a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
When I moved to Alaska from the overly civilized, worn-out (as I saw it) New England at the age of twenty-one, I wanted to live in a place where my eyes would open every day onto Nature’s wild beauty. Mountains, ocean, glaciers, rocky beaches, fields of fireweed, dense forests, the wildlife these places supported—these defined for me as unblemished a world as I could imagine.
Almost immediately, as my adopted community fought over proposed oil development in the bay that fronted it, I had to come to grips with the reality that not everyone shares the same definitions of what is beautiful, or even whether the natural world, left to run wild, is desirable.
At a public hearing about the leasing of oil tracts, a woman known to be friendly towards the oil industry testified that, to the north of us, where oil platforms already operated offshore, her family loved to drive out the road at night to see the gas flaring from the platforms. Nearly a half-century later, I can still picture her lit face proclaiming how beautiful the gas flares were, “twinkling like stars.” And I remember how appalled I was—that anyone could possibly, honestly, find beauty in such a desecration of the dark, unspoiled night. Nevermind the waste of burning up gas; the damage that oil could (and would) inflict upon our waters, beaches, and wildlife; and—something that did not concern us in those innocent years—the carbon pollution that was even then warming our world to a crisis point.
I thought of this the other night, walking a dark back road between one village and another in northern Wales. Viewed through the woods and across the river, the lights of the village that was my temporary home struck me as warm, attractive, aesthetically pleasing—in other words, as quite beautiful. The physical sensation that overcame me was not unlike that I’ve so often felt gazing upon blue glacier ice or unnamed mountains stretching into a distance. I felt a swelling in what I might call my “heart,” even as I know the heart is only an organ unendowed with any mystical property. I felt, somehow, moved to emotion, gladdened by what was, to me that November night, a beautiful scene.
Of course, village lights are not an exact analog to gas flares, but I couldn’t deny that some of my definitions, some of my certainty about what to admire, might have changed.
Since coming to Wales, I’ve been well aware that I’ve entered a place of very deep human history and landscape alteration. The river, the river valley, the mountains and forests and fields, the rock—these have all provided for humans for millennia.
Here’s the river, rushing prettily past, melodious, under bridges, along the edges of sheep pastures divided by stone walls and as uniformly green and tidy as golf courses. The wooly sheep gambol and baa; they raise their long-lashed eyes to a passer-by. The hillsides above form patchworks: orange larch and dead bracken in their blocks, the solid greens of plantation firs and spruce in theirs, bare hillsides shorn of their trees and lined with slash piles, more green pastures dotted with more white sheep. Farther along the valley, mountainsides are starkly cleaved and terraced—reshaped by centuries of slate quarrying. Huge talus slopes of waste slate flow down them; they glint white when the seldom-seen sun breaks through.
I should find all this unnaturalness horrifying.
I climb hills along well-trod paths, past the tumbling, lichen-growing remains of rock-walled farmsteads and signs alerting me to “forest operations,” to look at a remade world, and somehow I’m not even appalled by the clear-cuts. The patterns of colors, shapes, juxtapositions all interest me. They form their own aesthetics, and they remind me of the larger pattern—that of human use that has not, so far, completely wrecked this world. I like to look at what opens before me, as I might look at a garden of cultivated plants, or at a painting with a pleasing perspective.
My home landscapes now strike me, in contrast, as both messy and monotonous—all that wild forest, all those mountains marching into the distance, all that open water.
The irony does not escape me.
The wild without interruption, with sameness. The non-wild with breaks, diversity, visual surprise.
This, even as those even-aged, evenly spaced plantation trees do not even come from this place. The spruce, fir, and larch—their ancestor trees were brought from elsewhere, the first two from the west coast of my own country. The carved-up mountains, which do belong, have been relocated around the world as slate roofing and flooring. What’s natural, anymore? And what does natural or unnatural have to do with what we find attractive? How did I run away from the used-upness of New England only to finally embrace a part of Old England, with its even greater scarred occupancy?
Evolutionary aesthetics, landscape genetics, sensory ecology, and neuroaesthetics—these are the newish academic fields that question how humans respond to the natural world and to art and what we find beautiful. They try to tease out whether the preferences we’re inclined to are genetic or by choice.
Some scholars have argued that the “preferred” landscape from an aesthetic point of view is an open one with a few trees, since humans evolved on a savannah. Others hold that such an explanation is far too reductive. Researchers who’ve studied birds have found that, while the handsomest male bird might also be the healthiest, with the best genes, female birds can be attracted to beauty for its own sake. The birds find what is beautiful beautiful, to put it simply.
