Western Appreciation of the Intrinsic Beauty of Nature

Appreciation of the intrinsic beauty of nature has been a constant theme expressed in literature throughout history. The perspective that the Western appreciation of Nature’s beauty is an offshoot of the twentieth century ecological movement is thus not a sound observation. Even before the twentieth century, there existed various vivid and passionate descriptions of engaging aspects of nature. In this paper, therefore, a presentation of the evidence in opposition to the statement that “Western Appreciation of the Intrinsic Beauty of Nature is a modern concept, arising from the ecology movement of the twentieth century”, is presented. In fact, the paper argues that the ancient appreciation of Nature’s beauty were more authentic, in contrast to modern appreciation where the core driving factor is the fear of man’s extinction.

The appreciation of nature’s beauty by humans who lived before the twentieth century is first evident by the literature describing the status of the earth during the origin. One breadth of such literature is that advised on the religious stories, primarily Christianity, which detail man’s exquisite abode, the Garden of Eden. For instance, Milton, in an English epic, describes the Garden of Eden stating: “Upon the rapid current, which through veins of porous earth with kindly thirst up drawn, rose a fresh fountain, and with many a rill, watered the garden …” (205). Such depiction paints the author’s admiration of what the Garden of Eden had to offer, for instance, the fountains of fresh water watering the garden. Bacon’s, the author of the essay “Of Gardens”, observation of the Garden of Eden reinforces Milton’s fascination with the same. In his essay, Bacon states: “God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures … the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man … (137). It was with such admiration that Bacon states that man’s other works, such as buildings and palaces, paled in comparison to the features that the Garden of Eden offered. Such an observation is synonymous to modern ecologists urge for humanity to avoid destroying ecosystems in pursuit of their works.

A second theme that evidences that modern ecologists were not the first to appreciate nature’s beauty is in the stories recounted by sailors, and travellers to other parts of the globe. One such account was presented by a French navigator, D’Entrecasteaux, who passionately reminisced of his voyage and escapades in the Pacific in one of his writings. D’Entrecasteaux could not find words to express his feelings on reaching a solitary harbor; however, it was not lost on him how “with each step, one encounters the beauties of unspoilt nature, with signs of decrepitude …” (32). D’Entrecasteaux does not consider such natural wearing out of the harbor by nature’s forces to be ugly. Rather, he admires the ambience presented by the tall trees, whose trunks are bare of branches, but tops are crowned by persistent green foliage. D’Entrecasteaux enthusiasm for nature is also evident in Jacobson’s description of the Niagra falls. Jacobson, a South African novelist, observes of the falls: “The water roars down; the spray rises high; a moving yet stationary line of pale green wavers forever on the all but closed circle of the rim, between the dark green rush of the river and the pure white” (as qtd. in Ricks 20). Such description is evident of the appreciation such writers had of nature’s beauty, describing the aspects of nature as being pure and unspoilt.

Even where ancient authors described the setup of various manmade structures, the reverence of nature’s beauty is evident. One such depiction is from a twelfth-century description of a monastery at Rievaulx in a manuscript. In this manuscript, presented in a 20th century work edited by Powick, the monastery is said to have been set in a valley, surrounded by and “encircled like a crown” by “High hills covered with many kinds of trees” (29). It was in admiration of this scenery, that the manuscript authors noted: “When the branches of the beautiful trees move and sing together and leaves fall gently down, the happy listener’s ears are increasingly gratified with the glad jubilee of pleasing sounds …” (quoted in Powick 29). Such depictions evidence that, even in the twelfth century, the people appreciated the beauty presented by nature, and enjoyed in the pleasures offered by such beauty, unlike the contention in the statement that “people feared and despised the wild areas as alien.”

Despite such appreciation of nature’s beauty even by people who lived before the twentieth century, there exists literature depicting the abhorrence of nature’s forces and landscapes that prevented man’s activities. For instance, a Victorian, British poet, Lord Tennyson, wondered whether God and Nature were fighting, that nature had to bring such evil happenings as hunger and the desert’s dust to man (poem presented in Kermode 1239-40). Also noting of such distaste and fear, in a negative connotation rather than awe, was Strachey’s description of a storm during his journeys in the sea, as recounted in an anthology by Neil. For instance, he describes the intensity with which the storm had blown, as violence he had never experienced before, a “fury added to fury, and one storm urging a second more outrageous than the former …” (Neil 1).   Such abhorrence of Nature’s servings could also be noted of an old man described by Annie Proulx, an American novelist. In the novel, Proulx observes:

They called it a ranch and it had been, but one day the old man said it was impossible to run cows in such tough country where they fell off cliffs, disappeared into sinkholes, gave up large numbers of calves to marauding lions, where hay couldn’t grow but leafy spurge and Canada thistle throve, and the wind packed enough sand to scour windshields opaque (19).

In this respect, these three literatures depict a generation that abhorred what nature presented, a generation that did not appreciate the beauty of nature, viewing features of nature as encumbrances for man’s activity. This is in contrast to the evidence presented by the authors reviewed earlier, where aspects such as the thrills presented by the sea were appreciated (e.g. D’Entrecasteaux 32), and landscape revered (Powick 29). However, such negative associations pale in comparison, when the work of such discoverers as Charles Darwin, embrace the beauty of nature beyond the precincts of human philosophy as informed by religious beliefs. Even in such works that go beyond the breadth of religious beliefs, which, perhaps, one could consider to have informed ancient people’s reverence of nature, Darwin notes of grandeur in a view of life that does not focus on man, but also on man’s surroundings (395-6).

The origin of the appreciation of Nature’s innate beauty cannot be attributed to the twentieth century ecologists as supposed in the statement. Evaluation of various literatures detailing people’s life even before the twentieth century notes of people fascinated and enchanted by the various scenery that nature offered. Even where such abhorrence of nature is depicted, it appears to be out of a drive for man to advance ones activity rather than the failure to appreciate nature’s intrinsic beauty. Evidence of such appreciation of nature’s beauty is presented in literature based on both religious and non-religious philosophy. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate to posit that the ecologists of the modern world were the originators of the appreciation of nature’s beauty, and that the people before then abhorred the wild. On the contrary, people living before the twentieth century appear to have been passionate of the raw beauty that nature presented then.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. “Of Gardens.” Essays. Ed. Michael J. Hawkins. London: Dent, 1972. Print.

Dawin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Ed. Gillian Beer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

D’Entrecasteaux, Bruny. Voyage to Australia and the Pacific 1791 – 1793. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001. Print.

Kermode, Frank., ed. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Volume 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Alastair Fowler. London: Longman, 1971. Print.

Neil, Peter., ed. American Sea Writing: A Literary Anthology. New York: Library of America, 2000. Print.

Powick, F. M., ed. The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962. Print.

Proulx, Annie. Close Range: Montana Stories. London: Fourth Estate, 1999. Print.

Ricks, Christopher. Keats and Embarrassment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974. Print.

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