Our Aesthetics

A preparatory note for this essay: It has come to my attention that the term “aesthete”, which I originally used in this essay to describe a person who works aesthetically or pays good attention to aesthetics, is perceived by some as a pejorative, a usage with which I was unfamiliar.  I have amended the essay by replacing any appearance of “aesthete” with “aesthetic worker.”

In March of this year, when I was fortunate to travel to Nebraska to witness the Sandhill Crane migration (thanks again for the great birthday gift, Janelle!), we took a little sidebar excursion to the Switzer ranch to see the Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse do their mating dances.  It was such a striking trip in so many ways, but one of the things that struck me on our auxiliary jaunt was what I shall have to dub “Prairie Architecture.”  Most of the homes were single story structures, and I noticed very few exterior adornments such as the decorative shutters you often see here in the east.  Both of these characteristics were appealing to me personally, but I suspect the style emerged not from whimsy or fancy but as a response to practical considerations, namely wind.  Also, being not constrained by small lot sizes, there was surely little incentive to conserve on foundation footprint by stacking rooms on top of each other.  In other words, there on the ranches they tended to build…um…ranch houses.  Hm.

Like the development of a regional cuisine or a regional dialect, a regional aesthetic is a phenomenon of converging factors through time resulting in an emerging character.  Aesthetics also comprises a system of communication of values, history, and connection that, perceptibly or not, influences members of the community that generates and uses the aesthetic, and can speak to some extent to others far less connected.  Here I am thinking especially of ceremonial sculpture or other art created by artists from functioning indigenous cultures which fills a role of consciously or unconsciously reminding and connecting the community members of and to their history, culture, and values.  The pieces created in such contexts are often deeply admired by western-educated artists who recognize their aesthetic power.  I think it was Picasso who went to see some newly discovered cave paintings and upon emerging from the cave declared, “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years.”

One of my dearest experiences of the type was when I was in Colombia in 2003 on a Mennonite Central Committee Learning Tour, where we were gaining familiarity with the protracted conflict in the country (now largely quieted if not exactly resolved) and in particular the efforts of individuals there who were using refusal to pay the military portion of their taxes as a form of conscientious objection.  It was a humbling and eye-opening trip full of excellent food and lots of terrific people of the most courageous and interesting sort.  Like many places in the world, Colombia wrestles with its transition from indigenous to modern forms of society.  One manifestation of this is that certain political factions disparage “Indian” cultures and their trappings; others celebrate or even embrace them.  A particular example was the “mochila,” which in Colombia means a traditional handcrafted wool shoulder bag of sturdy construction and deep capacity.  An ex-patriot U.S. citizen living in Bogota told of watching—with some Colombian friends—TV coverage of students and activists in the streets protesting some issue or event.  When the camera panned the crowd the Colombians in the room reportedly broke into chuckles.  “Look at all the mochilas!” they said.

I heard this story after having bought one from an indigenous vendor at an art fair in Bogota.  Of all the paintings and bric-a-brac available that day, it was easily this stall full of practical, soulful bags with the unmistakable signature of hand work and those fabulous earthy colors that got my hand to reach for my wallet.  The vendor, a guy about my age, I thought, explained some of the symbolism of the pattern on the bag I bought.  This was welcome, but I know that even if he lectured on the topic all day, I would only have less than half the meaning; it would never mean to me what it did to him and his community.  So the bag was beautiful, functional, and authentic, and represents to me mystery and a connection to an ancient way of life and a people that have a sense of who they are.  Is that what it meant to all those protesters?  I imagine it meaning, consciously or no, respect and yearning in the hearts of the moderns, and tenacity, courage, and identity to those members of indigenous groups or those straddling the divide between the two ways of life.

The bag I bought has proved excellently durable and useful…it still comes out of the closet pretty often almost 15 years later.  Clearly its structure was not created at corporate HQ, but was honed by people who knew what they needed.  And those awesome colors?  They just spin the wool from each sheep separately, so whatever color the sheep is, that is the color of the wool.  Then they mix and match them as it suits the artisan’s purpose or fancy while creating the bag, the process for which requires only a needle and capable hands.  I am so dang jealous.