The question of what beauty is has been debated forever, of course. Science writer Ferris Jabr, in an article in the New York Times Magazine, “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution,” summed up the question succinctly when he wrote, “Philosophers, scientists and writers have tried to define the essence of beauty for thousands of years. The plurality of their efforts illustrates the immense difficulty of this task. Beauty, they have said, is: harmony; goodness; a manifestation of divine perfection; a type of pleasure; that which causes love and longing; and M = O/C (where M is aesthetic value, O is order and C is complexity).
Jabr also wrote, “It is more or less impossible to determine just how much an aesthetic preference owes to evolutionary history as opposed to cultural influence.”
I think of my own cultural influences. I grew up in a home and culture that valued the outdoors and wild places, that found beauty in mountain streams and autumn’s flaming-red maple leaves. Perhaps more than others in my family or among my peers, I responded with enthusiasm to the natural world—to the songs of birds, the smooth pink inside a seashell, the geometry of a spider’s web. Why did these things please me? They were beautiful because they were beautiful to me.
What might be the role of evolution? Surely it was to my species’ benefit to pay attention—for example, to what might be edible or what could kill you. Paying attention would naturally, it seems, bring a person onto aesthetic grounds, to note colors, symmetries, behaviors that please the eye or the ear or might even provide a sense of safe enclosure, or kinship.
The more we learn about genetics, the more complicated the “nature versus nurture” question becomes. In the still-developing field of epigenetics, scientists have found that genes in an individual can be switched on and off within our lives, unlike the DNA that generally rules who we are. Moreover, it seems that such changes are heritable, and one controversial theory has that trauma experienced in one generation can be transferred to later ones, as what is called “transgenerational trauma.”
Might one’s sense of beauty be passed along similarly? My grandmother’s grandparents, newly married, emigrated from the region in Wales I’ve come to, and I can’t help thinking—perhaps only wishfully or wistfully—that something of how I respond to this landscape has come down to me genetically. Those farm people surely had a “feeling” for their fields and their animals and for the gray winter weather that could be considered gloomy. I watch over grazing sheep, my mind at rest, while the low clouds and mist comfort and haunt me.
On the main road south, a friend and I pass a large propped-up sign—Conservation Yes Rewilding No. I’m familiar with the rewilding concept from America, but here it is, in a place so far from wild I wonder how re-wilding could even apply.
The particular project, I learn, is called Summit to Sea and proposes rewilding a large swath of mid-Wales from the high mountains down through valleys to a major estuary and then out into a bay. The goal, according to the website of its initiator, Rewilding Britain, is “to restore flourishing ecosystems and a resilient local economy.” The territory would become a “continuous nature-rich area.”
As it happened, the planners got ahead of locals—something I’ve seen happen often enough in Alaska—and a backlash resulted. The project was called by its opponents “cultural imperialism,” “privileged middleclass romanticism,” and “urban values forced on a rural Welsh area.” The long history of resentment by the Welsh to English control and interference didn’t help public relations. Very recently, Rewilding Britain pulled out of the project, turning it over to a coalition of conservation organizations with stronger records of working in the region.
There is biological value, of course, in restoring and connecting functioning ecosystems. An example heralded by the project is the return of endangered pine martens to forested areas that can support their food and denning requirements. I detect, though, within the controversy, what might be a conflict of aesthetics. On the one hand, the proposed “nature-rich” landscapes, and on the other, the very deep generational use of the land by people who love it for the ways it sustains them. I feel the sting of accusation. Yes, I am a privileged outsider, with my romantic notions of what pleases me and thus should please others. I want to walk in a forest to photograph ferns and hope to see a pine marten. What about that sheep farmer with his dog, heading along the same path to cut stove wood?
A friend back in Alaska tells me she’s learned a Welsh word: cynefin. This, she says, has no English equivalent but is applied to a place where a person feels he or she ought to live. It is where the nature around a person feels right and welcoming.
I look up the word myself. Definitions: habitat, haunt, acquainted, familiar, sheep-walk.
What is a sheep-walk? In British English, it is a pasture or range for sheep.
The nature I’m falling in love with is one of sheep-walks. It welcomes me. It feels right to me, even as I know that Wales has given over its habitat almost entirely to domestic animals. Wales once had wolves, but they’ve been gone since the 1600s and live now only in folk-tales. Lynx have been gone for 1500 years and moose for 3000 years. Even such non-threatening animals as common cranes and beavers were hunted out centuries ago. (There are efforts to reintroduce both.) The largest land animals in Wales today are five species of deer, only two of which are native to the United Kingdom.
I learn more: the word cynefin was adopted in 1999 for the Cynefin Framework, a conceptual framework used by executives in decision-making. Dave Snowden, an internationally acclaimed leader in organizational complexity, originally from Wales, named the framework after reading about the Welsh landscape artist Kyffin Williams, known (according to his 2006 obituary in The Guardian) for his “dark monumental landscapes of Snowdonia” that “recognized the Celtic tendency to melancholy.” A critique had applied the word to Williams’s relationship, physical and spiritual, to the land he painted.
I look up Williams’s paintings on the Internet. His tempestuous mountains avalanche rock and snow. Streams plunge down hillsides. Blackened, squally skies lower over all. As often as not, foregrounds feature villages, farmhouses, stone walls, winter-pale pastures, old men with their dogs. These landscapes are immensely familiar to me—pulling me back into places that feel so right. My eyes feast over them as my heart—melancholy though it might be—sings.
And yet again.
Two new friends and I hike partway up Cader Idris, the highest mountain in the region and part of Snowdonia National Park. We first pass through native oak forest with cascading waterfalls, then by a green block of plantation forest and onto treeless alpine, into a cirque valley surrounded by high and craggy peaks. The sun inches into the cleft between two peaks to warm us, and a placid lake, reflecting ice-blue sky, appears before us. It is the first day without rain in a month.
No one could deny that this is beautiful country. Steep mountainsides, reflective lake, purple heather, lichen-etched rock everywhere, a great silence broken only by the burbling of a stream. The forces of nature are visible in the thrusted mountains and the rounded hills and carved valley, the igneous rock all around. Volcanoes once poured molten rock here; multiple ice ages ground glaciers over the land, scraping and shattering and spreading rock, smoothing the hillsides and valley.
Human hands have been at work, here, too. The trail we follow consists in its steep beginning of rock steps and, higher, of rock slabs laid down like pavement. Flocks of sheep graze on the high mountain slopes, their white coats catching the sunlight. Stone walls, even here, divide the land. The park is anything but wilderness; the brochure I picked up calls it “a living working area” where “beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage” are all conserved.
While my friends sit and sketch by the lake, I watch for wildlife. Nothing moves among the rocks. Nothing squeaks. Nothing crosses the sky. Only once in an hour do I hear a bird, a small chipping sound, but I cannot locate it. The lake, too, is quiet, its only movement aside from a ruffling of wind one small, widening ring near the shoreline. It may be November, but it’s a warmish day, and there’s not a bee or moth or biting fly in sight. Nothing crawls over the rocks or through the grasses or in the mud I can so clearly see through the lake’s clear water.
If I came here and had no reference to any other landscape, would I know what was missing?
My thoughts carry me home to Alaska and what’s at stake with the change that stalks it and the rest of the world.
That change, everywhere, means pressure to drill oil, dig minerals, cut forests, build roads, fill wetlands, and provide for an ever-expanding and demanding human population. That change is the warming that threatens our lands and waters and the stability of a system that is turning towards extinctions.
Where the compromises and accommodations—even the abuses—go back centuries, we might still take care of what we have, the places that feel like home to us, that feed our spirits. If the systems we’ve so altered can be at least partially restored, can we not head in that direction? What might beavers and cranes, if not wolves, add to the landscape of Wales and our response to it? And those business executives and their frameworks—surely there’s also something to be learned from what works in nature and in our relationships to place.
In Alaska, though, we have another baseline, and it rests not just on postcard views but on ice-covered waters, Arctic expanses, and salmon-choked streams. Centuries hence, the mountains and lakes will (likely) still be present, but what of the ancient forests, the unfenced and unroaded tundra, the eelgrass beds and mudflats? And what of the life those places provide—for fish and bears, caribou, swans and sandpipers, people and the cultures that make us who we are, at home? The wholeness that is still ours gives us a measure by which to recognize the loss—and perhaps the gain, if we can go there—elsewhere in the world.
And beauty. It’s everywhere we open our eyes to it, knowing what we know, feeling what we feel. I want us to rejoice in its every expression, wherever we live with it.
That is my hope as I walk again on a dark forest road with the lights of a village beside me.
Nancy Lord, a former Alaska State Writer Laureate (2008-2010), is the author of three short story collections, five books of literary nonfiction including Beluga Days and Early Warming, and the 2017 novel pH. She also edited the anthology Made of Salmon. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies and has been honored with fellowships and awards. She teaches writing part-time for both the University of Alaska and Johns Hopkins University and is a regular book reviewer for the Anchorage Daily News.