As you have read in this volume, much of contemporary aesthetics focuses on the nature of art and artworks. The aesthetics of nature as a subdiscipline of analytic philosophical aesthetics gained prominence in the second half of the twentieth century. Discussions about the aesthetics of nature are complicated by questions about the scope of the topic: Are we talking about natural objects? Natural environments? Whole ecosystems? What about human-created natural environments such as gardens, parks, and cityscapes? Exactly what counts as natural beauty?
In what follows I will present a brief overview of different theories of the beauty of nature. I will start by discussing two historical accounts that I believe have most impacted our current conception of the beauty in nature: the picturesque and the sublime. I will then turn to a discussion of contemporary accounts of the beauty of nature, dividing these accounts into conceptual accounts, non-conceptual accounts, and hybrid accounts of nature appreciation.
Historical Accounts of the beauty of nature
Anthropocentric accounts: the picturesque and landscape aesthetics
The picturesque is an aesthetic category often applied to the aesthetic appreciation of nature. It was popularised toward the end of the eighteenth century in Britain. At the core of the notion of the picturesque is the prospect of converting natural scenes into pictures. This “landscape aesthetic” assumes that one ought to employ a mode of aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment that is informed by the practice, and aesthetic criteria of, landscape painting. Eighteenth-century landscape painters used devices such as the “Claude-glass” to help “frame” the scene they wished to paint. These Claude-glasses became so popular in the eighteenth century that travelers and other flâneurs would use them without any intention to paint the vistas they saw. While there were many disparate understandings of the picturesque during this time period, I will mention two seminal figures: Sir Uvedale Price (1747–1829) and Richard Payne Knight (1750–1824). Price argues that the picturesque was an objective aesthetic quality that resided in the object (Ross 1998, 133). Price believes that the picturesque could be defined through its “roughness, sudden variation, irregularity, intricacy and variety,” and his list of picturesque objects included: water, trees, buildings, ruins, dogs, sheep, horses, birds of prey, women, music, and painting. In contrast, Knight thinks that the picturesque was a mode of association found within the viewer and thus any object could be picturesque. These associations, he believes, would only be available to those who had knowledge of landscape paintings:
This very relation to painting expressed by the word picturesque, is that which affords the whole pleasure derived from association; which can, therefore, only be felt by persons who have correspondent ideas to associate; that is, by persons in a certain degree conversant in that art. Such persons being in the habit of viewing, and receiving pleasure from fine pictures, will naturally feel pleasure in viewing those objects in nature, which have called forth those powers of imitation and embellishment. (Ross 1998, 155–156)
Thus, within the history of the picturesque we see differing ideas about the source of beauty: Is beauty subjective (residing in the perceiver’s mind) or is beauty an objective quality in objects? Whether you believe beauty is subjective or objective, the picturesque is probably still the most popular (mis)conception of the beauty of nature. When we think of a beautiful scene of nature, our ideas are substantially informed by our past experiences with landscape paintings, and now landscape photography.
The sublime is another theory of the aesthetic appreciation of nature. While the first reference to the sublime is in the first century CE (we see hints of its predecessor in Aristotle’s Poetics), the term really blossomed in eighteenth-century British philosophy. Anthony Ashley-Cooper (1671–1713), third Earl of Shaftesbury (now known simply as Shaftesbury) wrote about the sublime in The Moralist: A Philosophical Rhapsody. While viewing the Alps during his “Grand Tour” he wrote,
Here thoughtless Men, seized with the Newness of such Objects, become thoughtful, and willingly contemplate the incessant Changes of their Earth’s Surface. They see, as in one instant, the Revolutions of past Ages, the fleeting forms of Things, and the Decay even of their own Globe. … The wasted Mountains show them the World itself only as a humble Ruin, and make them think of its approaching Period. (Hussey  1983, 55–56).
He praises the mountains as sublime, claiming that mountains are the highest order of scenery (Hussey  1983, 55). The sublime, for Shaftesbury, is not contrary to beauty, but superior to it.
