Saturday, February 15, 2014

Aldo Leopold and J. Baird Callicott on the Land Aesthetic: Ecology as Mythology

At first, it would seem nearly impossible to pry Aldo Leopold from the cognitivist camp in the appreciation of nature and to ally him with something more like the Muir-inspired synthesis/cycle view which I now advocate (see my previous post on this).  However there is a deep way in which Leopold is really a mythologist who uses imagination in his appreciation of nature much like the way a fine artist does.  A central concept in Leopold's thinking is the distinction between land and country, land having to do with practical and even monetary value, and country having to do with "the personality of the land" and also "the collective harmony of its soil, life, and weather."  Another feature of country is that "its quality may not be apparent at first glance, nor at all times." So, a lakeshore may at first seem boring but then one may find riches hidden within it.  The distinction between land and country is not just one of practical vs. aesthetic attitude:  something can be land and not country, or perhaps the world is divided between land and country environments.  Leopold is no proponent of the view called "positive aesthetics" in which everything in nature is beautiful in some way.  He suggests that the beauty of an environemnt depends a lot on whether or not certain wildlife is present.  For example, he notes that he cannot prove (but certainly believes) that "a thicket without the potential roar of a quail covey" is only a thorny place.  Thus:  wildlife "often represents the difference between rich country and mere land."  Leopold has the usual distaste of naturalists for nature tourists who are herded through scenic places, especially if they would find something like the Kansas plains boring.  But what is it that makes the Kansas plains interesting to Leopold?  To understand this we need to consider what the tourist herd does not see:  "They see the endless corn, but not the heave and grunt of ox teams breaking the prairie."  That is, they do not see the corn under the aspect of and intensification of historical background knowledge, specifically of the somaesthetic knowledge of the first farmer and his team of oxen.  Another example is:  "they look at the low horizon, but they cannot see it, as de Vaca did, under the bellies of buffalo."  So when we are talking about a plain exterior that "conceals hidden riches" we are talking either about the possibility of enhancements through awareness of key wildlife or through awareness of historical background (specifically background about the human/animal interaction within this environment, although I see not reason why one should exclude other historical phenomena, for example the battle between U.S. solders and the Dakota Sioux on this very spot).  Most would see this approach as entirely one of applying scientific cognition to nature.  But how then explain the preference of the place with quail over the one without, and how explain the interruption of imaginings of local natural history?  In fact, Leopold uses imaginative perception to extend the aesthetic in nature beyond the merely scenic (and beyond even the merely scientific).  Of course de Vaca did in fact see vast seas of buffalo on these plains, as we cannot.  However, to look at the plains as if one were de Vaca is not to see nature "as it is" as most aestheticians of nature would require.   Rather, it is to pump up perception through giving the plains themselves a kind of aura, a heightened significance through imaginative perception.  This is a case of seeing nature as it is not.  What I want to argue (but cannot fully develop here) is that imaginative seeing, or seeing something as something that it is not (for example, seeing the brambles as potentially filled with quail although not quail are actually present to perception) is essential to aesthetic experience of nature, and that even the greatest heroes of the aesthetics of nature, people like Leopold, actually engage in this practice.  

