Finding Beauty In the Familiar

October 1, 2019

hu·man be·ing noun 1. a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapien, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance.” [1] In the strictest sense, we are homo sapiens, but this simple fact leaves out the core for most of us—that we distinguish ourselves from other animals by our superior mental development. By extension, we pride ourselves on being a unique species based on having a sense of aesthetics. But does that really separate us as much as we imagine?

We experience and recognize beauty through the senses, especially vision. Qualities that brings us pleasure are individually subjective to some degree, but many patterns and tendencies exist across cultures. This is because at the root, beauty has a biological function. The adaptive choices our ancestors made around food, procreation and home that led to their survival and success are ingrained in us and often reveal themselves as a predilection for one thing over another. For example, in the animal world, “wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) should find dense woods attractive and savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) open fields.” [2] Based on studies by Edward O. Wilson, father of the term biophilia, the human biological function of aesthetics is thought to have evolved on the savanna with its open grassland hospitable to large herds of grazing animals interspersed with stands of trees that provided refuge from predators. This is evident in the fact that today we most often favor images of these landscapes over others, and we even tend to construct our outdoor recreational spaces based on them. [3] The landscape and ecology that were most suitable for early human life have become the foundation for our modern-day sense of design.

So, while we value our aesthetic sensibilities, they are ultimately tied to our survival, just as are the choices of other animal species. Katy Payne, acoustic biologist, states that “when animals make sounds, we consider them functional and when people make sounds we consider them aesthetic (songs), but they are really the same, so we don’t need a separate language for them.” [4] This idea, of course, translates into the visual realm as well.

We also evolved, like animals, to favor the new. This is because no environment is ever completely stable. Change being inevitable, an inclination to try new things as possible food sources when the old favorites diminish or vanish allows for survival. This same characteristic is what makes us tend toward newness in situations unrelated to subsistence. We are caught and captured by the sight of a new pattern, arrangement or design. We fancy the latest fashions in all forms, turning over our wardrobes, changing our hair and updating our homes.

The field of residential landscape design prioritizes aesthetics above almost all else, and in the world of horticulture, this craving for difference translates into fascination with exotic flora. Ornamental plants, those grown specifically for display with no concern for function, create a gap in ecosystems. Native plants, however, can be equally as showy while they simultaneously provide the ecosystem services of supporting the food web, often while they help clean our air and water. Among the native plants of the Southern Appalachians that we consider to be most ornamental are fly poison, bear grass, little bluestem grass, mountain myrtle, hydrangea radiata, turk’s cap lily, buttonbush, mountain laurel, pink profusion bowman’s root and cinnamon fern.

The choices we make in landscaping have an impact beyond just our own homes and businesses. The majority of land in the US is privately owned, so decisions that property holders make carry the greatest weight. Not only that, but every selection in terms of species of, course, ripples outward through the entire interconnected natural world. Our desire to be surrounded by beauty lies deep within our genes and need not be disregarded, but we do need to consider the effects of what we introduce into nature. It only serves us for our own survival to return our gaze to the exquisite flora native to our region that provide wildlife food and habitat, conserve water and store carbon dioxide with little maintenance (including pesticide and fertilizer)—all while they present abundant color and variety in form.



[2] The Biological Roots of Aesthetics and Art

[3] The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution