Natural Beauty

On Sunday I got up early to go for a trek.  In Hong Kong in the summer this means getting on the trails by 9am at the latest in order to finish by noon, when the sun reaches its height and the temperatures can soar up to 35c.

Lost in reflection I strolled along a wooded path by the Tai Tam reservoir.  The path stretched ahead of me was enveloped above by the cooling braches of the trees, beyond which was the crystal blue sky of a summer day.  Alongside, through the trees, I could see the water of the reservoir.  Why, I wondered, was this scene so pleasant for me?   Why at that moment did I feel such a resonance of wellbeing?  I speculated that somewhere in the dim and distant past of my nomadic ancestors such an environment must have brought advantages to survival.

When I returned from my trek I was tickled to bump in to a section in the book I was reading the next day which gave some insight on just this (How the Mind Works by Steve Pinker).  Animals experience drives as emotions that help them to go to places that are good for their survival and procreation.  Until recently our ancestors were nomads, moving from site to site, eating up the local flora and fauna.  We evolved on the African savanna, grasslands, a relatively clear landscape dotted with clumps of trees. Subsequently we used our intelligence and wanderlust to colonize the rest of the planet.

Biologist George Orians argues that our sense of natural beauty is a mechanism that drove our ancestors into suitable habitats.  In experiments children and adults shown landscape slides prefer savannas to live in, but no one likes deserts or rainforests.

We innately find savannas beautiful, but we also like a landscape that is easy to explore and remember.  Gardeners, photographers and painters when surveyed say that the loveliest landscapes have semi-open space, even ground cover, views to the horizon, large trees, water, changes in elevation and multiple paths leading out.

We like landscapes that offer a degree of prospect and refuge. Big landmarks like trees, rocks and ponds, boundaries like rivers and mountains all help. A vista without guideposts in unsettling. As someone who did quite a bit of orienteering at school I can certainly testify to that, and that was with the help of a map!

Another key to natural beauty it seems is a little bit of mystery. Paths bending around hills, meandering streams, gaps in foliage, undulating land, and partly blocked views grab our interest by hinting at land that may have important features to be discovered by further exploration. It goes to show why jogging on nature trails can be a lot more rewarding than the dreaded treadmill in the gym.

The emotions evoked by nature can be deeply evocative. Sunsets, thunder gathering clouds and fire all tell of imminent and consequential change.  It is easy to forget how much our environment meant to us in the past. When the typhoon signal comes now at most it means perhaps a day off work!

Environmental aesthetics is a major factor in our lives. Mood depends on surroundings.  The value of your house depends on location, prospect, refuge (cozy spaces) and mystery (nooks, bends, windows, multiple levels).  With more of the World’s population living in urban spaces it seems we should be increasingly mindful of the type of habitat to which we are originally adapted.


How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

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