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The Beauty of Forests Ravaged by Pine Beetles

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Don’t you find those swaths of beetle killed forests beautiful? Well you should.  At least that’s the conclusion I argued for last year in a talk I gave for an Environmental Studies Colloquium Series at CU.   So if you aren’t framing your prints of beetle killed forests yet, then you better read on.

The gist of my argument runs as follows:

1.  Appreciation of an aesthetic object requires that we appreciate it for what it is

2.  When we appreciate nature for what it is we find it aesthetically positive.

3.  Pine beetle killed forests are natural


4.   When we appreciate Pine Beetle forests for what they are we find them aesthetically positive.

Aesthetic appreciation is more than beauty.   It means to appreciate our perception of something.  To truly perceive something we need to get beneath its surface reflections.  Perception is also a cognitive. Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ was one of the most important artworks of the 20th century, yet you wouldn’t know it by looking at it.  It’s not beautiful or pretty.  It is aesthetically significant because engaging the artwork asks the questions of “what is art?”  That is, it does that if you know something about the history of art.  Yes your child could paint something that looks like that (Cy Twombly painting) but your child couldn’t make that artwork.

Cy Twombly

Marcel Duchamp

Before you get bent out of shape by thinking that I’m denying your right to like representational paintings of cuddly kitties, that’s not what I’m saying.  You can like it, you just shouldn’t think anyone else should.

Of course, to appreciate pretty nature (like pretty art) doesn’t take much knowledge.  The Grand Canyon, the Maroon Bells, a rainbow  are easy.  Yet, like ‘Fountain’ there are more challenging aesthetic objects in nature.  A grasslands, maggots digesting a dead elk, or a pine beetle killed forest might require some background knowledge before one can appreciate what one sees.  However, if one does know something of ecology then there is no reason to disparage these cases.  Indeed viewing a wolf kill might be aesthetically challenging, but much more interesting than seeing those old, lazy Estes Park elk.

Now you might say, knowledge might help us like challenging aesthetic objects, but must we like maggots and beetle kills?   I mean, knowing about art, often helps us to dislike it.  This is true and highlights one difference between art and nature.  When we appreciate an artwork for what it is, in part we are appreciating the artistry.  Not all artistry is good.  Art can fail: it can fail to be interesting or it may be ambitious in vision but poorly executed.   Nature appreciation is not an appreciation of artistry.  We appreciate its history, its form, its vibrant cycle of creation and destruction, and the relationship of particulars to their community and to their species.   Nature cannot fail and so when we appreciate it for what it is, we should appreciate it positively.

Now a pine beetle assault like we have seen in Colorado is not an everyday occurrence, but it is not exactly a rarity either.   Pine beetles are native species to Colorado forests and outbreaks are a regular occurrence.    I’m not an ecologist, but fortunately the talk last October featured one: Tania Schoennagel.  She argued that the present outbreak is within the historic range of variation, that it seemed to have natural causes, and did not present any unique crisis in effect.   In other words, beetles are part of a “healthy” (although this is a more metaphorical than scientific term) forest.

So putting those premises together, if you appreciate the beetle killed forests for what they are: an integral part of the forest ecology then you should find it aesthetically positive.  This is not to say that you’ll find it pretty or beautiful, it’s an acquired taste.  However, it seems worthy of all sorts of positive attributes: interesting, dynamic, surprising (in some ways), and powerful.

So why do so many people think that beetle kills are ugly?  For the same reason that people think their children’s scribblings deserve to be put on display in a museum: ignorance.   With our temporal shortsightedness we see the dying trees and think “it will never be the same again.”  We get sentimental about dying things, and we think that dead trees are bad.  Dying aspen leaves are pretty because we are savvy enough to know that the trees don’t die and that the leaves grow back.   To worry about the lack of prettiness of a pine beetle forest is to appreciate it in the wrong way.  It imposes a landscape appreciation on nature and as such appreciates nature as art (not for what it is).

Now, that’s about where I ran out of time in my talk and it’s probably a good thing.  That’s because so far I have dodged some hard questions about beetles and beauty.   The first question is what effect have humans had on prolonging the beetle outbreak because of climate change?  During the Q&A I sort of waved my hand toward the scientist and repeated the phrase “within the historic range of variation”.   While that sounds good, it’s misleading.  Although the outbreak may be within the scope of past outbreaks this does not tell us whether the current outbreak is bigger than it would have been.

