Aesthetics for Birds

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A Song of Ice and Atmosphere: John Muir and the Aesthetics of Cold Environments



“Muir Glacier” (Samuel Hall Young, c. 1915)

What follows is a post in our ongoing JAAC x AFB series, a collaboration between Aesthetics for Birds and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Today, Emily Brady shares some insights from her recent paper, “John Muir’s Environmental Aesthetics: Interweaving the Aesthetic, Religious, and Scientific“, which you can find in the recent Special Issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism on Environmentalism and Aesthetics.

I greatly enjoyed my walk up this majestic ice-river, charmed by the pale-blue, ineffably fine light in the crevasses, moulins, and wells, and the innumerable azure pools in basins of azure ice, and the network of surface streams, large and small, gliding, swirling with wonderful grace of motion in their frictionless channels, calling forth devout admiration at almost every step and filling the mind with a sense of Nature’s endless beauty and power. Looking ahead from the middle of the glacier, you see the broad white flood, though apparently rigid as iron, sweeping in graceful curves between its high mountain-like walls, small glaciers hanging in the hollows on either side, and snow in every form above them, and the great down-plunging granite buttresses and headlands of the walls marvelous in bold massive sculpture; forests in side cañons to within fifty feet of the glacier; avalanche pathways overgrown with alder and willow; innumerable cascades keeping up a solemn harmony of water sounds blending with those of the glacier moulins….

– John Muir, Travels in Alaska

Human and more-than-human communities are living in catastrophic times of global warming and the Sixth Extinction, of severe weather, drought, water and food insecurity, ice melt, warming oceans, and massive loss of species. Geologists have designated a new age ‘in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities’. What is the place of aesthetics in the age of climate change and the Anthropocene?

On the one hand, aesthetics can have negative ethical consequences for the environment. I use ‘environment’ broadly here to mean those places inhabited together by non-human and human. These consequences arise through aesthetic taste for manicured parks and lawns, invasive species, perfectly formed supermarket fruits and vegetables, and fast-fashion, to name just a few cases. An aesthetic taste for tidiness, as well as some cases of nimbyism, can mean that poor communities have to deal with the grim consequences of toxic waste and industry in their own backyards. In these ways, forms of aesthetic appreciation can be seen as culpable with respect to environmental and ecological injustices.

On the other hand, beauty, grandeur, sublimity, and other aesthetic values can figure differently, toward more positive ethical outcomes. In the philosophy of art, and more widely in non-art aesthetics, philosophers have been interested in the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. In environmental aesthetics, some have argued that aesthetic appreciation can encourage environmental protection. To cite a common occurrence, the destruction of a largely natural area for human development – industry, mineral extraction, a new building or parking lot – will mean the loss of habitat for plant life, insects, birds, and other animals and, with that, changes and losses in the aesthetic qualities and character of a place. Many people will seek to protect the area for ecological, aesthetic, and other reasons. Here, the valuing of aesthetic qualities may feature as a motivating factor in any moral action.

In the lines quoted above, John Muir recounts walking up a glacier while exploring the Stickeen (or Stikine) area during his first visit, in 1879, to what was then the ‘Department of Alaska.’  He would make subsequent trips to explore the area around what is now Glacier Bay National Park (and parts of the Aleutian Islands). During these trips, Muir was part of expedition parties guided by Alaska Natives living in southeastern Alaska, mainly the Tlingit and Haida Indians. Based on the journals he kept while exploring wild places in North America and beyond, Muir’s writings convey an enthusiasm for the natural world that has proven to be extremely influential. An important botanist, geologist, and explorer of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Muir emigrated with his family from Scotland to Wisconsin in 1851, when he was a boy of 11. His first long-distance journey on foot – his preferred method of travel – took him a thousand miles from Kentucky to Florida in 1867, but he was most impressed by the majesty of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, which he first visited a year later. He is famously celebrated as the first president of the Sierra Club and credited with playing an essential role in the designation of Yosemite National Park. Across the globe, natural aesthetic values (often expressed as ‘natural beauty’) commonly feature in the conservation and preservation aims of national parks.


