing through the branches of over-leaning trees. Beautiful flowers bordered with ferns spread around the oak trees. Everything around the oak trees was sweet and fresh like themselves. The whole world seems richer now that these plants have been discovered tucked away quietly in such an urban landscape.
The pine trees around me seem as perfect in beauty and form as the daylilies, their limbs swirled like morning light grass in precise order. The tiny pinecone buds were beginning to erupt as a new growing season begins. One fall evening, as I laid my head down in the soft, sensuous, and fresh smelling blades of grass beneath the firs, the radiance of the round moon was as charming as a prince waiting to court his young princess. It was glorious to see the pin points reaching like fingers as if they were touching the starry sky. How can I close my eyes on such a perfect and precious night?
How is it that the birds know which way to fly? In nearby Hinckley, at a Cleveland Metroparks Reservation, spotting a beautiful, black, and bodacious buzzard flying silently and wavering high under the warm updrafts of the landscape is a delight. On any Sunday afternoon, these birds soar above the steep cliffs, rocky ledges, and deep caverns in search of prey. Each spring these creatures, with their six foot wing span and a twenty year life cycle, return from the south to Northeast Ohio to lay eggs, nurture their young, and fulfill an important role as a scavenger in the ecological system.
Artistically cultivated imagination
The stream was as seamless as the sky. The light from the sun was fairly white and was blending into the sea blue of the upper sky. The air was thin, though pleasantly warm. The calmness of the sun’s pulse was beating high. There was a moderate breeze, a slight respite from the stream, and the leaves stood practically still. It seemed as if the trees had little wind history to tell. The only clouds were a few strand images almost as if they were cotton balls floating in midair. My spot was surrounded by tall clumpy grasses; some of them were waving like hands of a known passerby. Suddenly in alarm, a squirrel immediately flew from behind my right side so rapidly that only a blur was visible. This was frightening and scared the daylights out of me. The music the squirrel made with his swiftness was magical, to say the least. It is as if one is looking at a work of art.
A sense of the expressiveness of nature
The afternoon breeze brushed the tiny hairs on my arm and forced a whiff of clean, fresh air into my mouth. Fresh air is a gift which is taken for granted. But we should thank God, as it is the number one fixation for human survival. Without air, humans would be nonexistent and inhumane. We know, as humans, that plants are God’s gateway to our survival. But, do the surrounding plants, as they sing and play, realize their utmost importance? Who could have ever guessed that the wilderness could be full of so many good things?
Intellectual discovery of harmony
On this early October day, filled with sunshine and hot weather, I made my way to a creek behind the Strongsville Recreation Center. This creek is calm and gives off a peaceful aura. This feeling is filling me up inside as I see these H20 molecules slowly contracting in the water and merging with one another as if they are friends meeting up for recess. The body of water moves as one. The murky little bubbles rise to the top for joy after a foot diverts it and makes its move. When life and nature meet, water molecules scatter and burst outward like a blooming onion.
Solid rocks were surrounding a short, shallow, and tamed stream, but the dirt was working in and out of the ground like miners. This one particular rock is made beautiful by leaf shadows. This shadow beauty is true and substantial. The shadows and dirt took over these sedimentary rocks and developed the sublime extravagance of beauty. The profound calm contrasted with the great activity that was going on was unnoticed until my discovery.
Concentrating ever so closely on a tree branch to see how powerful, yet relaxed the wind is at this very moment. The wind is acting as the boss to these leaves, almost like a dictator. The acorns and buckeyes are randomly falling. I cannot figure out where they are coming from. The acorns and buckeyes are adding stress to the fine, thin grass. The buckeyes are taking over the land. These buckeyes seem to grab my attention over the huge lake across the way.
Philosophical aesthetic reflection
One morning, as I walked to class at 7:45 am, I started to notice the plants, grasses, and animals, meaning a few stray birds and squirrels awake at this hour. As humans, we may say, that animals are more afraid of us than we are of them, but we should stop and think about that statement. Until humans hurt the animals, forget to feed them, or become a nuisance to the natural environment, the plants and animals are happy. After all, they are the power of the natural world. Minus the man-made objects and materialistic objects, nature controls the world. The plants always appear happy as do our animals, big or small. Everyone involved in nature contributes to the beauties of the world around us. Even the rocks enjoy the beauties of nature.
