“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”—Rachel Carson
In a recent seminar called “Cultivating a Sense of Place” (Programs in Earth Literacies) Douglas Christie introduced me to the works of Philip Levine. In particular, he discussed a work entitled “Dust” which appeared In Levine’s 2004 collection Breath:
My wife tells me that when she was six
she came home from school to an empty house,
put down her lunch box, sat on a hassock
by her father’s chair, and simply waited.
Someone known would return home soon, she was sure.
The house was still, silent, holding its breath,
the late afternoon sunlight streamed in
the unshaded windows and turned the dust
into in golden planets floating
before her. Sixty-four years later
she declares, “It was beautiful,” and goes
on to describe the sense of awe and peace
before this vision of the universe
that descended from nowhere or perhaps
rose from within. North-central Iowa,
1933, her grandmother’s house.
Nothing else remains of the day. She gazes
into space seeing again those whirling
worlds more perfectly than the room she’s in,
her smile open, her glazed eyes radiant.
Such utter stillness in the moment described! As though it still existed. Which it did, which it does. Intact and unaffected by time’s erosion.
What we see as beautiful, touches us in our heart-minds and we cherish it.
Because that moment was beautiful, Levine’s wife cherished it; because she cherished it, it was beautiful. This was so only because her child-self gave herself over to the moment and allowed herself to experience the awe and wonder of that moment. It helped that she was a child, alone in an empty house that was usually filled.
When we grow up, why is it that we lose the tendency, even the ability, to simply be in the moment, in the silence of ourselves, to discover beauty? I suppose we make excuses; it isn’t efficient or productive to “do nothing.” Compelled to feed into the ever-burgeoning capitalist machine, we must keep “doing.” Do we learn to ignore those moments to be efficient machines ourselves? Surely, in refusing to live these moments, we are also silencing the many voices of beauty that could touch our hearts.
Researchers have confirmed what the poets have long known: that we need to experience beauty in our lives. According to biologist Richard Prum, all creatures possess an aesthetic instinct—an instinct and a need for beauty. “The taste for the beautiful is as distinctive [and meaningful] as the need to survive,” writes Brenner. “One of the attributes of the beauty instinct is an inbuilt sense of respect for others.”
But what is beauty and how does one experience it? I devote an entire chapter to this topic in my book “Water Is…”.
There is beauty, writes 18th century aesthetic realist Francis Hutcheson, “in the knowledge of some great principles, or universal forces, from which innumerable effects do flow, such as gravitation, in Sir Isaac Newton’s scheme.” Neither beauty of form nor beauty of idea sufficiently applies to its definition, because beauty is, as we all know, “in the eyes of the beholder.”
In 1942, philosopher of aesthetics Jared Moore described complete beauty as three varieties of harmony combined: (1) objective harmony (i.e., harmony among the elements that make up the “beautiful object” through form, idea and its expression); (2) objective–subjective (i.e., harmony between the beautiful object and the contemplative mind through spiritual and psychophysical [empathetic] means); and (3) psychological (i.e., its meaning). Moore writes that complete aesthetic harmony—expressed by psychological or purely subjective harmony—is achieved only when the first two harmonies are attained. He describes this complete sense of harmony as “a sense of pleasure” which not merely adds itself to the sense of beauty, but “enters into and becomes a part of it.” This “inner harmony” brings the personality into a state of “unity and self-completeness.” A unity of the subjective, not only with the object, but with itself.
British artist and educator John Lane, author of Timeless Beauty, describes beauty this way:
“Although the complexities of both nature and beauty have a subtle mathematical basis, reason by itself cannot tell us why beauty exists nor what is beautiful … There is often something spontaneous, even ‘illogical’ about these emotions; like love, they can never be predetermined, let alone dictated. But neither can the otherwise and splendid things which are most significant in human life, to which the greatest of the human race have contributed most, and in which our real refreshment consists—the love of truth, the sources of inspiration and the production of great works of art.”
