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Without Reason

June 19, 2015

Because one post about national parks isn't enough, here's another one.

While the biggest national parks in the US are some of the best places to go to find (mostly) untouched nature, what many people don't realize is that it's also a good place to go to find a ton of people. Whether or not that's a good thing -- for the wildlife or for the people -- is up to you, I suppose. But the fact remains that national parks, and natural preservations in general, remain one of the most visited and respected places on Earth. Not only do we dedicate millions of square miles of land to the preservation of these natural sights, we also literally dedicate entire TV channels and branches of government precisely for these beautiful sights of nature. And all that goes to say, people like the way nature exudes a feel of elegance in its own, chaotic, way, and we admire its timeless beauty.

But while I was visiting some of the best of these sights last week, one of the questions that occurred to me was that these people visiting the parks -- these aren't just the people across the street or across state borders; people from literally everywhere in the world come to visit and see national parks, not only in the US but in the world in general, from Amazon to the Zion Canyon. And that caught my fascination because it's incredibly hard to find something -- anything -- that so many people agree are beautiful or beneficial in some way, but nature seems to be one of those things. So why is that the case? How are national parks and wildlife seemingly universally beautiful to nearly everyone, across cultures and nations, in a way almost no other artwork or object is? In other words, it's nearly impossible to find a piece of art -- a painting, a song, or a book -- that nearly all of the world's population agrees is beautiful or timeless. Not only are there cultural boundaries, but gaps in background and personal biases that differentiate people's opinions from one another. But the beauty of nature doesn't seem to suffer from that same bias -- it's almost universally recognized with that timeless beauty, and I wanted to know why that was.

What is it about the "beautiful" sights that make the so attractive and famous? Where does that intrinsic beauty come from?

As the process of answering any good question goes, I had a few theories pass me by. I began with the notion that there was something common and unique to nature that presented itself as beautiful. Maybe it was combinations of colors, the sculpted looks of rocks and cliffs, or maybe the scale of nature's works of art that more human artworks couldn't match. Then I moved on to think about the way people approach and interact with nature, which was clearly distinct from the way we interact with any given man-made work of art. That's to say, the way you like a Taylor Swift song is different from the way you like a shot of a rainbow over the Niagara Falls, and the way you enjoy Beethoven's overtures are different from the way you like to look at the sun set over the Grand Canyon.

Maybe it's that I wasn't thinking deeply enough, or maybe it's that the question really has no answer, but I couldn't come up with a satisfactory reason why nature would be uniquely and universally beautiful. But I still couldn't shake off the feeling that there was something about nature that made nearly everyone love it.

But maybe it's that -- the mystery and undecidedness of nature could be the reason we find it so elusively attractive. Maybe nature is beautiful without reason. What?

The mystery and undecidedness of nature could be the reason we find it so elusively attractive. Nature is beautiful without reason.

Let's break it down. One thing that is absolutely unique about the artistry of nature from human-made works of art is its randomness. While an artist has some conception of what he or she wants to create with a piece of art, nature works without a plan. The "artwork" of nature is really created by pure chance, and I think it's that random chaos that gives rise to the apparent beauty we like so much in nature; the nature that we look at isn't clearly defined or intended to be one thing. While a human artist looks for colors, forms, and designs that he or she finds beautiful or appropriate to an idea, the architect of nature, if you will, doesn't have intention. And that action without intention creates a beauty without reason. And that just might be why so many people find it universally alluring.

Every minute, our lives might be populated with miniature versions of the same kind of chanced delight that makes nature so timelessly elegant. And I really, really love that idea.

But that kind of random elegance isn't just in nature. Small things happen every day, every minute, because of random chance and without intention. The same ideas that carve out the Grand Canyon and sculpt the Yosemite Valley also determine that funny angle of your crooked picture frame on the wall or the particular way the sunlights hits your windows when you wake up. Just like that, every minute, our lives might be populated with miniature versions of the same kind of chanced delight that makes nature so timelessly elegant. And I really, really love that idea. It's not only the Picassos and the van Goghs that make our lives beautiful, but the small, random details. And in that way, our everyday moments -- the pieces that make up the rather unremarkable timeline I'm traveling through -- are pretty perfect.