The sublime is bigger, harder, and darker than the picturesque. Unlike the picturesque, whose beauty is aimed to charm, the sublime teaches us something. The two most influential theories of the sublime are those of Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804).
In his Introduction to Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Adam Phillips writes, “Beauty and Sublimity turn out to be the outlaws of rational enquiry. Both are coercive, irresistible, and a species of seduction. The sublime is a rape, Beauty is a lure” (Burke  2008, xxii). The sublime is dangerous, full of terror. Burke’s sublime can be found in both art and nature. For Burke the sublime exists in degrees, the strongest of which invokes astonishment from the viewer, mingled with a degree of horror (53). Burke claims that the strongest forms of the sublime are usually found in the ideas of eternity and infinity (57). In weaker forms, the sublime’s effects include admiration, reverence and respect (53). Burke states,
Whatever leads to raise in man his own opinion, produces a sort of swelling and triumph, that is extremely grateful to the human mind. And this swelling is never more perceived, nor operates with more force, than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects, the mind always claiming to itself some of the dignity and importance of the things which it contemplates. (46)
When we experience the sublime, we feel as if the human mind has triumphed in the face of terror. This accomplishment is pleasurable, and thus we receive pleasure from what at first started as an unpleasurable experience.
Burke’s influence on Kant’s theory of the sublime cannot be overstated. Like Burke, Kant recognised that in experiencing the sublime, something pleasurable resulted from an experience that could not be called beautiful. Like Burke’s, Kant’s conception of the sublime is tied to notions of awe and respect, and, like Burke’s, Kant’s sublime is found in the infinite. Kant took Burke’s nascent ideas and from them developed a full-fledged theory of the sublime. Unlike Burke, Kant believed that the experience of the sublime resides solely in the minds of people.
Kant distinguishes two different types of the sublime: the mathematical and the dynamical. The paradigmatic example of the mathematical sublime is that of infinity (again, similar to Burke). With the mathematical sublime,
the feeling of the sublime is thus a feeling of displeasure from the inadequacy of the imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude for the estimation by means of reason, and a pleasure that is thereby aroused at the same time from the correspondence of this very judgment of the inadequacy of the greatest sensible faculty in comparison with ideas of reason, insofar as striving from them is never less a law for us. (Kant  2001, § 27, 5:247).
For Kant, the imagination is the faculty we use to bring perceptions into our mind before we subsume these “intuitions” under concepts. With the mathematical sublime, my mind is incapable of perceiving the magnitude of what I’m witnessing. When I look up at the starry night, my mind cannot comprehend the magnitude of space. While I can’t comprehend the magnitude, I am none the less pleased at my ability to grapple with it. In sum, what Kant is saying here is that we feel displeasure in the fact that we cannot fully comprehend infinity but feel pleasure in the fact that we at least have the ability to try.
Kant’s dynamical sublime involves the recognition of the possible destructive forces in nature, which could result in our death. This recognition, while initially unpleasurable, leads to pleasure since these forces in nature (e.g., storms, winds, earthquakes) “allow us to discover within ourselves a capacity for resistance of quite another kind, which gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent all-powerfulness of nature” (Kant  2001, § 28, 5:261). The experience of the dynamical sublime, then, is an experience of the enormity of nature and our role within it. We feel puny against the forces of nature, but also realise our reason gives us standing.
Now that we have discussed two historical accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of nature, I turn to more contemporary accounts.