This day was half cloudy, half sunny. The clouds were lustrous and fluffy white. The sprinkling rain had finally stopped. I like to watch the squirrels. The blackness of the squirrels is the most vibrant and eye-catching as can be. The squirrels are a hot spark of life, making every strand of grass tingle as his prickly toes scurry across the land. This one squirrel manages to make his way through the leaves and branches with such poise and quietness. Squirrels always seem to be happy and a type of tireless life. Of all nature’s wild creatures, they seem to be the wildest. When in search of food, he glides silently from branch to branch, examining the acorns and buckeyes, to see whether or not he wants to take them with him. His tail floats behind him, a clean and shining black. His whole body seems about as small as his tail. The little squirrel is fiery, peppery, with movements so quick and keen they almost sting me. Squirrels were my favorite fixation during this project. I finally understood why Kent State is known for black squirrels and why it was such a big deal. This small black squirrel was inspiring and brought a better appreciation for their existence.
A sense of beauty as divine
The sun is burning my face almost acting as a candle-light fire. The wind is almost silent, yet present. I hear a faint whistle every few seconds. I am alone on this grassy green hill, surrounded with mossy sponge-like textured rocks. I almost wish I could hear on the right side of me. I feel I am missing something. This mystery is filling my veins. I cannot take this pressure. I wonder, what is this? I cannot go further. My impairment has refrained from going any further. I need to let loose. I need to try this again.
I am trying this again. The leaves are rustling and bustling slightly on the ground. There are still some scattered green leaves attached to the thin branches. The green leaves appear free and happy to still be alive. The leaves are shining with emotion, yet tranquility. Acorns are abundant and smothering the grass around my body. The branch above me is moving ever so lightly. I am starting to feel comfortable in my own skin. I am finally letting go this time.
I had been waiting during this entire experience for an opportunity to connect with the spiritual. I came ready to conquer my adversity, head on. Ever since I was little, I have been fascinated with the idea that fear is just a state of mind. This was my time to shine. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my latest milestone. It was now or never. Not knowing what to expect, yet ready for the challenge, my perseverance carried me through to the very end.
As I stood on this grassy hill once again staring up at the tree, it literally hit me. I had come too far to let my nervousness take over control of my rational thinking. I had played out this scenario in my head, week after week, for the past four weeks. There was no turning back now.
As I geared myself up to climb to the top of my emotions, I felt a rush of adrenaline pump through my body and a drip at my forehead. My body jolted. This was all about me. All of a sudden, I felt a mind numbing torture come over my body and I no longer had any control. The twisting and turning of my emotions, at what seemed like 120 mph, as they passed through my peachy pink face. I guess when the water drop from up above hit my eye, I snapped back into reality; I did not realize where I was. I was gasping for air and just could not catch my breath. My mouth pressed firmly together, my tears pooling around my mouth and nose, mingling with cool, crisp air. I wanted to escape from what was holding me back. I just kept telling myself, “Everything was going to be ok. I just need to focus.”
Then, something strange happened. A calming voice repeatedly replied, “You are all right now. You can get through this. Whatever you need, I am here to help.” But, I did not see anyone. When I finally emerged from my thoughts, I slowly concluded where the voice had come from. It had come from within. I was eagerly awaiting this happy ending. As I looked around, I was proud. I had waited for this moment to arrive, but never thought in a million years that I would feel so liberated. I had dug down deep to find my true self. All was needed was to keep trying until I let myself open up. It was a challenge at first, since I did not understand the process at first. But, finally, this day it hit me, after four weeks of enjoying the environmental realm of nature. Beauty within oneself allows one to dawn and grow. I allowed the spirits to dawn and my true soul came out.
Commentaries from the perspective of selected philosophers studied in class
Kant believes the aesthetic judgment of taste can take examples from nature as well as from art. “The sublime is that in comparison with which everything else is small (pg. 117).” The mathematical sublime, such as the night sky, disposes of light, pollution, and has a human perception of endlessness. I understand Kant’s idea through my experience under the pine trees. Everything around me is so large in comparison to my small being; the trees, the grass, and the night sky. As I gaze into the night sky, it is an infinite place where there is so much knowledge to grasp. I wonder if I would be able to understand its cosmic totality. In comparison to the powers of the mind, the night sky is nothing to fear. Our imaginations are capable of raising us to a higher level to connect images that provide us with the understanding that the mind is superior to the powers of nature.