We deal with the same question in the climate change debate directly although environmentalists would like to pretend that we don’t.  That is, people who know, know that the earth has been hotter and colder than the range of changes predicted to come about from human caused climate change.  Said another way, the impending climate change is within the historic range of variation.  While the skeptics who point this out are scientifically correct they are morally obtuse.

Mother Nature is not responsible for her actions but we are.   We can do otherwise.  The people who know, know that humans are effecting changes that will cause (and maybe already are causing) harms to humans and other species.  We bear the responsibility for these harms.   So for climate change in general and the pine beetle outbreak in particular, it may look natural, but it isn’t.  It’s like “Fountain,” it may look like a urinal, but it’s not.

This then prompts the second hard question, how should this knowledge affect our aesthetic appreciation?   When we view the pine beetle outbreak we must view its naturalness but we must also view the heavy hand of humans which has likely extended it.  This mixed appreciation is worthy of mixed emotions.   It’s as if nature had created a beautiful stone arch and humankind decided that it was not round enough and so taken a chisel to it, or perhaps it’s like the beautiful sunset that we know has been enhanced by the particulate matter belched from industrial smokestacks.    Maybe more aptly, it is a case of poorly performed dynamics; a crescendo rendered too quickly and forte rendered fortissimo (o.k. it’s been since I was 12 since I played piano and knew –sort of- what these terms meant).   Perhaps as we learn more about the scope of our present effect on the outbreak we will learn more how to interpret and judge this event.   Given what we know at present, I think the human hand tarnishes the beetle kill’s aesthetic delight but does not dispel it.

Photo by Lauren Buchholz


Written by sturgis

October 24, 2010 at 5:47 pm

18 Responses

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  1. […] own Dan Sturgis has a really nice post on the beauty of beetle kill. Worth stopping by for the full post: So putting those premises together, if you appreciate the […]

  2. I find pine beetle forest most beautiful when its made into furniture to sit on, therefore finding its intrinsic value in how it serve my use.


    October 24, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    • Sounds like instrumental value to me, but I agree that some of that is really cool. That ski house in Silverthorne had a really great beetle kill floor.


      October 25, 2010 at 9:27 am

  3. Well, I’m not sure this is really beauty; the same way I’m not sure conceptual art in general, such as fountain, is really all that beautiful. It seems like this point you are making is very much about content over form. And to me, for something to really be beautiful, it must have something closer to the Greek ideal of 50% content 50% form.

    Similarly, I don’t think that Chris Burden’s art can be called beautiful either (“aesthetically positive” is acceptable philosophically, though rather empty and sterile adjectively). It’s more astounding than beautiful. I’d perhaps prefer to call the beetle kill “arresting” than beautiful. And fountain, “uncanny.”

    Julian Friedland

    October 24, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    • Hey Julian

      I thought I replied to this yesterday, but it must have not been recorded. I agree that what I am after in the case of ‘Fountain’ and the pine beetle kills is a range of aesthetically positive qualities not beauty. I used beauty to motivate the discussion because I thought that aesthetically positive sounded too bland. I made a few updates to the post to clarify a bit. Thanks.


      October 26, 2010 at 7:58 am

  4. I didn’t know “what it is” and had to look up images of beetle killed Colorado forests – they seem colorful and “pretty” enough to me!

    Jokes aside, I’m not entirely clear about the part about seeing things as they are. Surely, you would agree that I don’t see the urinal as urinal. Rather, as you too would have it, I see it as responding to the question ‘what is Art’ (asked in a sufficiently deep way in upper case), and it is this (along with a lot of art history) that inspires the relevant aesthetic appreciation. Accordingly, I might want to talk of aesthetically appreciative perception as being about ‘seeing a bit of art as Art,’ and not just about seeing ‘something as something.’ Now, it seems a parallel move can be made for bits of nature too, such that we should be able to view a given bit as upper-cased Nature to appreciate it aesthetically. But, here’s the rub: unlike the urinal, where I had to pore over volumes of art history to appreciate it as Art, I already do have some sort of cultural training amounting to the parallel upper-cased prism “Nature” with which to view a given bit of nature; this Nature, however, is also that on whose strength I am rejecting the beetle-kill as worthy of aesthetic appreciation (whereas, e.g., I accept on its word the rainbow as “pretty”). In other words, it is not the case that the beetle kill is just too challenging for my obtuse Nature prism; in fact, I am roundly rejecting it as a case of Nature at all, just as I would reject x as a case of Art in appropriate circumstances (e.g. a urinal in the restroom). So, nature too seems to me to fail the Nature test!

