What makes a landscape beautiful?

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. – Henry David Thoreau

When Mike and I drive and work around the reserve, we pass units that are not being actively managed. He often sighs and points out these areas crowded with invasive plants, then points out a high-quality area that he wants it to look like. Sometimes I really don’t see a difference. Looks like a nice prairie to me, I’ll think.

When one of my good friends visited me a few weeks ago, we went on a hike around Shaw. She asked how my work here so far has changed me. I thought for a moment and said that I used to think of nature as just beautiful, no matter what. It was an escape for me; as long as it was green and alive, I enjoyed being in it. But now that I’ve learned more about ecosystems and can identify more plants, I know what I’m looking at. I am beginning to have some sense of whether an area is degraded when I see it, and if it is filled with invasive plants I’ve worked on, I know for sure. That led me to think about what makes a landscape beautiful. If a natural area is full of non-native plants, is it still beautiful?

Of course, beauty is subjective. Just like in art and music, trained and untrained people will see or hear things differently, and the definition of “good” art or music still varies among experts. A layperson probably enjoys art that looks interesting or relatable, while an expert may be looking for good technique. I guess for ecologists like Mike (and maybe me someday), it’s not about what the land looks like at the surface level. They correlate beauty with ecosystem health—only a healthy landscape is a truly beautiful one. This makes sense since restoration ecologists are trained to assist in recovery of degraded land. Simply through observation, they can understand a little bit about the ecological history of an area and assess its current state.

So back to my question: what makes a landscape beautiful? Since each person appreciates nature on a different level based on their past experiences and knowledge of the land, I suppose it doesn’t really matter what exactly each person finds beautiful. After all, the mission of Shaw is “To inspire responsible stewardship of our environment through education, restoration, protection of natural habitats, and public enjoyment of the natural world.” And if a visitor enjoys their time at Shaw and finds an area to be beautiful even if it isn’t the highest quality, the mission has been achieved.

I love this quote from Richard Feynman illustrated by Zen Pencils. Check it out! http://zenpencils.com/comic/137-richard-feynman-the-beauty-of-a-flower/

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