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Putting Descartes Before the Coarse: How Industry Blinds Us To Beauty

So awesome.
So awesome. | Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

I had a friend once who had a running joke he liked to tell. We'd be hiking through some impossibly wild country -- Upstate New York forests grow thick and balky -- and it would be tough going. Sinking ankle-deep in leaf mold, the fungus scent in our lungs and the roots vying to twist our ankles, we'd find the remotest, most inaccessible hill we could. We'd climb it. We'd look out from the summit.

Views are hard-won in that part of the world. A hundred feet of relief and a clear line of sight in more than one direction was a treasure worth any amount of poison ivy. We'd stand there, savoring the view into the next township, and catch our breath. The shackles loosened a bit from around our ankles and our throats. Our spines straightened. My friend Greg would raise an arm. He would point at the horizon like a conquistador, saying "We put the shopping mall there." A flick of his hand. "The gated community will go over there."

It was an unthinkably ridiculous sentiment, an obnoxious thought, and we would laugh. Who could think there was beauty in taking a living stretch of wild earth and subjugating it?

Twenty-first century American aesthetes, that's who.

Take for example this startling short piece by Sarah Laskow published last week in the environmental news site Grist, entitled "This overhead view of the world's largest offshore wind farm is surprisingly awesome." A satellite photo of the estuary off the mouth of the Thames River, if you zoom into it, shows geometric rows of what appear to me small white dots, arranged in a precise grid (it's the photo posted above). They are 480-foot wind turbines, spaced 2,000 feet apart in rows 4,000 feet apart. In the photo, they appear as a monotonously regular grid superimposed upon a seascape of differently colored water.

Eventually, the "London Array" is intended to cover 95 square miles of the North Sea, 12 miles off the Essex coast. NASA, which provided the satellite photo, mentions concerns over the environmental cost:

Critics of the project and its second phase are concerned that the wind farm will decimate the population of red-throated divers and other bird species.

But at Grist, the sole acknowledgement that such intrusion into the landscape might provoke objection reads like this:

It's so carefully and systematically arranged, from above it looks like someone painstakingly stuck white pins on a swirling board of color. Man, what are you NIMBY types freaking out about? This is GORGEOUS.

At least Laskow appreciates the "swirling board of color," the chaotic fluid patterns generated as the sediment-laden waters of the Thames meet the waters of the North Sea and of the English Channel.

In mid-2013, a group of eerily similar mentions of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in Time magazine, in the New York Times, and on energy trade sites waxed rhapsodical about the beauty of the project's three towers, each one with 100,000 mirrored billboards surrounding it. Unlike Laskow's mention of the swirling colors of the North Sea, the Ivanpah rhapsodies had no word for the beauty of the centuries-old yuccas ground to mulch to build the thing. No word for the delicate, endlessly shifting tracery of desert watercourses running through the site from Clark Mountain to Ivanpah Dry Lake. No mention of the thousands of diminutive Mammillaria cacti on the old site hidden to all those who failed to leave their vehicles and walk.

No, Ivanpah's beauty is in the geometrically uniform intrusion, a third of a million shiny billboards in concentric circles.

There is a kind of hubris in the world that allows "creatives" with more energy than sense to wrap plastic around an island, or a tree, or miles of the Sonoma County hills, and call that "environmental art." The website for Michael Heizer's "landscape art" work Double Negative exalts Heizer's bulldozering of two rough trenches in an eastern Mojave Desert hillside as

"an act of construction only inasmuch as something was taken away, and that this removal constituted a creative act. In that the artwork is itself negative space (and when it crosses empty space, it is doubly negative space, as the title suggests), it begs meditation on the principle of art as creation, when Heizer has not in fact added but substracted [sic]."

Further down the page, a note warns potential visitors to the site:

"Please do not disturb the desert ecosystem found around Double Negative. The surrounding area is public land belonging to the Bureau of Reclamation or the Bureau of Land Management. Collecting or distrubing [sic] plants, fossils, or artifacts on this land is prohibited.

Had you or I taken bulldozer to hillside out of random boredom, we might have been charged with crimes ranging from vandalism to silting up the downstream habitat of the Endangered Virgin River chub. Heizer's trenches got him into the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

I have a similar artwork in my catalog. It is called "The Mojave Desert." I created it by saying I did, an act of creative curation. I will be installing it this spring where it already is by not hauling it to Wilshire Boulevard on a truck, in keeping with the artwork's sensibility of creative nonintervention. I welcome offers of funding from the arts giving community, and invite you all to my opening, to be held continuously at all points within the Mojave for the next ten years. Bring your own wine.

I'll be honest. I am not immune to the blandishments of our species' pallid geometry. I have grinned at the pixilating rows of almonds in the Central Valley, how the space between the trees will seem to flicker in corridors running off at 30 degree angles as I pass at 75 miles an hour on the Interstate.

But I know that that landscape was once staggeringly beautiful. A lost lake -- once the largest west of the Mississippi -- with forgotten races of fish, hundreds of square miles of goldfields and mariposa lily, tricolored blackbirds bending the stems of tules low to the sodden ground. And what manner of tepid, truncated aesthetics would make a person say "this wild 19th Century valley at the heart of California would look better in cotton fields, plowed like tan corduroy fresh from the iron"?

I would call it soullessness, if I believed in souls.

Our impositions on the landscape scrape away the landscape's truth. A land that once held undiscovered herbs and fossils, differences in color from centuries-old campfires, outcrops once mined for sharp points, annual creepers filigreeing around the bases of the manzanitas, has all that truth erased from it. It becomes a parking lot -- and like the old joke about the James Watt Wilderness Area, 21st Century observers then laud the beauty of the stripes of paint. How perfectly regular they are! How geometrical, almost like chalk on a board! What is the problem with you NIMBYs? They are awesome!

A long time ago a lover and I walked in a wild place in California, a protected place, and for a time we lay together on a bed of soft moss in the lee of a sharp granite boulder. The hours passed, and then we left, and then more time passed. Some years later we parted. A decade ago I went there again, alone, and though the highlands were full of angular boulders I knew "our" rock on sight from half a mile away. I approached it half unwillingly.

On the precise spot where we'd lain all those years before, a rough-trodden circle of grass slowly lifted itself toward the vertical. Steam rose from the moss, and the tule elk that had been sleeping there not two minutes earlier watched me warily from a ways off.

There were all the classic artistic tropes there. There was love and alienation. There was repetition: the same spot laid upon by my lover and me, and by this utterly wild thing. There was symbolism, the fleeing elk standing in for one I had lost. There was regret and coincidence and wonder and the sharp tang of salt air in my nostrils.

There was even a massive human imposition onto the natural world: my memories, my story, my meaning, all of them meaningless to everything else in that little landscape.

It was beautiful -- startlingly, sublimely beautiful.

And there wasn't a straight line to be seen.

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