    Of course, this is less of a paradox and more of a verbal illusion, simply because by “culture training up in the concept of Nature” I mean a discourse already directed at aesthetic appreciation, not a natural-historical one, say one carrying as much biologico-ecological weight such as required to see a beetle-kill as a ‘natural’ event. But I can’t help feeling that we do mix up Nature and Art somewhat on your presentation, and I can’t help feeling that we do so because we are being tricked by the “seeing what is as what it is” formulation into swapping aesthetic-Nature for scientific-Nature, which is what pushes a course on natural history on me in a parallel way as the Duchamp does for art history. Is it only because of the ‘what is’ formulation, which is brought up by harder cases for aesthetic appreciation such as the Fountain when we try and articulate the latter along lines of answering a ‘what is’ question – is it only because of that formulation, then, that I am coaxed into pursuing the same strategy in the case of a bit of nature, since nature seems to be exactly and typically ‘what is’?


    October 25, 2010 at 2:47 am

    • I’m not sure if I am interpreting your objection correctly. I take you to be saying that we already have a qualified basis for judging nature although not art. What is this “cultural training”? Do you mean that the discourse of art is sufficient for talking about the aesthetics of nature? Do you mean because the natural world is part of capital N Nature, and we are part of capital N Nature, that we somehow have privileged epistemic access? If either of those are your claim, I don’t agree. I think ecology is just as distinct and as essential for talking about nature as art history and specific discipline knowledge is to talking about art. Appropriate judgments require appropriate categories. An expert in painting may not be qualified to judge jazz. She may lack the appropriate categories. Most rejections of the aesthetics of the pine beetle forests seem (on my reading) to be based on a miscategorization. These are an appreciation of nature as a landscape (like an artwork). But I may be getting you wrong so I’ll stop there and maybe you can clarify for me.


      October 25, 2010 at 8:50 am

      • Yes, cultural training is an already acquired basis of taste for judging nature aesthetically, and by upper-case Nature, I mean just this aesthetically loaded nature. I mean the most ordinary of things by this: whatever lets me call a manicured garden pretty, a postcard type sunset at the beach pretty, etc. – this is the basis for viewing Nature aesthetically. And yes, it is a discourse of art strictly speaking, but unlike a full-blooded course in art history, for example, it is a layperson’s discourse given through cultural training rather than intensive work at grad school – and so we can distinguish it from the latter by terming the latter “Art” and the former “Nature” for convenience. Why term it “Nature” rather than say “Art-0” or any other arbitrary symbol? Because I believe that your presentation involves some miscategorization along those lines, blurring Nature and Art, even deliberately for the sake of expanding our notion of aesthetic appreciation of nature – and I’m trying to keep that in view as well.

        My ‘objection’ in its simplest form asks: does aesthetic appreciation rest on a perception of something as it is? If yes, then I see a urinal as urinal and poor Duchamp and all he signifies is pissed down the drain, so to speak. So, I see the urinal really as something else too, which helps me arrive (via a whole bunch of art history readings) at an “aesthetic appreciation of a challenging case.” This “something else too”, I take you to have told us, is Art – in the sense of the urinal not just appearing as a urinal, but as a response to the Big Question, What is Art.

        And from here on, I was merely trying to see how we get to appreciating challenging cases like beetle-kills according to your syllogism. And I may be completely off, but it seems that you run together the ‘what is (Art)’ component that helps us appreciate the Fountain with ‘what is (Nature)’ component that helps you understand the biological and ecological processes at work in the pine forest. And my suspicion, which again may be off, was that you run together these disparate categories of Art and Nature on the strength of the ‘what is’ formulation. In truth, here, we aren’t really dealing with “Nature” as I defined it above (a lay discourse of art that lets me pick out a sunset as pretty, and which rather, also lets me pick out a beetle-kill as not aesthetically significant – which is where your reading diverges and you think this stems from a miscategorization too!), but rather Nature in your sense of the “natural world as a whole” along with our understanding of its processes. But we try to see the latter as the former (Nature as Art) because, I get the feeling, we are getting tricked by the ‘what is’ component. Finally, no, I am saying nothing about the pine forest and I belonging together to big letters Nature beyond what I just said happens in your presentation of how to expand aesthetic appreciation of challenging cases of nature.