Here at Tangly Woods, as we endeavor to wiggle our way down into a life that is crafted from this place, we are starting to come up with a precious few examples of objects, patterns, and features of our lives that—in the spirit of one of my Grandma’s favorite axioms: start where you are, use what you have, do what you can—reflect in their composition the place, time, and community from which they emerged.  We envision more and more of this over time, and—being the amateur aesthetic worker that I am—I particularly am licking my chops in anticipation of the forms and character that will be produced by our partnerships with and within our home place.

I’ll touch on a few of those examples to give you a more substantive sense of my meaning.  These examples will be drawn from our own life and the lives of neighbors:

  • The New Table:  This fall I finished a project I had started in June of 2015.  That was when we had our septic field repaired, and on the advice of the excavator and my own judgment I removed a few trees close to the site in an effort to minimize root interference in the system.  One of the upshots was the generation of a few short saw logs of smallish diameter, which we had processed (along with a few other logs generated by other clearing projects) at the local custom milling/drying operation.  The wood will go for various purposes, but most of what came from the septic preservation project was “Hican”, which is a hickory/pecan hybrid nut tree.  We hated to remove it, but the very hard wood that it rendered seemed like an opportune material to create a third auxiliary table for our main dining surface, upping the total capacity of diners to 14, and in the process netting us also a superior food processing surface for the back kitchen; a first foray into this winter’s cabinet creation project for that room.  Because of the species and where/how it grew, the wood was laced with dark streaks at every knot that set off the warm and unassuming creams and browns of the sap and heart wood in lovely ways.  Add to that the bluish gray cast that crept in some places as the logs sat in the weather awaiting transport to the mill and we have a thing of beauty that tells part of the story of this place—our story.  As a bonus, two of the knot holes are filled with a fuzzy substance that begs questions.  I like to let people guess for a while before telling them it is the remnants of some kind of cloth (likely of artificial fiber) that someone left draped in the crotch of one of the limbs.  Eventually the tree surrounded it with new layers of wood and it was not seen again until the mill broke into its quiet tomb.
  • My Egg Basket: Have you ever been annoyed by wire egg baskets?  Even with rubberized coatings on the wires, the eggs easily crack on the unforgiving surfaces if jostled in the slightest.  And in our system, jostling is typical, since I often have to set the basket down to close the coop doors, and/or I have a “helper” at collection time.  Furthermore, wire baskets promote wet, smudgy eggs.  It is advantageous to keep the eggs clean and dry, since that prevents the need to wash, and thereafter refrigerate, the eggs.  The safest eggs are eggs from healthy hens that have been kept clean and dry from the start, then stored at moderate temperatures for not overlong.  Whenever it’s rained or is dewy out, it is almost impossible to keep the eggs dry in a wire basket, since long wet grass tends to slap against the basket while walking, and I often need to set it on the wet, muddy turf while closing coops.  The more I thought about it, the more a large gourd seemed to be what I wanted.  So last winter I finally hollowed out one we had grown and attached a handle from an old fruit box.  It is perfect!  The soft inside prevents much cracking, eggs are protected from wet vegetation on bottom and sides, and it’s a good size and shape to tuck under my shirt to shield eggs from rain as I make my collection round.  It looks awesome, by the way.
  • The Maust Fireplace: Some neighbors down the road have a Finnish fireplace in their house that speaks to this topic.  While the fact that it is well over twenty feet tall from floor to chimney top is neither here nor there (that corresponds to their architectural tastes more than circumstance), it is an important piece because it is eminently functional (they have used it almost daily in cool weather for around thirty years and frequently use the oven feature), its surface is constructed of stone gathered from their own land, and it was built by a stone mason who has been continuously producing work of high quality specializing in the regional styles from that time to the present.  I admire this piece very much.  If we had the money, we would be likely to try to commission something similar for our place.  It’s on our long-term dream list!
  • Nora’s Garden: Using that same stone gathered from our place and theirs, I have crafted a dry-lay seating area and rock-climbing play zone for kids in the garden space we designated for memorializing our deceased daughter.  It includes a spot where kids can empty a watering can at the top of the run, then watch it (or splash in it!) while it cascades down and onto a concrete slab at the bottom.  The seating provides views of the Northwest flank of Massanutten Mountain, and after a day of soaking up the autumn sun, the rocks give off a delicious warmth as a tired farmer (guess who) sits and watches the evening rays light up the mountainside.
  • Rock Outcrops in Pastures: The natural limestone bedrock of the Valley has lent fertility to the clays that weather from it, but has also made cropping challenging in many locations. As such, cattle grazing or lounging among protruding arcs and ledges of bluish gray is a common sight.  A cluster of rocks may prevent bushhogging, which may in turn permit the success of a Black Locust or other resurgent tree.  Open pastures with rocky groves…it looks like home to me.  Combined with the history of erosion from wheat cultivation and our characteristic lowish rainfall, grazing systems in general have emerged as a reasonable solution for land use here.  This has cascading implications aesthetically, with many roads lined with fences and/or fenceline trees, and in periods when grass growth has exceeded consumption, the commonly seen windrows of hay waiting to be baled look like the ribs of the rolling hills, or as if the Valley’s grassy scalp had been carefully plaited.
  • Bluestone Foundations: The simplest example of a regional aesthetic theme for our area that I know of is the historic use of “Bluestone” (locally quarried limestone usually cut into approximate rectangles) for walls and foundations. Many old barns and houses still sit on these piers and walls, which were as utilitarian as they were lovely in their time.  To me the undulating horizontal lines, broken by near verticals at irregular intervals lend a sense of calm undergirding the old structures.  In some cases, the stones are bonded only with soil, but if well-laid their stable structure has stood the years well.  Recent decades, though, have seen a sharp decline in this custom, with concrete products having outpriced the more labor-intensive stone selection, cutting, and laying process.  Have I mentioned that the energetic economy of modern society has disrupted and plundered the bioregional character of human inhabitation of the places we live?

You may notice that few of these listed above are one of a set of items that comprise a major theme or pattern for our bioregion.  The examples of emergent, bioregional aesthetics to be found at the moment are often isolated, the establishment of any contemporary bioregional theme is fitful at best.  What, I often wonder, would life and our artifacts look like if we were a whole neighborhood, a whole county, a whole watershed full of people awoken to our surroundings, genuinely connected and interdependent with the ecological community and each other?

Given my amateur level of sophistication regarding aesthetics, I am keen to pick the brains of the artists and craftspeople among us on this subject.  Below is a list of questions I’ve come up with that are specifically directed towards people who have worked professionally in some form of aesthetics-heavy capacity:

In your work making art/practicing craft, how has the place in which the work was accomplished influenced the process of making it and the results?

When you have gotten to know a new region, have there been aesthetic distinctions that you have noticed there?  How do you interpret these?

What would make a piece of work belong to a place?  For your specialty, how does the character of a region express itself?

Does most currently produced art and craftwork bear an aesthetic signature of the place of its creation?  How about examples from times past?

What do we gain or lose by having or lacking a discernible regional character in our aesthetic environments?  What are the trade-offs?

What do you think would be the aesthetic implications of a conversion of our society to a sustainable mode of living?  

What contribution can [aesthetic workers] make to such a conversion, and how might they go about it?

I have a hunch that that while these ideas and the above questions may be interesting to some folks, including artists, they won’t exactly ring a bell whose tone is familiar; the topic may not even remind folks of any particular artist or body of art or craft work that represents specifically what I am referring to.  I suspect that is the result of four factors.  First, like most of us, the notion that the components of our lives would take on the character of our places is not the obvious current mode of thought.  Modern life makes it seem almost unnatural.  Second, this is not included in the curriculum of most academic art programs.  Third, connecting with other artists or critics who are also members of modern society will tend to reinforce and reward ways in which one’s making of art conforms to expectations for universality; if there is any more specific identity it will likely correlate to a particular stream of practice or discipline within a genre more than it will to a bioregional influence.  Fourth, in the effort to render work that has economic appeal (i.e., work that will sell), an artist may feel pressure to be able to cast a wide net, to place apparently safer bets on themes that crop up everywhere and connect with nearly anybody.  Who am I to judge this as a poor choice?  I don’t think of it in those terms.  This is, in fact, a totally unsurprising result.

