On the appreciation of beauty

Matthew Chatfield
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By The Hampshire Ponderer This is a snapshot of the heather on Luccombe Down last month. For full appreciation Naturenet would need to be equipped with SmartSmell: the programme that conveys smells as well as words and images, and which it’s understood the editor is working on this at this very moment.

Heather on Luccombe Down

While standing in the heather we felt as if we were breathing air laced with a faint scent of liquid honey and an elusive astringent tang which turned out to be the bracken. On the same visit there were whinchats hopping about, who in their chattish fashion seemed unperturbed by the observers only a few feet away. Well groomed National Trust horses were grazing; dog walkers came and went; and the birds, horses and dogs all effectively reminded us how deficient in the five senses human beings are. We might score 60% for taste and touch, 50% each for seeing and hearing perhaps, but surely only a pathetic 5% for smelling. Of course we’ve got relatively big brains compared to other animals, but use them in such bizarre ways that they aren’t quite the bonus we might claim them to be. Allowing for this it does seem likely that we do have a capacity for appreciating beauty in, for instance, a drift of heather that birds, horses and dogs see in a more utilitarian way. However this capacity has come about in our evolutionary history, it takes its place in the subtle and constantly mobile process of conscious and unconscious thought that keeps us ticking over. Returning to one of The Ponderer’s preoccupations, it seems this process works in similar ways in all creative thought so that apparently differing parts of our lives such as music, scientific discovery and philosophical and religious explorations have a closer kinship than might appear on the surface. Professor Al-Khalili’s recent TV programmes on The Atom were a brilliant history of twentieth century particle physics. The series gave non-scientists an overview of the sequence of discoveries: beginning with Einstein, through quantum mechanics to a Cambridge Professor – whose name I didn’t catch – who is currently thinking seriously about parallel universes. It’s a study that has opened up knowledge about the structures and beginnings of essential matter. At each stage imagination and intuition had a place alongside formidable brain power. But often scientific thinking leads us to areas outside science, to ask questions that need ways of thinking involving decisions of right and wrong and, vitally, decisions where there is no clear good answer; where every possible capacity for creative thinking needs to be used. For this the experience of religious thought has a significant contribution to make. It only works as part of a discussion with a willingness to listen. If religion (or science for that matter) is dogmatic about behaviour and sees debate as a battle with winners taking all, we might as well stay at home watching the football/rugby/cricket or whatever unreality shows we enjoy. Here’s an autumny photo of a natural table d’hôte menu ” enough blackberries for the little boy to have with ice cream for his tea – and for the early birds too.

Blackberries for tea
The Hampshire Ponderer

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

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