Temporal Aesthetics and the Unfolding of Spring

Writing about ancestral time now, as spring unfolds, motivates thinking about time as embodied in the web of relationships between myself and other parts of nature across time. I observe the gradual unfolding of leaves in the Crabapple tree outside the dining room window. On my walk to and from the train in the mornings and evenings I notice increased bird activity, with new nests appearing in the trees around the neighborhood. The evenings seem filled with birdsong in ways I can hardly remember from years before. I seem to feel lightness in my step and wonder how my own mood is being affected by these changes around me. How am I part of these changes?

These reflections resonate with our aesthetic interactions with the places we live in and move through. But these interactions seem to make constant reference not only to space but also to the temporal character of things around us. The deep pink enveloped in the perfect form of a Camellia blossom in the garden is something I appreciate as a single ‘item’ before me, but it is nested in a history of the plant coming out of winter, gradually forming buds, and just this past week, flowering. That is to say, there is the moment of being struck by the beauty of the flower, and while that moment has a singular aesthetic effect on me, it is referenced to a history, a temporal aesthetic relationship between a flowering plant and my own human perspective.

How is time placed within these aesthetic meetings? Now, of course time is part of our framework for understanding the world: cause and effect, things coming in and out of existence, relations with the past, present, and looking forward into the future. There are aesthetic ‘moments’ to be sure, and they stay with us (I don’t mean to devalue them), but time is not often explicit in aesthetic experiences or in the theoretical discussions that surround them. The temporal character of things is very much part of their existence, and this is something we can experience through our own bodies (for example, as we age), and through the aesthetic surface of things outside ourselves. Biological, environmental, ecological, seasonal, geological, atmospheric (and so on) change brings to life the role of distant past, recent past, present, and future. Aesthetic engagement holds great potential for acquainting us more intimately with things. It provides a route into simply noticing things more, to hear more carefully, to see more attentively, to smell, taste or touch something we might otherwise pass by. Being aware of dynamic change in aesthetic qualities provides a sort of knowledge by acquaintance and can develop our sensitivity in relationship to changes around us.

I’m not much of a gardener, though I enjoy being in gardens. I suspect that many gardeners have this kind of aesthetic sensitivity, equipped with a strong sense of temporal aspects (life cycles, decay, the effects of seasons and weather) and able to experience, first-hand, change in these semi-natural places where plants, insects, birds, earth and humans, meet. Thinking temporally across nature-people relationships suggests to me the more specific notion of ‘intergenerational aesthetics’, where issues about temporal change come to the fore through the ephemeral nature of (many) aesthetic qualities and through the evolution of different aesthetic relationships. In our research project, I will be thinking about ancestral time through this notion, hoping to establish an agenda for intergenerational questions raised within and by aesthetic experiences.