Our fine friend, Rachel Herr, is an artist by nature and sometimes by profession, and her helpful responses to two of the above questions are somewhat in line with this hunch.

What would make a piece of work belong to a place?  

Rachel: “It feels easy for photographs to belong to the place in which they were taken, though I feel most successful when I can capture softness or mystery in subjects or landscapes that make the piece feel dreamy and timeless. I guess it’s actually a goal of mine to make work feel BEYOND the place in which it was produced, for example a portrait that could’ve been taken today or 100 years ago, in Harrisonburg or in anytown USA. I wonder why I feel this way.”

What do we gain or lose by having or lacking a discernible regional character in our aesthetic environments? 

Rachel: “In my photography I worry that having too much of an aesthetic signature might make the work less relate-able to those who do not inhabit this specific place. Does it make viewers feel more like voyeurs than participants as they consider the work? I want them to feel like participants.”

It is entirely possible that to limit oneself geographically as an artist is a sort of professional death wish at this moment in history.  The work needs to be, to use Rachel’s word, relate-able, and in a culture that has become so thoroughly universalized, how many of us can relate to work that derives its power from the geology, ecology, water flow, climate, natural history, and human history and community of a particular place?  Sadly, I think it is few.

Another local artist, Scott Jost (also with a photographic focus; see his fine published volume on Shenandoah Valley apples), has at times produced work counter to this trend.  While I can’t speak to how financially rewarding it has been for him either way, his commentary found in the 2011 short documentary Down to the River by Tim Kauffman indicates that he sees his photography as a way of telling the story of what’s happening in a place.  In the project detailed in the film, he was working with the intent of bringing awareness to the connections our local waterways represent to the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed.  In describing his approach, he borrowed an idea from another photographer who claimed photography as a form of “community service.”


My impulse is to believe, as Picasso seemed to suggest at the mouth of that cave, that developments in our aesthetic culture that may seem to many of us to be vast improvements over the past are mainly so seen because what is being produced now in our society better does for us the job that aesthetics have for so long done in every society.  We may be drawn to the cave paintings, ceremonial garb, inscribed tablets, wool bags, etc. that emerge from societies very different from our own, and to the extent we are that may either indicate a degree of relatability despite everything or else something unfulfilled in our own psyches; mostly we do not take them on as our own, and can’t (maybe shouldn’t).  Our society’s universalized aesthetic tendencies—commercialized or otherwise—communicate our values, history, and connections (as I asserted all aesthetics do at the start of this essay) probably very accurately, and we largely take them as a matter of course just as other peoples probably usually have done with their own.

If I have anything to argue, then, it is not that we should change our aesthetics, or that our aesthetic workers are doing a sloppy job of communicating us to ourselves.  Rather I would argue that, given the assumption that by hook or by crook our civilization or our societies must eventually live sustainably or not at all, and seeing as our values, history, and connections will be radically reshaped in the advent of this sustainable mode, there will be also a radical reconfiguring of our aesthetic processes and products.

I personally welcome these societal changes, but I spend a lot of time (and some of it is anxiously spent) thinking about how we are going to get there from here.  One of the things I have wondered about is why all of us have such a hard time making progress individually and collectively on the needed changes.  It seems to me that much of it is a failure of the imagination.  We can’t see it, so we can’t understand it, so we can’t choose it.  I’ve just got done arguing that aesthetics reflects cultural values, history, and connection, but now I’ll change tack a bit and assert another role that artists fill among us:  they can function as prophets.  They furnish us with visions of who we are and where we find ourselves, true, but they can also furnish us with visions of who we could be, and how.

Rachel’s voice again:

What do you think would be the aesthetic implications of a conversion of our society to a sustainable mode of living? 

Rachel: “I think there’d be a whole lot of aesthetic beauty in this. I imagine fabrics hanging on lines outside, people in clothing without logos on it, fire, wildness.”

What contribution can [aesthetic workers] make to such a conversion, and how might they go about it?

Rachel: “I suppose by making art on these themes. Showing people something that calls to them. Making sustainability look beautiful rather than difficult.”