Contemporary Accounts: (a) cognitive, (b) non-cognitive, (c) hybrid
Contemporary accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of nature start to gain traction around the 1970s. This is no accident as the environmental movement was in full swing. In what follows I will discuss the contemporary accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of nature in two major camps: the cognitive (or conceptual) camp and the non-cognitive (or non-conceptual) camp. Loosely speaking, cognitive theories are those that emphasise the centrality of knowledge in the appreciation of natural beauty. These theories come in many flavours, but many of them (e.g., the theories of Carlson, Rolston, and Eaton) focus on the use of scientific categories in nature appreciation. Allen Carlson’s Natural Environmental Model (NEM) is a paradigmatic example of a cognitivist theory of the aesthetics of natural environments. For Carlson, the key to appreciating nature aesthetically is to appreciate it through our scientific knowledge. Carlson’s NEM borrows Paul Ziff’s notion of aspection (Ziff 1966, 71). Aspection (seeing the object first this way, then that) provides guidelines or boundaries for our aesthetic experiences and judgments of certain art objects. Different artworks have different boundaries, which will yield different acts of aspection. For example, while many paintings can be viewed from one location, other works of art (e.g., sculpture, architecture) require you to walk through space. Thus, painting and sculpture require different acts of aspection.
Drawing upon the insights of Ziff (and others such as Kendall Walton,) Carlson argues that the proper aesthetic appreciation of nature involves acts of aspection through the lens (or category) of scientific knowledge. Just as knowledge of the art’s kind (e.g., opera, painting, sculpture) informs our appreciation, scientific information about nature informs our aesthetic appreciation of it. Thus, to truly appreciate an ecosystem or an object in that system, one must have (some) scientific knowledge in order to employ the appropriate act of aspection. Importantly, one must not treat nature as one would treat art, turning a natural object into an art object, or transforming an experience of an open field into an imagined landscape painting (as theories of the picturesque might). Carlson acknowledges that nature is importantly unframed and as a consequence when we try to frame nature by turning a natural object (e.g., driftwood) into a free standing object, or when one tries to frame nature by experiencing it as if looking through a Claude-glass, one imposes a frame that should not be there. Carlson’s approach is labeled “cognitivist” because it emphasises the importance of cognition in aesthetically appreciating nature well.
Non-cognitive theories are those that emphasise the subjective aesthetic experience of natural beauty and often focus on the role of the imagination. These include theories put forth by various philosophers, including Hepburn (2010), Berleant (1992), Carroll (2004), Godlovitch (1997), and Brady (1998).
Emily Brady presents one such non-cognitivist model in her article “Imagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature.” Using Carlson’s NEM as a foil against her own account, she argues that basing the aesthetic appreciation of nature on scientific categories is flawed because it is “too constraining as a guide for appreciation of nature qua aesthetic object” (Brady 1998, 158). She provides four core criticisms of Carlson’s scientific approach. First, she asserts that Carlson’s account rests on a faulty analogy: just as aesthetic appreciation of art requires knowledge of art history and criticism to help place art in its correct category, we should use natural history (e.g., geology, biology, physics) to place nature in a correct category. In a (now) famous counterexample to the NEM, recounted by Brady, Noël Carroll raises the worrisome case of the waterfall (Carroll 2004, 95). Carroll asks: What scientific category must we fit a particular waterfall in order to appreciate it aesthetically? If the only category that we need is that of a waterfall, then the NEM need not rely on scientific knowledge at all, but just rely on “common sense.”
Further, Brady argues that even if we grant that scientific knowledge could enrich an aesthetic appreciation of nature, it does not seem essential to aesthetic appreciation. Ecological value, she argues, is—and ought to be—a distinct (while still overlapping) category of value. Perhaps most convincing of Brady’s objections is that the scientific approach is too constraining, since proper aesthetic appreciation of nature requires “freedom, flexibility, and creativity” (Brady 1998, 159). We should have the freedom to explore trains of thought not related to scientific categories. When looking at the weathered bark on a tree, I need not know how it was formed; rather I may make associations between the weathered tree bark and the beauty of a beloved older relative’s face—the ravines in both adding a beautiful texture to the surface. She believes that the aesthetic appreciation of nature ought to use perceptual and imaginative capacities, such as those exemplified in my tree bark/relative example. Brady claims that the most desirable model of aesthetic appreciation of nature will: (a) be able to distinguish aesthetic value from other types of value, (b) provide a structure to make aesthetic judgments which are not merely subjective, and (c) solve the problem of how to guide the aesthetic appreciation of nature without reference to art models.