Kant feels that in nature what gives rise to the experience of the sublime derives its character from what surges within us. “We willingly call these objects sublime because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature (pg. 120).” Kant is referring to how a state of mind is sublime, not an object of nature. The sublime manifests power and energy which in turn overwhelms the human scale of resistance. My experience in finding my soul and rising above my fears of my impairment directly relates to Kant’s idea. While standing in the rain, I felt the beat within me that was greater than any storm could wreak havoc. Many of my fears are based on the unknown outcomes of my experiences. But, when I was able to focus on understanding inner peace, it was that much easier to accept my fate.
Hepburn insists that the aesthetic appreciation of nature may include many different levels, but he emphasizes the role of what he calls the metaphysical imagination. The metaphysical imagination finds profound meaning in our experiences of nature, in which our appreciation of a single detail is infused with the significance of the whole. Thus our imagination can interpret the natural world as revealing universal metaphysical truths: insights about the meaning of life, the human condition, and humanity’s place in the cosmos (pg. 19). I understand Hepburn’s idea through my experience of observing nature on the Kent State campus. Plants, animals, and the rocks are content co-existing throughout the landscape. This signifies to me that all living and non-living objects should be able to live peacefully within an environment. The black squirrels run tirelessly around campus reminding us that life, even for humans, can be as simple as picking an acorn or a buckeye off of a tree. It is not until humans disrupt this harmony by injecting man-made and materialistic objects into the equation that problems arise. Humans need to understand their place within the cosmos is not to dissect, but to blend with nature as one and co-exist peacefully.
Hepburn states natural objects are frameless. “But when there is no frame, and nature is our aesthetic object, a sound or a visible intrusion beyond the original boundaries of our attention can challenge us to integrate it in our overall experience, to modify that experience so as to make room for it (pg. 46).” I understand Hepburn’s idea through an experience where a squirrel frightened me. I sat admiring the stream, trees, and clouds from my spot in the grass. I was fixated on how each piece of the scene could fit perfectly in the boundless landscape. Just when I thought nothing else could intrude, a squirrel flew from behind me and made his mark in my mind. Although it was a blur, his swiftness was magical and added a new piece to the puzzle. I now had to rearrange my thoughts to include how his existence completed the scene.
Plato considers that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form (pg. 62).” I understand Plato’s idea through my experience in the rain. Even though rain is a form of hydrogen and oxygen, the moment the raindrop hit right above my eye it made that split second beautiful within my mind. It overpowered all of the natural beauty immersed in the spot in which I was standing. The environment is not any more or less beautiful than the mind, but this experience made me realize my aspirations to overcome my adversity and discover how to get more out of life at that very moment. Reflecting back upon it, it shows deep expression based on the fact that wisdom is built on boundlessness.
Plato appreciates art sensitively and sees the levels of beauty as eternal. Plato calls it “beauty itself”, or levels higher than physical attractiveness. “But when anyone recites a strain of Homer you wake up in a moment and your soul leaps within you, and you have plenty to say; for not by art or knowledge about Homer do you say what you say, but by divine inspiration and possession (pg.50).” I understand Plato’s idea through the many places I visited over the course of this experience. It was not by prior knowledge that I continued to grow throughout these environmental experiences, but the inspiration and possession of the journey that filled these experiences and led me to finding my soul within myself, my true inner self.
I thought I knew everything about my aspirations and fears well enough that I could explain them to others in simple words. Well, I was wrong. It took nature to lead me down the pathway of inner beauty that lies within our bodies to discover what was holding me back. I needed to appreciate the natural world for what it is, what it leads to, and what it resonates, in order to create a new vision for myself. I strive to capture every breath of fresh air, while caring for the plants and animals around me as my friends. Without the environment in which I live, I could not better understand myself and push for more out of life in the future.
 Andrea McGhee was a student in aesthetics at Kent State University in the Fall of 2011, and her paper is used by permission.