Nature, Beauty, and Morality

The beauty of nature’s wonders can lead to a clearer view of the beauty of morality

Fresno Bee, July 28, 2017

Last week, I wrote about solitude and Yosemite. But solitude is not the only thing that lures us to the mountains. We also seek beauty. Lovers of nature cherish birdsong, gleaming granite and sparkling snow. The rainbow, the lightning and the wildflower fill us with awe and wonder.

The world contains many magical places of immense beauty. If the mountains are not to your taste, then enjoy the redwood forests, the ocean breakers, or the flowing river.

We spend too much time indoors. Americans devote about 10 hours per day to their glowing screens. One danger of this is obesity. As our waistlines expand, our attention spans shorten. The lack of natural beauty in our lives poses a spiritual, aesthetic and ethical danger.

Ethics has long been connected to aesthetics. Plato thought that beauty lifted us toward higher things, encouraging us to give birth to virtue and wisdom.

The good and the beautiful exhibit grace, balance and harmony. Good things have symmetry and order. The ability to experience beauty is connected with the knack for knowing the good.

A key here is what we might call “the aesthetic mood.” In the presence of beauty the mind is attuned to the world in a receptive and reverent fashion. When we pause to wonder at a Half Dome or Yosemite Falls, we shift perspectives. Beauty opens transcendent vistas. It encourages us to see beyond the narrow world of “me and mine.”

Only a perverse soul considers profit in the face of the beautiful. The rest of us smile and celebrate. We are grateful, inspired and humbled.

The beautiful is an end-in-itself. It is priceless and beyond exchange. Beautiful objects should be enjoyed and respected. They have inherent value, dignity and worth. It would be wrong to damage or destroy them.

The parallel with ethics is obvious. Morality requires us to value people for their own sake. Morality asks us to recognize the priceless dignity – and immense beauty – of the human being.

Some claim that all of this comes from God. Theists think that the value of human life is based on the fact that we are created in the image of God. They believe that beauty in this world is a sign of God’s love. John Muir said simply, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”

Humanists appreciate beauty and humanity for its own sake. They think that morality and reason give value to life – as does the experience of order and harmony in nature.

Albert Einstein provides an inspiring source of the humanist idea. Einstein said, “Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” He thought that we are held captive by our egos. He explained that we find meaning and hope by “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Aesthetic experience is an advanced human capacity. Children do seem to have an innate ability to wonder at sound and light. They are also caring and loving. But we have to be taught to see the beautiful, just as we have to learn to value human beings as ends-in-themselves.

That is why it is essential to take kids into nature and show them the beauty of the natural world. They need time away from their screens. They need to stretch their legs and their minds. They need to learn to develop the aesthetic mood. We help them cultivate reverence, humility, gratitude and awe by exposing them to the wonders of nature.

Adults need that too. Natural beauty provides reassurance and hope. Grace and joy are found beyond the depravity of the daily news. The mind is enlivened. The spirit is soothed. We think better and breathe easier in charming landscapes. We are elevated by the sense that this majestic world offers a secret to savor.

This is not selfish escapism. The demands of justice and love always remain. But we all need a refuge to reinvigorate the spirit. Natural splendor strengthens us for the sorrowful and the sordid. In the presence of the beautiful we want to be better people. Beauty inspires us to want to be worthy of this world and its wonders.

Solitude and Population Pressure

In today’s crowded world, even Yosemite in summer can’t provide necessary solitude

Fresno Bee, July 21, 2017


John Muir extolled the solitude of Yosemite. In 1899 he said, “Nearly all the park is a profound solitude.” That may have been true at the close of the 19th century. But if you want solitude today, stay away from Yosemite Valley on summer weekends.

One weekend in June, we were stopped by traffic in Fish Camp, a few miles from the park’s south entrance. We turned around and retreated to Fresno Dome, where we had the place to ourselves.

But Fresno Dome does not compare to the Yosemite wonderland. So on a more recent weekend, we got an earlier start. Precious few parking spots remained in Yosemite Valley. The busses were mobbed. The trails were crowded. Teeming throngs jostled to pose for pictures. So much for solitude.


In Muir’s day only 1.5 million people lived in California. Thirty years ago, our population had not yet reached 28 million. Today, there are nearly 40 millionof us. By 2035, there will be 45 millionCalifornians.

The population issue is vexing. It quickly connects to questions about birth control, sex education and reproductive rights. These are contentious issues. In April, the United States cut funding to the UN Population Fund due to concerns about abortion.

But it is still worth asking: how many people are too many? At the turn of the 20th century the global population was 1.6 billion. The current global population is 7.6 billion. By 2050, we will near the 10 billion mark.

