We walked silently along the narrow trail, focusing on the brush, branches, and flowers “like Leonardo would” (per instructions from our leader). A light rain dampened everything in the dense forest. By the time we reached the open, sloping meadow at the end of the hike, each of us had a handful of plant life, which would be the basis of contemplation and discussion during the ensuing seminar.
This wasn’t your typical conference breakout session. But then again, this wasn’t your typical conference. For four days, participants in “Leonardo, A Celebration” were able to fully immerse themselves in the study of Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, whose wide-ranging interests went far beyond painting and sculpture and included science, engineering, astronomy, geology, paleontology, botany, and invention. And while many of the sessions were discussions of Leonardo’s great works and his legacy, several were participatory, including opportunities to explore his machines, create frescoes, and study nature through this hike and seminar.
For “The Art of the Natural World,” we first gathered in a charming log cabin about 12 miles outside of Aspen, up the wild and scenic Castle Creek Valley. Our task for the afternoon, according to event leader and Aspen Institute Executive Vice President Elliot Gerson, was to “think about looking at nature in a way that Leonardo demonstrated was so critical to our view of the entire world.”
Although they came long before Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, and were centered around the Bible, Leonardo’s views and observations of nature were no less than revolutionary, Gerson explained. He can be considered the world’s first theoretical botanist, the father of fluid dynamics, and one of the first to recognize the concept of geological time. Leonardo’s genius, as Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson likes to say, was “in his curiosity”, often just for curiosity’s sake. Obsessed with how plant, animal, and human life worked, he spent hours, days, and years observing, filling 13,000 pages of notebooks, and not always coming to a conclusion or completing an invention.
Asked to imagine ourselves in the mountains around 15th century Florence, we tried to reset our minds on the hike. Back in the log cabin, we spent ten minutes with sketchbooks, writing or drawing, and then shared our observations with the group. One man was inspired to write poetry, while a few others pointed out the patterns and symmetry they had found, which reflected the consistency and unity Leonardo sought in nature. Another participant noticed that once she got out of her head — trying to identify all the plants she knew — and into her heart, she was more relaxed and observant.
Our guide, Jim Kravitz, a naturalist and the director of naturalist programs for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, summarized the sense of discovery that was being expressed, and the way in which art, nature, and science were intertwined by our experiment.
“I got to know the plant so much more by drawing it,” he said. “I talk about plants all the time, but do I understand them? That’s what science is, trying to get an order for things. And if you draw things, you might get more answers.”