Primary Colours

What is it about some landscapes that makes them so beautiful they take your breath away? Whatever it is, Sedona has it in bucketloads. Even the dullest bits would be major tourist attractions if you could move them to somewhere else.

For this weekend’s hike I decided to go to the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon, but when I got there it was so stuffed with people that I’d have had to insert myself sideways and rely on Brownian motion to get anywhere. So instead I picked one of the hundred other trails around Sedona and headed more-or-less at random for Bear Mountain.


This was a little bit quieter. Just a bit. In fact I had the entire mountain to myself. All of it. Not a soul anywhere. Of course, this might have had something to do with the midday temperature hovering around 95 degrees in the shade. And there wasn’t any shade. Also, a trail that climbs 1,600 feet in the space of two miles is the kind of thing that tends to put off a few of the more elderly tourists.


But it was a beautiful hike. Arizona just blows my mind. It’s like living in technicolor. The scenery was painted in saturated, almost primary colours. Vermilion cliffs, emerald bushes and an azure sky: RGB. The air was dry and clear, the rocks glowed with warmth and even the lizards seemed deliriously happy. Whether all this visual intensity is overstimulating my brain and I’ll never again be able to appreciate scenic subtlety, I don’t know. But I don’t care either. This landscape just makes me want to pretend I’m Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music.

Unfortunately I didn’t quite make it to the top, because this started to happen:

Bear Mountain 118_0001

And then this:

Bear Mountain 119_0001

And it gradually became borne in on me that I was on the crest of a mountain and the lightning had just me and a couple of creosote bushes to choose from. If it came to a contest about who’d been the naughtiest boy lately I’d be fried, so I decided to head for a lower altitude.

Why am I telling you all this? Is there some clever analogy about dynamics coming? Am I going to illuminate some obscure aspect of biology? Nope. I purely and simply want to make you jealous, that’s all.

And the photos are for Dad, who is in hospital at the moment.


About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

8 Responses to Primary Colours

  1. Nicholas Lee says:

    Mission accomplished, I’m jealous. 🙂

    >What is it about some landscapes that makes them so beautiful they take your breath away?

    I think it is mostly the lack of human influence. If you took almost anywhere on earth and re-ran history so as to remove human influence then it would look stunningly beautiful too.

    Arizona happens to do it in cinemascope format.

    PS: hope your dad gets better soon!


  2. stevegrand says:

    Heh! It was actually just a rhetorical question. I’d simply had a nice day out and I wanted to share it with you. In the way most bloggers do, rather than to raise intellectual discussion.

    But since you’ve brought it up it is an interesting question, and it’s fascinated me for a long time – it’s why I like landscape photography.

    Human intervention is part of it, certainly. But in some ways Arizona argues against that. Sedona is one of the more populated and manipulated areas in the state – there are thousands of square miles of untouched wilderness, but few of these places are as attractive as Sedona (which is why lots of people went to live there, of course).

    I suspect most of it comes from our prinary instincts. Some of these are directly relevant – we’ll find a place attractive if it is safe and comfortable. We like standing on hilltops because we can see predators from far away and there’s nowhere that anyone can get above us. We like valleys and canyons because they’re good sources of shade and water. Evolution has programmed our brainstem to respond to certain patterns of light and shade so that we tend to seek out these places.

    But I also think some of our aesthetics come from a misapplication of instincts that evolved for other reasons. Our sexual attraction instincts, for instance, make us sensitive to certain kinds of geometry. If a landscape contains that sort of geometry we’ll find it attractive. Interestingly, men and women (IMHO) favour different kinds of geometry – women are attracted to arithmetic curves and men are attracted to geometric curves, because those are the kinds of geometry we see in the body shapes of the opposite sex. So my theory would be that women are more attracted to rugged landscapes, with circular curvature, and men to rolling landscapes with geometric curvature. I haven’t tested this, though.