Criticisms of this “imaginative approach” focus on the possibility of an unfettered imagination producing absurd trains of aesthetic inquiry. For example, one might look at the ripple pattern reflecting on the water of a lake and imagine that the ripples look like the ridges of the potato chips you recently cut out of your diet. From here you begin a train of thought which leads you to worry about processed food, factory farming, and fad diets. This seems like an unproductive, and unaesthetic, train of thought. To combat this “unfettered imagination” worry, Brady gives us some guidelines to prevent self-indulgence and irrelevant trains of thought. She believes the Kantian notion of disinterestedness can help prevent the sort of train of thought I just rehearsed. Further Brady gives us guidelines for what she calls “imagining well.” She believes “imagining well” should be thought of like an Aristotelian virtue: it is acquired only through practice and only becomes a virtue once it is a matter of habit. This is a non-conceptual model of aesthetic appreciation in that it does not rely on previous concepts of art or nature for deep aesthetic appreciation.
If imagining well is like an Aristotelian virtue, then there should be a developing capacity on the part of the aesthetic participant to know when to employ scientific categories and when not to. Surely, sometimes focusing on scientific categories can cut aesthetic pleasure off at the knees.
An example of this phenomenon can be seen in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi:
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book–a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. . . . In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading matter. . . . I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river. . . .The sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights. . . . No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. (Twain  1984, 94–96)
This much-discussed example shows that knowledge sometimes precludes aesthetic appreciation. Turning to another example, as a flute player I am aware of passages that are particularly hard to play. One reason for their difficulty is the lack of a natural stopping place to take a quick breath. Whenever I hear another flute player perform one of such pieces, I am on the edge of my seat, anticipating when he or she will take a breath. The in-depth knowledge about the piece precludes my appreciating the overall sound of the music. Instead, I find myself focusing on the technical ability of the artists. According to Brady, I am not appropriately disinterested in this instance. If that’s the case, then almost any amount of expert knowledge (including scientific knowledge) could preclude aesthetic appreciation. Is there a happy middle ground?
Hybrid Accounts: Can We Marry Cognitive and Non-Cognitive accounts to get the best of both worlds?
Perhaps instead of aiming for a uniform experience, we should be aiming for experiences that are aesthetically meaningful and reward our attention and efforts. In other words, we should allow for the co-recognition of a variety of experiences rather than defending one account of meaning over another when it is possible to countenance them all. In his book Natural Beauty: A Theory of Aesthetics Beyond the Arts, Ronald Moore (2007) details a pluralist model of aesthetic appreciation. Moore argues that the appropriate way to aesthetically appreciate nature is syncretic: rather than using any one particular model, we should draw from multiple models. This syncretic way of appreciating nature re-integrates our appreciation of natural objects and artworks. Moore insists that we “approach the qualities of things we think worthy of admiration in nature through lenses we have developed for thinking of aesthetic qualities at large—not art, not literature, not music, not politics, not urban planning, not landscape design, but all of these and more” (2007, 216). If the goal of our aesthetic appreciation is to use those parts of our intelligent awareness that suit the object, then this model can include all modes of aesthetic appreciation.
But while such a model enables us to explore many modes of appreciation, it does not tell us what modes of appreciation are relevant to which objects. Some might see this as a weakness of the syncretic account, but one might also argue that the charm of the syncretic model is that it challenges us to come up with specific accounts of appreciation for different types of objects.
One might worry that different modes of appreciation might preclude one another. When Moore declares that syncretism is “the Unitarianism of aesthetics” (2007, 39), a precocious deist might ask if one can be both Jewish and Buddhist, both Jesuit and Bahá’í? In my view, some models are not only compatible, but also ampliative. For example, non-cognitive models of the appreciation of natural beauty that focus on “trains of ideas” or “associations,” may be informed by more cognitive models such as Carlson’s NEM. Scientific information about an object of delectation can spur more interesting, and perhaps, more productive trains of thought. If we know that a particular flower blooms but once a year, that scientific information can be utilised to ground a fruitful aesthetic experience.
