Last spring I spent a couple of days at the Sustainable Development Institute (http://sustainabledevelopmentinstitute.org/) helping plant their turtle garden. They invited faculty from the College to work together to figure out ways to strengthen the role of place in our courses and to bring students outside. I promised to fit outdoor class work into Introduction to the Humanities (HUM100), and Creative Writing (ENG211).
When late summer arrived and I prepared syllabi for fall sessions of these courses this chicken came home to roost. The creative writing connection was straightforward – we spent one class working on writing outdoor settings. The humanities connection turned out to be more complex, and more fruitful. HUM100 is a survey course, a whirlwind review of the various disciplines in the humanities. I always commit one week to philosophy (where most of my academic training falls) and touch on whatever I think students will find interesting. In the past, they’ve read the usual Platonic openers (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito), or essays by Vine Deloria and Daniel Wildcat from Power and Place: Indian Education in America. This fall I assigned chapter III from John Dewey’s Art as Experience, and we worked in aesthetics for our philosophy touch-base.
Dewey’s wonderful book came out in the early 1930’s, created a stir, but is largely ignored now. His driving insight was that it’s the nature of the experience, not the object experienced, that makes and experience aesthetic. This opened the door to a much broader conception of aesthetic experience, and pushed so-called high-art off the pedestal to make room for aesthetic enjoyment of a campfire, a starry night, a forest.
That was the connection I sought – at the College of Menominee Nation, the Sustainable Development Institute, and within Menominee culture generally, sustainable forest management is a vital concern. The Menominee forest is visible from space and has been managed since the treaty era to provide for a wide range of needs sustainably. What about the forest as an aesthetic object? HUM100 students spent an hour walking in the woods adjacent to campus, experiencing the forest aesthetically (guided by their reading of Dewey), and taking field notes. These experiences and notes form the core of an upcoming academic paper, Ken of Kin: Aesthetic Experience of the Forest. I’ll present a community lecture (part of the faculty lecture series) on this paper next week.
The paper begins provocatively:
In 2012, Qatar’s royal family bought one of five Paul Cezanne paintings titled The Card Players for approximately 250 million dollars. By way of contrast, a 160-acre plot of hardwood forest in Forest County Wisconsin is now for sale for approximately 250 thousand dollars. The painting is roughly 1 meter high by 1.3 meter wide. The 160-acre forest is a little over 400 meters square, or roughly 2.5 times the size of the area around Walden Pond that so inspired Henry David Thoreau. The painting sold for a price 1,000-times that of the forest. The forest is approximately 125,000 times larger than the painting. Many factors other than aesthetic ones affect the price of both paintings and forests; nonetheless, the difference is startling when you consider the variety, quantity, and quality of aesthetic experience the forest is capable of providing compared to the painting[i]. Putting aside considerations other than aesthetic ones, is Cezanne’s Card Players 1,000-times more valuable than the 160-acre forest in Forest County? How can we go about answering this question?
[i] Ironically, Paul Cézanne wrote to his son shortly before his death, “As a painter I am beginning to see more clearly how to work from Nature.. .But I still can’t do justice to the intensity unfolding before my eyes.” – Roe Sue. The Private Lives of the Impressionists (New York. Harper Collins Publishers, 2006), 268.