        I don’t know if I’ve made it any clearer or just re-stated my original post, let me know!


        October 25, 2010 at 10:34 am

      • Maybe the ‘what it is’ part is confusing. I mean that to correctly appreciate ‘Fountain’ we need to appreciate it as an artwork (and more specifically as the sort of work it is in the era that it is). Getting the categories wrong would lead to an inadequate appreciation. (If I like ‘Fountain’ for its gleaming surfaces then I’m missing the point.) I think that pretty art may not require much context for its appreciation, but other aesthetic qualities depend on knowledge. Nature is like that too. Pretty nature is easy, but I think that biology, geology, geography all play a role in attributing other aesthetic qualities to natural things. I’m still not sure if I see what you are driving it with the nature/Nature division.


        October 25, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    • Hope this shows up at the right place in the thread…

      Sure, yes, noticing the Fountain’s (x’s) ‘gleaming surface’ (y)is not going to help with aesthetic appreciation whereas learning about ‘readymades’(z), for instance, will. This is a case of noticing x not as y, but as z. But this, aside from not being your initial claim, is going to make us lose sight of what seems to me quite interesting in your initial formalization (esp. as it undercuts the need to factor in the artist’s agency to some extent): a perception of what it is as what it is underlies serious aesthetic appreciation (and seemingly all art after Duchamp can be/has been said to make that claim so far as it includes along with whatever else it presents, a tag like: “…and this is art.”) So, forgive me for staying with your original formulation along those lines.

      Ok, perhaps my nature/Nature niceties are unhelpful. So, let me try putting it another way: are you just saying that we should include biology and ecology in art history courses, so that we come to appreciate not only Duchamp but also beetle-kills aesthetically? And if yes, why? I take it that you would say: “Yes, we should indeed include biology, etc., and we should do so because: if one is committed to aesthetically appreciating challenging cases like Duchamp’s Fountain, then by the very same token one is also committed to aesthetically appreciating challenging cases like beetle-killed forests.” That token, in some sense, is represented by your formula, “a perception of what it is as what it is.”

      But I suspect this “very same token” is not so same across the implication and destabilizes it: not only is this token “Art” (all the theory that helps me appreciate Duchamp) in the first instance, and “Nature” in the second (at least prima facie different), but even more confusingly, “Nature” is actually ambiguous: sometimes meaning standard cultural training-up for calling sunsets pretty _and beetle-killed forests aesthetically insignificant_, and sometimes meaning the whole of nature from a scientific-theoretical standpoint. I would need to give up the first of these ambiguous senses (my culturally trained up discourse of what’s pretty and what’s not) for no reason just so that I can adopt the second and abide by your scheme. And even in doing so, I’m really using a theory of pine forests instead of a weighty theory of Art, which is what seemed to be relevant to begin with. And I feel we are encouraged to make all these shifts thanks to the “what is” formula, which easily slides between “what is Art” on the one hand (since that’s how the question of a serious aesthetic response was posed) and “what is Nature” on the other (since we usually take nature just to be what is).

      Maybe an even simpler way of putting my point would be to say: “Even if all serious aesthetic response requires perceiving what is as it is, not all perceiving of what is as it is amounts to serious aesthetic response.” But a) I’m not sure if that misrepresents your position, and b) I think my other way above of putting it by asking about including biology etc. in art history at least reflects one of my more direct concerns: are you prescribing a change in art history syllabi on the basis of something like a partly naturalized aesthetics? Or maybe I’m still quite incoherent and I won’t task your patience any further!


      October 25, 2010 at 5:15 pm

      • Ok here’s what I got… No, ecology for art history, but yes for any class that covers aesthetics more broadly (i.e. includes nature aesthetics). Yes, one can have shallow appreciation of art and nature, i.e. appreciation of the pretty without any background knowledge. However, deeper appreciation of either requires the appropriate categories. Indeed, although I disparage negative judgments about beetle kills as landscape appreciation, I think there can be deep landscape appreciation (with its own set of categories). As such, the same physical object may be a different part of different aesthetic objects. When I talk about what “it” of the aesthetic object is I don’t mean the physical object. I have more a Deweyan sense of the aesthetic object.


