What is Beautiful?

For centuries, philosophers have pondered the question

Early spring forest
Copyright 2024 Tracey Ormerod

For a few years, we lived in a forest much like what you see in this picture.

Before then, growing up and working in the city, I never saw a forest quite that way. If I ever went north, it was in the summer, when forests were thick with green and cottages had manicured lawns and managed foliage. So, when my husband and I moved north, I was astonished by what I could see and hear that first winter, for the first time ever.

I fell in love.

Trees sparkle with the sunlight when given the chance. Their branches glow. Each trunk is uniquely mottled, burled, or scarred, giving them a character all their own. No two are alike.

I had no idea they spoke, in their special ‘tree way’, of course. If you stand still in their midst and listen, they slowly speak and fill the air with their creaks and their whispers. It’s something we rarely acknowledge, not like we do with the leaves, which are generally louder, prettier, flashier in their rustlings , grabbing all the attention and rendering their trees seemingly silent. It’s nature’s way.

But on windy days, without the leaves to distract, there’s nothing quite like watching the full length of these 30-40 foot giants swing slowly together. And that’s what you can’t help but notice, more than anything else: their humongous togetherness. I read something the other night that reminded me how I felt at the time. It was awe:

Awe makes us stop and stare. Being awestruck dwarfs us, humbles us, makes us aware we are part of a universe unfathomably larger than ourselves …

~ Julia Baird, in Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark, p. 17.

I can never quite shake the feeling that I’m witnessing relationship at its finest. They curve and bend with the elements, and when one falls they get caught in what looks like the arms of their neighbour. After the catch, they both continue to thrive, together.

While I wandered in awe that winter, our cottager-neighbour, who came up every week in the winter to inspect his property for weather damage before going inside to watch television, bemoaned what he could see outside his door. He said it was ugly.

In a visceral way, his words pained me but when I think back, I’m not sure I can say he was right or wrong. There’s a saying that says beauty is in ‘the eye of the beholder’, though not all philosophers agree. Plato and Aristotle considered beauty to be a fixed property of an object: defined by its order and symmetry. Similarly, Confucius thought it lay in an object’s stability, harmony, longevity, and order.

Our cottager-neighbour would agree with Plato, Aristotle, and Confucius. In his eyes, the forest was chaotic … in desperate need of grooming to tidy and set things in a proper order. But meanwhile, there’s the other side, thinkers like Thomas Aquinas who would’ve said it’s more about what pleases us when seen. He’s similar to Immanuel Kant, who argued that the beautiful and sublime were more about the way we respond to an object.

Apologies if I’ve over-simplified in any way. I can’t adequately speak to the countless aesthetic theories here or give the ones I mention the consideration they deserve, but the above is already enough to point out the subjective and debatable nature of what we consider beautiful.

I ask myself why it matters so much to me and I sit with the question while I look at my photo of an early spring forest. I remember what I felt in the moment I captured that image, hoping like mad that I’d be able to catch just a fraction of the beauty I saw in that moment and the awe I felt, not because I wanted to ‘own’ it forever (because that’s just impossible), but more because I want to share, to recreate the feeling for anyone who wants to see.

It’s been at least three or four years since that cottager said that awful, ugly thing about the forest, and it still bothers me enough that I thought to write about it. I believe it’s because of how it reflects an awareness of living things and their wildness, or the lack of it. It troubles me. When we think of something as beautiful and/or sublime, we feel awe, wonder … and love.

We want to preserve what we love.


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