    But definitely a lot of landcape mythology – especially about Earth Mothers, etc. – arises from examples of the female form in nature (breast-like hills, caves, valleys, etc.) and this might actually be instinctive rather than conscious.

    Interesting subject. I’m sure someone’s done some research on it somewhere.

    Thanks for wishing my dad well! That’s very kind.

    • Daniel Mewes says:

      > So my theory would be that women are more attracted to rugged landscapes, with circular curvature, and men to rolling landscapes with geometric curvature.

      Don’t really understand what “circular” and “geometric” means in terms of curvature, but if it means what I’m thinking it does, than I just want to tell that there is this cellular phone Sony Ericsson T610.
      See here
      or here

      I think it’s a great piece of design and IMO one of the best looking phones I’ve seen for some time now. However I actually did not find a single girl who felt the same way about the design (too angular or something). Also read about other people who had made this observation regarding that phone somewhere on the web.
      So perhaps this is a counter-example?

      Completely agree on your theory that the degree of overseeing the environment as well as being able to find some place to hide may play a role however. 🙂

      I also think that a high contrast is a very good thing for esthetics!
      Maybe there actually is some deeper drive in our brains (on a macro scale) that tries to reach a high degree of separation/distinction/contrast and therefore we may find it satisfying if some picture just has this.

      I actually have to think about “normal” (central) European forests, which I personally find to be quite boring. They usually do not have much contrast (neither in color – which is just brown and some not-too-light green – nor in lightness – it’s all shaded typically). They also may be hard to oversee for us because of all the obstacles (i.e. trees) everywhere.

      Best regards,

      PS: By what reason ever, beautiful pictures Steve! Thanks for sharing those.

      • stevegrand says:

        Hmm, could be a counter-example, as you say! It’s amazing how subtle the difference can be between a popular and unpopular design for something like a cellphone. I guess the people at Apple would be able to tell me something about curvature preferences!

        > Don’t really understand what “circular” and “geometric” means in terms of curvature

        Many ammonites are examples of arithmetic curves (each whorl is a fixed amount larger than the previous one. A nautilus is a geometric curve – each whorl gets larger by an exponential amount.

        Of course all this sexual preference stuff would be complicated by the fact that many women also find other women attractive to look at, whereas few straight men are attracted to other men (I think, anyway – the masculine form doesn’t do a thing for me!).

        I’m sure there must be a set of primitives in the hindbrain, anyway, which trigger good and bad feelings from the sight of certain curves and textures for good evolutionary reasons. Locating a mate is obviously massively important to all sexually reproducing creatures and it often amazes me how clever animals are at visually finding a mate that to me doesn’t look that much different from a rock. They must detect certain pre-programmed combinations of cues, because many of them seem incapable of general object recognition.

        Our response to curvature also seems to have something to do with dynamics – it’s as if our visual system converts a spatial curve into a timeline. Geometric curves are aesthetically satisfying because if you run your eye along them you get a constant acceleration – they’re the curve that our bodies (or prey?) would produce if we were both turning and accelerating. Curves with a more circular shape are “painful”, because you feel like your eye is skidding round them.

        Yeah, we definitely seem to prefer high contrasts. Maybe that has something to do with predator/prey detection too?

  3. Carlos Acosta says:

    Hi Steve,
    I have driven through Arizona before, but I never stopped to look at nature they you do. You have a wonderful gift of taking our mundane reality and looking at in ways that captivate and re-energize the rest of us. Thanks for the wonderful pictures and insightful commentary.


  4. spleeness says:

    The lightning shots are both incredible and frightening, because I found myself wondering how fast the storm was moving. Glad you got off the hill. I hope your dad gets better soon.

    • stevegrand says:

      That storm was moving parallel to me, alhough it caused a fire on another mountain. There was another one brewing upwind of me, so that’s when I legged it downhill!

      Dad’s fine now, thank you. He’s out of hospital now and recovering well.

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