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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