“John Muir” (Isaiah West Taber & Thomas H Boyd, c. 1880)

Muir’s essays, like many non-fictional works about the natural world, provide a descriptive aesthetics, or a source for developing the outlines of an aesthetics of this or that kind of environment. Such descriptions can help to develop ideas about an environment’s aesthetic character by drawing on non-aesthetic and aesthetic concepts – and also help to address environments that receive less attention from aestheticians, for example, seas, oceans, rivers, sky, atmosphere, space, snow and ice, and deserts.

The literature on Muir often focuses on his explorations of the Sierra Nevada, but his time in Alaska provides an opportunity to consider the aesthetic character and value of spaces deeply affected by climate change: ice and atmosphere. By turning to Muir here, I don’t mean to prioritize non-fiction writing; all kinds of creative works will have a role in such considerations. Muir’s essays and books are, I think, especially interesting for contemporary debates in environmental aesthetics for the way that his reflections interweave aesthetic, religious, and scientific experience and values.

Muir’s aesthetic enthusiasm about ice (and snow) is bound up with his interest in understanding glaciers, but his positioning as an aesthetic subject couldn’t have been better. Sometimes he remarked on the scenic glory of Glacier Bay from a distance, but much of the time his aesthetic judgments originate from being deeply situated in the environment thanks to his self-taught skills as a mountaineer. This more embodied positioning, whether walking, climbing, sailing, lying on a moraine, or clinging to a tree, inspires detailed descriptions of his experiences. Setting off to explore the “grand crystal prairie” of a glacier, he writes:

All was so silent and so concentrated, owing to the low dragging mist, the beauty close about me was all the more keenly felt, though tinged with a dim sense of danger, as if coming events were casting shadows. …. After two hours of hard work I came to a maze of crevasses of appalling depth and width which could not be passed apparently either up or down. I traced them with firm nerve developed by the danger, making wide jumps, poising cautiously on dizzy edges after cutting footholds, taking wide crevasses at a grand leap at once frightful and inspiring.

– Muir, Taku River To Taylor Bay, Travels in Alaska

His situated standpoint also enabled aesthetic responses to more than visual and tactile qualities of glaciers; sounds were also ever-present:

Hundreds of small rills and good-sized streams were falling into the lake from the glacier, singing in low tones, some of them pouring in sheer falls over blue cliffs from narrow ice-valleys, some spouting from pipelike channels in the solid front of the glacier, others gurgling out of arched openings at the base. All these water-streams were riding on the parent ice-stream, their voices joined in one grand anthem telling the wonders of their near and far-off fountains.

– Muir, Exploration of the Stickeen Glaciers, Travels in Alaska

Always, his aesthetic reflections are interwoven with his scientific observations. Writing about the Glacier Bay area, Muir’s observations show his understanding of glacial retreat:

Charley, who was here when a boy, said that the place had so changed that he hardly recognized it, so many new islands had been born in the mean time and so much ice had vanished. As we have seen, this Icy Bay is being still farther extended by the recession of the glaciers. That this whole system of fiords and channels was added to the domain of the sea by glacial action is to my mind certain.

– Muir, The Discovery of Glacier Bay, Travels in Alaska

Muir’s outlook combined acute observational skills with his own religious upbringing and a kind of piety toward nature. With this background, we find an interest in the passage of time and its effects on mountains, glaciers, and other natural phenomena. It’s unlikely that he could have predicted our current situation of climate change; indeed, he would surely have been horrified to learn of the current, rapid retreat of the Geikie (now Muir) Glacier that he observed in 1890.


“Man in canoe in front of Muir Glacier, Alaska” (Edward Curtis, 1899)

Having an awareness of deep time and broader scientific and metaphysical framings, there is also a sense of how things fit together, a cosmology as much influenced by Muir’s scientific knowledge as by his spirituality. This brings us to atmosphere. It’s not easy to find a link between his experience of atmosphere at the turn of the 20th century and today’s depletion of the ozone layer from carbon emissions. Rather, I would suggest that, from Muir, aesthetics can learn and develop ideas concerning that damaged part of the ‘environment’ that lies between earth and space.

