The oak at point-blank, Ugbrooke

The oak at point-blank, Ugbrooke

Mr and Mrs C of Palm Beach ask us why we should prize nature for its beauty. This might be a question for the philosopher. One answer might be that when we define the natural world as the world that is untouched by humanity, we shrug off a weight of critical endeavour, and the consequent relief may itself incline us to associate nature with the beautiful.

For when we look at something a person has made (let us say a painting), we are obliged to interrogate it as a human artefact, using reason and logic. We can ask what it means. We can ask what the artist was trying to say, and having established answers to these question we can proceed to characterise it as a success or failure. None of these weapons apply when we contemplate the not-human – is an organism or a rock a success or a failure? – we can only say that it exists, it has found its place; does it mean anything? Again we can only say it exists, does it set any terms of reference for itself? – no; so through the presence of nature, we can train ourselves to look at things without attributing a human system of values to them.

At the very least, nature can teach us humility in the face of things that are not subject to human reason, and eventually it can accommodate us to finding beautiful things not produced by any sublunary canon of taste.

That we do find nature and natural things so beautiful is one of the kind mercies of evolution, or indeed of the divine. It would be possible to imagine a world that is hateful. It would be possible for the human brain to see many ugly and disturbing things around us but it chooses instead to filter them out. One might imagine a species evolving in a state of terror, in a situation where we find the night sky threatening and fearful, but we are blessed in seeing only beauty in the immensity of the heavens. A Darwinian might argue that we have evolved to see the world around us as beautiful because any alternative would have cost us our competitive edge. An associationist would say that we find the world so beautiful because it is the world that we are familiar with. A neurologist might say that we are programmed only to see certain forms of image in the world and our mind cuts out those that we cannot react to positively.

This does not I fear address the underlying question: why should that unmatched artist, Capability Brown, have so devoted himself to imitating the beauties of nature. But I would put it to you Mr and Mrs C, that a question that is impossible to answer may be a question that is wrongly put, for Brown never sought to imitate the beauties of nature.

Allow me if you will to add a riddle, by way of a coda, to this account. What do Ian Hamilton Finlay (creator of Little Sparta et al.), Piet Oudolf (the High Line et al.) and Capability Brown have in common? Answer, they all, though in quite different ways, appeal to the imagination. Ian Hamilton Finlay so loaded Little Sparta with his poems, inscriptions and pieces of art (275 in 5 acres) that after a while the rational brain recoils and instead the imagination learns to see magic and beauty in every leaf, every stem, every rock, every bubble in the stream. Piet Oudolf would assert that Nature is the infallible provider of beauty and truth and therefore everything in Nature must have beauty and truth, the dead stem of the plant in winter, as much as its spring flower. Brown, at the end of his career, saw that the whole of England was beautiful and that he should do as little as was necessary to show it off. All three of them aimed to release the imagination to a recognition of the manifold beauties of nature.

Let us not hurry to quarrel with them.