“These, like beauty,” says Lane, “ultimately pertain to the unconscious, the heart and the soul. They pertain to the heart because it is love which discerns the mystery inherent in those things we see as beautiful; love which abandons arrogance and stands in awe before the mystery of life. It is love that sees beauty which, in turn, is always loved.”
The Beauty of Place
I grew up in the Eastern Townships, a gently rolling agricultural region in Quebec, Canada. I followed my older brother and sister to the nearby maple-beech forest and local stream. The forest was our playground and gateway to our imaginative play. We stirred soil, flower petals and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions” that we inflicted on some poor insect. Yes, I was a bit destructive as a child—and I took a lot for granted.
Much later in life, when I gave birth to my son, Kevin, in Vancouver, BC, I felt a miracle pass through me. Kevin became my doorway back to wonder. His curiosity was boundless and lured me into a special world of transformation. Kevin and I often explored the little woodland near our house. We made “magic potions” out of nightshade flowers, fir needles, loam and moss; we fueled our concoctions with the elixir of water from a stagnant pool. This time the little insects weren’t molested.
Being with my young son slowed my world and returned to me a great sense of wonder. A walk to the little store with young Kevin was an expedition. He’d amble, explore, poke, then suddenly squat and study something on the pavement that I’d missed.
He brought me back to the ground, to the extra-ordinary mundane—to the quiet details and the fragrant light. Acting like a macro lens, he pointed me to the little things, Nature’s nuanced designs that I’d forgotten in the larger paradigms of my hurried life.
He brought me back to the immediate, to Nature’s elegant silence and beauty. He showed me the fractal wonders of tree branches, exploding seeds, glorious reflections in puddles, strange mud waves and odd moss-covered rocks. We crouched in halted silence to watch a bee feast from a flower’s nectar then launch itself—a dirigible laden with pollen—into the sky. We followed the brilliant Fibonacci spiral of a sunflower or the circular gossamer web of a spider, both mimicking the greater spiral of our own Milky Way Galaxy. We stuck our tongues out to taste the snow as it cascaded down in heaps or caught hexagonal snowflakes on our sleeves and sadly watched them melt. We stomped in road puddles or threw rocks and watched the circles of waves feed outward, changing the colour and texture of everything. We collected flotsam in nebulous forest pools and made magical potions. We wrote stories in the ocean sand, then leapt from dry rock to dry rock until the sea trapped us in its rushing embrace.
My adult son still carries that sense of wonder for the natural world. He lives in British Columbia where he skis the mountains and frequently hikes the mountain foothills and old-growth forests of that beautiful province.
In her 2003 foreword to John Lane’s book Timeless Beauty, Kathleen Raine writes, “Of Plato’s three verities, the Good, the True and the Beautiful, none can be understood in terms of the materialist values of modern Western civilization, and beauty least of all.” She adds, “Keats saw [beauty] as the highest value—because its reality can be known only to the soul … If beauty is the highest of Plato’s verities this is because it is in accordance with our nature: Plato did not invent that need. And did not Dostoevsky in The Idiot affirm his believe that the world can be saved only by beauty? We disregard and undervalue the beautiful at our peril.”
Parts of this article are excerpted from “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.”
Aristotle. 350 BCE (1984). “The Poetics” and “Metaphysics.” In: “The Complete Works: The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. 1. Bollingen/ Princeton University Press, N.J. 2512 pp.
Birkhoff, George David. 1933. “Aesthetic Measure.” Harvard University Press. 225 pp.
Hutcheson, Francis. 1725 (2004). “An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.” In: Wolfgang Leidhold (ed) Indianapois: Liberty Fund.
Lane, John. 2003 “Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life.” UIT Cambridge Ltd, , UK. 192 pp.
Livio, Mario. 2005. “The Equation that Couldn’t Be Solved.” Simon & Schuster. 368 pp.
Moore, Jared S. 1942. “Beauty as Harmony.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 2(7): 40–50.
Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.
Newton, Eric. 1950. “The Meaning of Beauty.” Whittlesey House. 207 pp.
Puffer, Ethel. 1905. “Psychology of Beauty.” Houghton, Mifflin & Co., NY. 156 pp.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.