J. Baird Callicott in "Leopold's Land Aesthetic" (also in Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism) helps support my point by discussing Leopold's idea of the noumenon.  The idea is inspired by Kant but is used in a different way:  for Leopold a noumenon of the land is an actual, physical thing (usually a species) that constitutes the "essence" of the countryside. (As soon as we see this term "essence" we know we have left the land of science and have entered something more like a Schopenhauerian world in which the genius artist is able to see the Platonic Form of chair in the chair, and is able to capture the essence of the chair...Leopold is like the Schopenhauerean genius in nature.)  The grouse for example is the noumenon of the north woods.  Leopold writes:  "In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre.  Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.  An enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost." (114)  He even thinks that any "sober ecologist" would agree.  There is something ironic here, since although this idea may be approved by many ecologists, it is hardly sober.  It is practically Dionysian.  It reeks of something like religious ecstasy.  (And note that Kant's noumenon is something that resides in the transcendent realm, a realm that gives meaning to our lives, but is unapproachable by reason.  I think that Leopold's noumenon actually is more like Kant's "aesthetic idea" which is perceivable unlike the nuomenon but has some of the features of the nuomenon and is essential to our understanding of the genius artist.)  Leopold admits that this notion of ecological death "is inexpressible in terms of contemporary science."  This view, then, is not supportable by scientific cognitivism, not even consistent with it.  Instead, it is a kind of mythology (or religion), perhaps the kind that Thoreau favored in his "Walking" (in the same anthology) in which he says that although English literature fails to capture nature, Greek mythology does not:  "Mythology [Thoreau writes] is the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted, before the fancy and imagination were affected with blight; and which it still bears, wherever its pristine vigor is unabated."  (59)  Thoreau goes on to talk about how the West is preparing is own mythology, perhaps to emerge around great rivers like the Mississippi.  I argue that Leopold's idea of the noumenon is the creation of a Thoreauian mythology, and this explains why he has no trouble seeing nature as what it is not, or as what it once was.  Although Leopold rejects an art-based view of appreciation of nature, he himself creates his own art, an art of seeing, in which the noumenon plays the role of the key actor on stage, the protagonist of the ecological story.  This is not to imply that I disapprove of the idea of the noumenon:  I find it exciting and quite appropriate.  It entails a highly engaged, constructive and interactive way to approach natural aesthetics.  Callicott is eager to tone this down however and so he calls these noumenon "aesthetic indicator species."  He thinks this is more precise although less arresting.  (But, scientifically speaking, why would one species indicate anything more than any other?)  Such species, on his view, supply "the hallmark, the imprimatur, to their respective ecological communities" and this is seen by the fact that if they are absent the ecological community lacks "the rosy glow of perfect health."  This is lovely, but it is also mythology.  Nature does not care which species is dominant, or which one makes an ecological system most meaningful to us humans.  The mystical element here can be found especially in the fact that the follower of this doctrine does not even care if he or she actually sees examples of the noumenon species:  "they need not be seen or heard to grace and enliven their respective habitats."  The presence of their grace is a matter not of actual but of imaginative perception, of a kind of heightened significance brought by the belief that representatives of this species are somewhere about.  This leads of course to certain negative aesthetic judgments, even extreme ones, as well.  So, when Leopold visits the German forests he deeply regrets the absence of the great owl Uhu without whose calls "the winter night becomes mere blackness."  It then surprises me greatly that, after describing Leopold's idea of the noumenon, Callicott ignores the unscientific aspect of this and simply says that Leopold has given us the first natural aesthetic "informed by ecological and evolutionary natural history and thus the only genuinely autonomous natural aesthetic" in the West.  He further observes that it involves a "cultivated natural sensibility."  Yet, no amount of cultivation of sensibility without a heavy dose of imaginative perception can get someone to see the Kansas plains as these were seen by someone four hundred years ago.  The romance of this should be palpable.  The idea of the noumenon involves a special kind of imaginative perception:  one that focuses on a particular species as that which gives the environment life, a kind of minor god or muse, as in mythology.  Callicott admits himself the central role of imagination: "the experience of a marsh or bog is aesthetically satisfying less for what is literally sensed than what is known or schematically imagined of its ecology."  And he actually quotes Leopold to the effect that "the Ph.D. may become as callous as an undertaker to the mysteries at which he officiates" followed by the observation that perception cannot be purchased with earned degrees.  Hence, in the end, Leopold and Calicott could hardly agree with the scientific cognitivists who insist that one can only appropriately appreciate nature through scientific knowledge.   The scientific mindset does not value mystery as mystery any more than the apprehension of essences.

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