Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us—for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end... While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the sense, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening."
— (Walter Pater, Conclusion to Renaissance, 1868.)

It is the fleetingness of things, that Pater once mused about, that is the key to understanding real beauty. The greening of silver, the retracting of a wave in the sea, fall into winter, the paving of a forest. Know this, and you know real beauty.

The naturalist John Muir once wrote, "None of Nature's landscape are ugly so long as they are wild." Some might dispute nature’s taste at times (a quick search of the word "ugly" on a stock photography website turned up nothing but pictures of endangered manatees), but on the whole we would agree. Yet, we do so love our shaved lawn and our carefully planted gardens, that we might demure and admit that we like our nature tamed — just a little.

Which is what John Muir both feared and yet fell pray to in his lifelong quest to preserve America’s wilderness. He was responsible for pushing bills through Congress to establish the National Parks system, documented the boundaries of a future Yosemite for hoards of tourists in 1999 to enjoy and co-founded the Sierra Club. He must have struggled with the concept that in order to preserve nature, he had to contain it. But it was the only way—and in addition to the land he saved, he left a legacy of writings on wilderness that would tame any human. In "Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park", The Century Magazine (September, 1890), he wrote:

Imagine yourself in Hetch Hetchy. It is a sunny day in June, the pines sway dreamily, and you are shoulder-deep in grass and flowers. Looking across the valley through beautiful open groves you see a bare granite wall 1800 feet high rising abruptly out of the green and yellow vegetation and glowing with sunshine, and in front of it the fall, waving like a downy scarf, silver bright, burning with white sun-fire in every fiber. In coming forward to the edge of the tremendous precipice and taking fight a little hasty eagerness appears, but this is speedily hushed in divine repose. Now observe the marvelous distinctness and delicacy of the various kinds of sun-plied tissue into which the waters are woven. They fly and float and drowse down the face of that grand gray rock in so leisurely and unconfused a manner that you may examine their texture and patterns as you would a piece of embroidery held in the hand. It is a flood of singing air, water, and sunlight woven into cloth that spirits might wear.

Muir wrote in the hope that others would continue his campaign to preserve and protect what man inherently finds beautiful from what man inherently wants to destroy. And he wrote exquisite and precise accounts of nature to inspire a generation of Victorian aesthetes, for whom beauty was a word much tossed about, to go and experience the fleetingness of nature.

But to know the fleetingness of things, you have to begin to experience the world in a new way. "When one walks through the woods," says Char Davies, a Canadian artist who has developed two immersive virtual reality environments, Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998), "one tends to see the woods as objectified, as separate and unchanging: our perceptions are very habitual. But if one can ‘enter’ a virtual environment in which appearances are different, in which surfaces become transparent and everything is in flux, and through which one can seemingly float simply by taking a breath, then there is a possibility that one can be temporarily released from habitual perceptions and see the world and oneself in it freshly." (Davies’ latest work, Ephémère, is a translucent, abstract realm in which one can descend into a subterranean world and fully experience the minu-tia: float through green glowing "leaves", sprout seeds by staring at them and float amongst red glowing "corpuscles" and white-light "bones" in a representation of the body.)

Even at the turn of the century, Pater and Muir both spoke to the need to experience the world freshly, with appreciation of the minute and even the inconsequential—to truly see the "sun-fire" in a waterfall—so that a greater understanding of life can be had. "Values become engulfed in miniature," Gaston Bachelard later wrote in The Poetics of Space, "and miniature causes men to dream." Like the fractal: an investigation into the minute reveals a world of infinite possibilities.

Infinite, yet fleeting. The Victorians (and Buddhists still) comprehended the paradoxical nature of the world. The ancient parable of the Emperor and his beloved fish is perhaps most telling. The Emperor loved his fish so much that he commissioned the greatest artist of all times to paint it as life-like as possible. The artist worked diligently, yet whenever the Emperor came around to see his painting, the artist prevented him from seeing the work, insisting it was unfinished. Months, then years and then decades went on like this. One day, the now ancient Emperor remembered the artist and his unfinished fish painting, and he went round to see it. He entered the artist’s studio and found hundreds of paintings of his beloved fish. "Why haven’t you shown me these paintings?" the Emperor demanded. The artist looked up from behind his easel and said, "Because none of them were finished." Then he applied one last brush stroke onto his canvas and the fish jumped up out of the painting, flipped out the door, landed in nearby stream and swam away. "At last," the painter said, "the perfect painting."

The Victorians championed the Life as Art paradox so that art could reflect the realities of life instead of the dictates of the church. In this new vision of art and the world, they celebrated, at the fin de siècle, the birth of the Modern. Now, however, life has become infused with the created world. As Bachelard says, "Art, then, is an increase of life, a sort of competition of surprises that stimulates our consciousness and keeps it from becoming somnolent." Muir wrote so convincingly, for example, that one hardly needs to go to Yosemite to appreciate its wonders.

In this competition between art and life, nature is losing. The fish story is just a parable, after all, and few national parks have been created since Muir’s day. Perhaps if we experienced nature as we do art, we could better appreciate the ultimate paradox: nature’s abundance is fleeting. Jean Lescure once said, "An artist does not create the way he lives, he lives the way he creates." Perhaps we need to live the way we collect art, too: if we buy nature as we buy art, there just might be some left for the future to enjoy.

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Put on-line: Wed July 5th, 2017.