Yosemite on the weekend is a microcosm of our crowded future. Sometimes there is literally nowhere to park and no room on the bus. New parking lots and bigger busses could help. But making the Valley more accessible will not solve the fundamental problem, which is that crowds destroy solitude.

Solitude is quickly becoming a relic of an older world. How rarely we are alone. Our electronic devices keep us occupied and connected. Our lives are crammed, cramped, and congested. Our minds are as crowded as our streets.

The world’s spiritual traditions have often advocated solitude. Jesus spent 40 days praying in the desert. The Greek word for desert—also translated as wilderness—becomes the English word “hermit.”

Thomas Merton, an American Christian monk, explained that desert hermits sought to purge away the superficial self so that “the true, secret self” could emerge. He warned that without solitude, we lose our true humanity. He wrote, “When men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”

Solitude is connected to the experience of wonder. It inspires humility. And it opens the door to reflection and insight.

Go to Glacier Point at the crack of dawn, when no one else is there. Sitting alone on the edge of the world provides a revelation. That insight is lost when excited tourists pile out of buses and pose for selfies.


Of course, the same kind of solitary wonder can be experienced at home. Take a walk in your neighborhood at dawn. Find a library or church. Or simply close your eyes and sit in silence.

Those moments of quiet aloneness are essential for spiritual hygiene. To be alone is to be “all one”—to find a sense of self, integrity and wholeness. We need silence and solitude as much as we need friendship and dance and song.

Sometimes “the more the merrier” is the right motto. We can even experience a shared sense of solitude in the company of others, as when good friends pause together in hushed admiration of nature’s wonders.

All of this is a matter of dosage and degree. Saints may find enlightenment in 40 days of solitude. The rest of us can only handle a moderate dose. But the same is true of crowds and congestion—a little goes a long way.

The long-term challenge of managing the masses will require ingenuity and care. Preserving spiritual health in a crowded world is as much of a challenge as preserving wilderness.

In the short term, we can still find solitude. Turn off the phone. Sit in silence. Greet the dawn. And go to Yosemite—but not on the weekend.

Music At Glacier Point

In  moments of musical beauty, anger melts, hatred dissolves, peace dawns

Fresno Bee, August 27, 2016


Last Sunday, the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra performed at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. Perched on the edge of a cliff, the orchestra played original pieces composed in honor of Yosemite and the centennial of the National Park Service.

As Half Dome blushed in the setting sun, Yosemite’s granite gorges resounded with song. At dusk, a bat danced above the bassoons. After the last echo faded, a shooting star flashed into view. It quickly vanished into darkness.

img_0469-1Beauty is fleeting. It shines and echoes for a moment. Then it is gone. Youthful brilliance becomes old age. Summer sun gives way to winter winds. Music always returns into silence.

The fragility of beauty is a reminder of mortality. But beauty also soothes and reassures. Wonder and joy arouse our better angels. Natural splendor and human art make life worth living.

The concert at Glacier Point honored the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, whose work conserves the wild wonders of our continent. Some Park Service employees also play in the Mariposa orchestra. How cool for those rangers to serenade the park they love.

The arts and Yosemite

One might think it odd to stage a symphony at Glacier Point. But according to Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman, “From the signing of the Yosemite Grant to the present day, the arts have played a significant role in the creation and continued interest in preserving these public places.”

Yosemite sparkles in Ansel Adams’ photos. It is illuminated by John Muir’s prose. Yosemite has a new artistic champion in Les Marsden, the conductor of the Mariposa orchestra.

Marsden composed a complex cycle of four pieces to honor Yosemite and the Park Service. Marsden’s compositions are classically American, reminiscent of Aaron Copland. The music told the history of the national parks. It imitated wind, water, fire and animal life.

As Marsden’s dynamic baton came to rest and the music faded into silence, you could hear crickets chirping and birds singing. I was struck by the thought that human art is a response to nature’s call. The human imagination swells in the presence of Half Dome. Birdsong tickles our ears. Thunder quickens the heart. And Yosemite Falls provokes laughter and shouts.


Poetry, painting and music reflect the wonders of the world. Human art transcends matter. Without the soaring responsiveness of the human spirit the earth would be quiet and dull.

John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” Muir explained that gardens and parks satisfy our “natural beauty-hunger.” We plant flowers, tend our gardens, and visit parks looking for inspiration and consolation.

Muir claimed that natural beauty comforts “nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.” For Muir, mountain parks are “fountains of life.” Their sublime wonder stirs the spirit.

Fountains of life

Art and music are also fountains of life. The arts encourage us to savor the world.

One of my colleagues, Thomas Loewenheim, the conductor of the Fresno State SymphonyOrchestra, has confessed his hope that music provides a path toward peace. I think he is right. Music, beauty, art and nature encourage us to transcend our petty differences. They lift us beyond ourselves and bring us together in awe, reverence and delight.