Critical to the move to sustainability—I have argued elsewhere in this year’s writing—is people voluntarily setting up limits for their living and their work that in turn set them up to better understand the natural limitations we must soon accommodate.  Artists, I argued, get this, in the sense that choosing a discipline is key to their excelling in their artistic production.  The work of artists and other aesthetic workers, then, is of critical importance in the intentional effort to adopt ways of living that heed the earth’s limitations and restore us to just relationship with the natural communities we find ourselves in, since they carry the keyring of imagination, they know how to work with limits, and they have the power to articulate ourselves to ourselves.

My deepest wish for a result from this year of writing is that folks might begin to think about the implications and characteristics of a sustainable form of society and living; that the conversations I long for might begin to happen.  In that spirit, please feel free to comment on the website or otherwise contact us with your thoughts about this topic and/or your answers to the questions in italics above.  You don’t have to be a professional artist for your imagination to count!

An addendum to this essay follows:  The day after I had completed and posted this piece, Scott Jost helpfully replied to my list of questions.  Enjoy some excerpts from his commentary below.

In your work making art/practicing craft, how has the place in which the work was accomplished influenced the process of making it and the results?
The majority of my work involves studying geographically bounded places that include my home within the boundaries. I’m not sure if that influences the process/results of my work or not. I suspect that if I focused a project on a specific place that doesn’t include my home, I would approach the work in the same way. My main concerns in place-based work are to do fieldwork until I feel as though I’ve reached an understanding of that place/subject–learning in the field is critical. Any work of the kind is fundamentally an interpretive act, and I want to make sure that my interpretation is appropriate to what I see/learn/experience about the place.
When you have gotten to know a new region, have there been aesthetic distinctions that you have noticed there?  How do you interpret these?
Yes, there are aesthetic distinctions at every level from geographic differences (e.g. in my current project, Confluence: Rivers and Streams in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, there are 5 distinct geographic regions. There are also tremendous particularities to each stream or river, and changes from headwaters to bay. Human habitation can change everything dramatically from one site to another on the same river. You get the point. What I try to do in my work is show both the similarities and differences of place–its particularities–from one photograph to the next.
What would make a piece of work belong to a place?  For your specialty, how does the character of a region express itself?
I’m not sure my work “belongs” to a place, but I want it to ring true in terms of the place where the photograph was made.
Does most currently produced art and craftwork bear an aesthetic signature of the place of its creation?  How about examples from times past?
In terms of pictorial art–photography, drawing, video, painting, etc., I would say no. I can’t speak to “craft” (as an over-simplified but sometimes useful distinction from “art”) with any authority–contemporary or in the past. As for photography, I would say work of the past might have reflected an “aesthetic signature” of the place it was made even less than it does now. Now, some photographers are really starting to think through implications of the inherited histories and ideologies embedded in how subject matter is pictured. Early photography of the American western territories, for example, often tried to emulate European heroic landscape painting traditions and tropes.
What do we gain or lose by having or lacking a discernable regional character in our aesthetic environments?  What are the trade-offs?
I recently read a fairly old article by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. He draws a distinction between “habitation” and “sense of place.” Most of us inhabit the locations in which we live–we go about our daily activities unselfconsciously and with little regard to where we are. Sense of place, on the other hand, is more self-conscious and requires a certain kind of emotional and/or intellectual distance in order to recognize and appreciate. People have inhabited places as long as there have been people. I wonder if a loss of regional character as the result of corporatization of the economy actually encourages unselfconscious inhabitation, and perhaps the dampening or loss of an awareness of place. I would argue that a sense of place is necessary to an awakening of care and responsibility for the well-being of a place and the people located in that place. In my own projects I self-consciously try to create or reinforce a sense of place.
What do you think would be the aesthetic implications of a conversion of our society to a sustainable mode of living?  
Creating a sustainable society would involve a radical reconstruction of the physical landscape–including drastically shrinking the human footprint. This isn’t an art thought necessarily, but a practical reality.
What contribution can [aesthetic workers] make to such a conversion, and how might they go about it?
I think independent artists and craftspersons in any medium can be central to extending conversations about, awareness of, and advocacy for a more sustainable culture and society if they choose to embrace and engage those conversations in their work, and as they try to build audiences and clientele for their work.

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