Descriptions of changing weather feature often in Muir’s writings, but in his trips to Alaska, we find especially rich descriptions and aesthetic judgments with respect to the aurora borealis:

I ran out in auroral excitement, and sure enough here was another aurora…. And though colorless and steadfast, its intense, solid, white splendor, noble proportions, and fineness of finish excited boundless admiration. In form and proportion it was like a rainbow, a bridge of one span five miles wide; and so brilliant, so fine and solid and homogeneous in every part, I fancy that if all the stars were raked together into one windrow, fused and welded and run through some celestial rolling-mill, all would be required to make this one glowing white colossal bridge.

On another occasion, but found in the same chapter:

… I lay down on the moraine in front of the cabin and gazed and watched. Hour after hour the wonderful arch stood perfectly motionless, sharply defined and substantial-looking as if it were a permanent addition to the furniture of the sky. At length while it yet spanned the inlet in serene unchanging splendor, a band of fluffy, pale gray, quivering ringlets came suddenly all in a row over the eastern mountain-top, glided in nervous haste up and down the under side of the bow and over the western mountain-wall….

– Muir, Auroras, Travels in Alaska

Muir’s descriptive aesthetics provides a collection of aesthetic concepts and connected non-aesthetic concepts, while also suggesting the varieties of aesthetic value and disvalue afforded by experiences of ice and atmosphere. Consider the range from the passages quoted: “ineffably fine light,” “majestic ice-river,” “basins of azure ice,” “wonderful grace of motion,” “solemn harmony of water sounds,” “low dragging mist,” “maze of crevasses,” “dizzy edges,” “singing in low tones,” “wonders of their near and far-off fountains,” “glowing white colossal bridge,” and “serene unchanging splendor.” Many of his descriptions mention the colors of ice and snow, whites, greys, crystal, etc., but we also find him describing the pebbles, mud, dirt, boulders, and moraines – less attractive maybe, yet just as integral to such environments which occur through glacial melting and movement.

 Thinking again about the interactions between aesthetics and ethics, Muir’s interweaving of the aesthetic, religious, and scientific can be said to spawn an ethical stance. His partly self-taught knowledge of botany, geology, and natural history, and keen observations grounded in intimate experience of the places he explored, give rise to a strong sense of the natural world as greater than himself and humanity at large. Sometimes, this is expressed in aesthetic terms through descriptions that either name or suggest grandeur and the sublime. At other times, his judgments are of admiration based in what I would characterize as a neighboring and sometimes overlapping category to aesthetics: wonder. Viewing himself as humbled rather than as master, Muir conveys a strong sense of humility toward the natural world, showing disdain, even misanthropy toward ‘man.’ Such humility runs through much of his work.

Set beside this humility, though, aesthetic and other forms of injustice can be argued to stem from his writings. For example, the creation of US national parks like Yosemite involve a legacy of displacement and land dispossession of indigenous and other persons. Today, national parks and other public lands continue to be less inclusive places for aesthetic and recreational enjoyment (some organizations such as the Next 100 Coalition are working to change this). Recent controversy about Muir centers on this issue. In moving beyond Muir, more diverse stories and accounts of the natural world and nature-human relationships can provide fertile ground for descriptive aesthetics, from the arts and cultural artifacts to ‘traditional ecological knowledge.’ In thinking about aesthetics in our current age – and our ethical responses – these sources will both inspire and demand reflection.

Notes on Contributor:
Emily Brady is Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University, where she also holds the Susanne M. and Melbern G. Glasscock Director’s Chair at the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research. She has published several books, including: The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (Edinburgh University Press, 2003).

Image credits: “Muir Glacier“, “John Muir“, and “Man in canoe
Edited by Alex King

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