Stand on Glacier Point. Immerse yourself in poetry. Fill your lungs with song. Dig your fingers into the soil. Smell the wonder of flowers. Or simply listen to the birds. The aesthetic mood encourages us to breathe more deeply – to listen, see and feel.

In moments of beauty, anger melts, hatred dissolves and peace dawns. Winter storms will come to the high country. Fires will burn the hills. And madmen rage in the lowlands. But peace is found in beauty. And hope is found in the fragments of color, song, granite and water that we carry in our hearts.

Without hopeful splashes of joy, life would be dull and meaningless. Hallelujah for Yosemite. Hurray for Marsden and the Mariposa symphony.

And thank goodness for the men and women of the Park Service, whose work has preserved nature’s wonders for 100 years. Here’s hoping that the artists, rangers and natural wonders of our world will continue to inspire and console for another century.

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Earth Day

Earth Day reminds us of the challenges of cooperation

Fresno Bee, April 22, 2016

  • Earth Day was not always on the same date
  • The history of Earth Day shows us the challenges we face
  • The goal is peace, justice and living well on a stormy Earth

Don’t Miss Out on the Good Medicine of Nature

Nature, John Muir, and the National Parks

Fresno Bee, October 2, 2015

  • Yosemite and Sequoia national parks are sources of natural beauty
  • John Muir’s philosophy rooted in transcendentalism
  • We all can benefit from making contact with nature

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Sequoia and Yosemite national parks. There are practical reasons for preserving natural areas. Pure water and clean air are obviously useful. Biodiversity and flourishing natural ecosystems serve human interests.

But behind these parks is a philosophical ideal that celebrates the aesthetic and spiritual value of nature. Natural wonders sing to our souls. Yosemite Valley is a marvel. Sierra summits inspire. And the big trees awaken reverence.

Consider this: As the Rough fire raged this summer, firefighters took extra precautions to save sequoia trees. These ancient organisms have a kind of value which should be cherished and protected.

We are not born understanding this. Nature love is a late development. Sequoias were once logged. And a dam destroyed Hetch Hetchy Valley. Practical interests sometimes prevail. But beauty matters as much as business.

One source for this moral and aesthetic ideal is the American philosophical movement known as transcendentalism. The transcendentalists celebrated the spiritual power and wild delight of nature. They worshiped natural beauty, eating clouds and drinking wind, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it.

Emerson felt a sense of homecoming and companionship in the presence of nature. He argued that nature was “medicinal,” curing us of the stress of our workaday lives. Emerson disciple Henry David Thoreau dreamed of making direct contact with the mysterious power of nature. Thoreau set off on walking tours in search of contact – one of the original American backcountry hikers.

Emerson and Thoreau inspired John Muir, who brought transcendentalism to Central California. Muir’s enthusiastic nature worship helped create the national parks and the Sierra Club. Emerson himself visited Yosemite in 1871, accompanying Muir to the Mariposa grove of giant sequoias.

Muir said that going to the woods was going home. He described the big trees of the Sierra as superior beings arrived from another star – calm, bright and godlike creatures that leave us awestruck. He described Yosemite Valley as a work of art and a natural temple.

In defense of the national park idea, Muir explained, “Mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

Muir recognized the practical importance of the mountain ecosystem for the well-being of the rivers and waters of our own Central Valley. But he also thought that mountain grandeur and primeval forests were a source of spiritual power.

Granite cliffs, towering trees and sparkling waterfalls somehow elevate the spirit. They put human concerns in proper perspective. The sequoias have stood silently while entire civilizations have come and gone. The mountains have been carved by forces more powerful than anything homo sapiens could ever devise.

For some, this is alien, intimidating and incomprehensible. Some get vertigo in high places. The natural world is not all wildflowers and rainbows. There are fires and storms and earthquakes as well. But these infernal powers remind us of our fragility and the need to savor beauty when we find it.

Muir worried that people saw forests as weeds to be cleared or timber to be profited from. Today we have a different problem. We often cannot see the forest for the trees – or the trees themselves. We are no longer in contact with the natural world. Much of the time, we are immersed in virtual reality. We would often rather play with our phones and poke our computers than make contact with the world. And we miss out on the good medicine of nature, which offers a cure for the stresses of the human world.

National parks allow us to explore beauty and commune with nature. We should celebrate the inspired and tenacious work of visionaries such as Muir. We should also thank the nameless firefighters and trail-builders whose sweat and blood allows us to enjoy these places in safety.

These parks have a long history – and deep philosophical roots. But 125 years is only a small fraction of the life of a sequoia. It is nothing in comparison with the tempo of glaciers. Let’s hope that these parks last another 125 years so that our great-great-grandchildren may continue to make contact with these awesome fountains of life.

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