But some models might be incommensurable; it might be impossible to employ two models at the same time, to have two experiences of appreciation at the same time. In this scenario we might decide to alternate between two different modes of appreciation. Take, for example, the film critic. Film critics often watch movies twice: once to allow themselves to enjoy the film—to immerse themselves, and the second time to focus on technical aspects of the production with an eye toward their criticism. The “technical” mode and the “immersion” mode might very well be incompatible, but one might be able to switch off and on between the two. If this is the case, there is nothing stopping me from having one experience after the other as the appreciation unfolds throughout time. These multiple avenues for aesthetic pleasure favor a syncretic model, or pluralist model, of aesthetic appreciation. We must draw upon whatever models we have at our disposal, including conceptual as well as non-conceptual models, artistic as well as natural models, historical and contemporary models alike.
In this chapter we examined some of the historical underpinnings of our appreciation of nature, namely the British Picturesque and the sublime. We then discussed cognitive, non-cognitive, and hybrid accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of nature. What I hope to have shown is that there is no one-principle-fits-all solution for all aesthetic experiences of nature. An immersive experience river rafting will be different from birdwatching. Knowledge in some cases will add depth to our aesthetic experiences, while in other cases will impede our ability to appreciate. We should thus embrace a pluralistic model of aesthetic engagement, one that allows us to employ different models to different objects—or different models at different times in our life. The appropriate response to nature, for the sublime, is awe and humility. This might be instructive for me at a particular time in my life. At another time, the NEM might allow me to gain access to experiences of unscenic nature otherwise inaccessible through other models (such as the picturesque).
I would like to leave you with one final thought: we need not go to a National Park to engage with nature. We live in nature and are part of it. It is accessible to us in the trees that line our streets, the urban animals who forage for scraps in our trash bins, and in the sunsets we watch through our car windshield on our commute home. The beauty of nature surrounds us and is available to all—free of charge.
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Brady, Emily. 1998. “Imagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56, no. 2 (Spring): 139–147. https://doi.org/10.2307/432252. Reprinted in Carlson and Berleant 2004.
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- Ronald Hepburn’s 1966 article, “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty,” is a good place to start and a must-read for anyone interested in the topic. This essay, and many others I discuss in this chapter, can be found in Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant’s edited volume, Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (Carlson and Berleant 2004). ↵
- The term seems to have first appeared in 1768, in an essay by Rev. William Gilpin (1724–1804) entitled, “An Essay Upon Prints,” where Gilpin defined the picturesque simply as “a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture” ( 2010, xii). ↵
- Allen Carlson, whose Natural Environmental Model we will discuss in the next section, has noted that if we are to adhere to the landscape cult’s practice of viewing the environment as a landscape painting, we are essentially forced to see the natural environment as static and as a mere two-dimensional representation. This leads us to have an incomplete and shallow aesthetic engagement with the natural environment. ↵
- While I will discuss only Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, two other men would be relevant to a longer discussion about the picturesque: William Gilpin and Humphry Repton (1752–1818). ↵
- As we will see in the next section on the sublime, Kant’s theory of judgment places beauty in the minds of the spectator. ↵
- The first reference to the sublime is thought to be Longinus: Peri Hupsous/Hypsous. The sublime was said to inspire awe. Aristotle believed that horrific events (in tragic plays) call upon fear and pity, resulting in a catharsis in the spectator. Elements of this view can be found in many theories of the sublime. ↵
- See also Shaftesbury ( 2010) ↵
- Burke believed that anything that contained one or more of the following attributes could be perceived as sublime: (1) Obscurity, (2) Power, (3), Privation (4), Vastness, (5) Infinity, (6) Succession, (7) Uniformity ( 2008, 61–76). ↵