        October 27, 2010 at 9:22 am

  5. I like your quip about climate-change skeptics who are “scientifically correct . . . [but] morally obtuse”. However, I’m not sure that buys us anything. While it’s true that “oil is a natural substance”, the BP spill was the product of a human project. Was the spill natural? Was it aesthetically positive?

    Can I put scare quotes around “aesthetic object” and “what it is” for a moment? Thanks. The conditions under which an object simply is are fairly limited. A rock is just a rock, but when we pick it up and start to work with it, it becomes many things. It is a burden, a tool, a weapon. It is a paper weight or a toy; Plymouth Rock or the Rock of Gibraltar. Even if we spend all of our time under a bodhi tree, it then becomes more than a tree.

    So perhaps your call to aesthetic appreciation is a call to keep one foot on the ground (where a rock is a rock) as we get up and get on with things. I, on the other hand, like to keep track of the parts of things that are not simply what they are–the parts that have become many other things. I do this because, as you might agree, that’s where the ugly business of life tends to get done.


    October 25, 2010 at 11:26 am

    • The spill was not natural, it was the product of poor moral reasoning and so can be judged. As such we should aesthetically appreciate THAT spill differently than one that came from the ocean floor even if they looked the same.

      There need not be anything simple about the is of an object. What kind of rock is it? How has it been effected by the forces of nature?

      I’m not an apologist for the ugly business rather we need to see the pine beetle kill for what it is: mostly natural and part of a healthy forest but also altered by human forces


      October 25, 2010 at 12:48 pm

      • Well, the purported difference between what part of a disaster is natural and what part is the product of poor moral reasoning is what I’m wagging my finger at. They may seem quite far apart when we’re talking about the Gulf oil spill and beetle kills, but other cases are less clear-cut. Hurricane Katrina, for example, while very obviously a natural disaster, was compounded by years of gradual but quite substantial human changes to the offshore wetlands (among other things). Maybe the man-made and natural portions of a disaster are fully extricable, but it’s more likely that you got your chocolate on my peanut butter. But I do agree with you that from the perspective of natural aesthetics, the beetle kill is a thing of beauty.


        October 26, 2010 at 7:35 pm

  6. Steve: I think the Katrina example is a good one in part because it shows that there is another condition of aesthetic appreciation that I haven’t touched on yet: psychic distance. One may appreciate a hurricane or fire from a safe distance as beautiful, but if one’s home is being destroyed, the psychological challenge to appreciate it is probably too great. Back to the question of the role f humans though in Katrina, this is very much like the PB and I think shows that the correct aesthetic response may be very difficult to determine. Time will probably tell as it does with many artists who are initially not well understood. It seems that like the PB, we should have some sort of mixed response.


    October 27, 2010 at 9:58 am

  7. My first impression of pine-beetle-wrought forests isn’t that they are beautiful. Initially I feel afraid and disgusted. I am interested in the play between fear and perceptions of beauty. Anyway, once I get past the discomfort of thinking that one day our forests will be eaten up or worse, I can acknowledge some very basic and minimal elements of what we simpletons easily call beauty. Most people can appreciate the visual qualities of texture, line, contrast and color in nature. Whether they were created by human clumsiness or not, the skeletons of trees woven together in frothy, rusty shades of death can still be beautiful.

    Boulder Artist

    November 3, 2010 at 11:14 am

    • Thanks Jessica. There’s a lot in there for me to think about. I agree that a formal (color and line) appreciation of beetle kills is possible, but I want to lump that with the “gleaming surfaces” appreciation of ‘Fountain’. That is, it misses much of what there is to criticize or appreciate. I think your ideas about the relationship of fear to beauty are on track. Maybe beetle kills are more akin to the sublime than the beautiful.


      November 8, 2010 at 12:27 pm

  8. I am a fine art and documentary photographer and I am beginning a project concerning the beetle epidemic. I thought you might be interested.

    At its core, my project is about the aesthetics of the beetle kill and how people respond to it.

    Check it out and let me know what you think.

    Nathan Larimer

    November 5, 2010 at 4:58 pm

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