- Please note that I have skipped over the nineteenth century aesthetics of nature here. In G.W.F. Hegel’s (1770–1831) aesthetics, philosophy of art expressed “Absolute Spirit” and nature was relegated to a footnote. Only a handful of Romantic thinkers thought and wrote on the aesthetics of nature, and many of these were in the United States. For a good introduction read Henry David Thoreau's (1817–1862) “Autumnal Tints” (Thoreau  2012), George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882) ( 2018), and the environmentalist John Muir's (1838–1914) “A View of the High Sierra” (Muir 1894). ↵
- An introduction to Carlson’s cognitive model for the aesthetic appreciation of nature can be found in his “Appreciation and the Natural Environment” (Carlson 1979). For an introduction to Holmes Rolston III’s cognitive model, please see his “The Aesthetic Experience of Forests” (Rolston III 2004). A good introduction to Marcia Muelder Eaton can be found in her “Fact and Fiction in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature” (Eaton 2004). ↵
- Carlson also draws upon Kendall Walton’s “Categories of Art” (1970) in which Walton argues that we need art historical information to make well-informed aesthetic judgments. For example, if I were to judge Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Swan” as a failure of minimalist sculpture, I wouldn’t be attending to the properties of “Balloon Swan” which makes it a successful piece of (non-minimalist) contemporary pop sculpture. In order to appreciate “Balloon Swan” appropriately, I must categorise it appropriately. ↵
- While Carlson gives priority to appreciation informed by scientific knowledge, he does acknowledge the role of common sense in our aesthetic appreciation of nature. ↵
- The “object model”—as Carlson calls it—asks the appreciator to take the object out of its natural environment and observe its formal properties such as symmetry, unity, etc. When we do this, we appreciate the natural object as an art object, thus only appreciating a limited set of aesthetic properties, namely those formal properties that we find in art. In rejecting this model, Carlson demands that our appreciation of a natural object requires us to place it in its natural context. For example, we should see the honeycomb as part of the bee life cycle and appreciate the purpose and role it plays in nature. ↵
- The “landscape model” asks us to aesthetically appreciate a natural landscape as we would appreciate the painting or picture of that natural landscape. We are asked to attend to the scenic qualities of the landscape, to appreciate its lines and form. Unlike a painting, which is already presented to us as a framed object, we should likewise frame the landscape. This model reinforces the subject/object distinction, by asking us to place ourselves outside or in opposition to the landscape that we are trying to appreciate. ↵
- Non-cognitive accounts may further be divided into imagination accounts (Brady) and immersion accounts (Berleant). While I focus here on imagination accounts, Berleant’s immersion account is instructive. Berleant argues that the appropriate way to appreciate nature is through engagement; this non-conceptual model (of engagement) correctly emphasises humanity’s continuity with the natural world and nature’s boundlessness where other models do not. ↵
- Brady details four different types of imagination: (i) exploratory, which is the imaginative search for unity in perception, (ii) projective, where we intentionally see something as something else, (iii) ampliative, which moves beyond mere imagination to draw upon other cognitive resources, and (iv) revelatory, where the ampliative imagination has led to the discovery of an aesthetic truth (Brady 1998, 163). ↵
- The First Moment in the Critique of the Power of Judgment tells us that judgments of taste (which are judgments about beauty) are “disinterested.” Kant details a few different ways in which these judgments are disinterested: we must not ask if the object is good (or good for something), we shouldn’t invoke sensations of the agreeable, and we shouldn’t care about the real existence of the object. Let’s take these three forms of interest in turn. First, when looking at something beautiful (let’s say a flower) I shouldn’t care if the flower is good for something (such as being good for medicinal purposes). I shouldn’t also care if the object is morally good. Second, when I make a judgment of beauty, I am not saying that the object is “agreeable” or pleasing to me. Going back to our flower example—Kant doesn’t want us to say something like, “this flower is agreeable to me since it is the kind my mother used to give me when I was sick.” Finally, we shouldn’t care whether or not the object is real. A mirage of a flower and an actual flower should hold the same judgment of beauty. In this sense we are disinterested in whether the object is real or imaginary. ↵
- Those who argue for “associative” models of aesthetic experience might include Archibald Alison (1790), who argues that objects spur “trains of ideas of emotions”; John Dewey’s discussion of “trains of ideas” ( 2005); and Emily Brady on “Imagining Well” (1998). ↵