Beauty and the beast

Graceful living in itself is a noble art: slovenly and neglectful of such things as I tend to be, I am full of admiration for those who can consistently convert the spaces where they live and work into places where the mind is engaged and delighted at every turn. I think of the descriptions I have read of Neruda’s house on Isla Negra, full of charismatic objects from a lifetime of collecting, the rafters covered with inscriptions from his many visitors. Somewhere he had acquired a taxidermist’s mount of an entire horse, and he set it right in the middle of the largest room – an example of flagrantly bad taste that never failed to appall visitors from Venezuela, he said in his memoirs. But given their national obsession with so-called beauty contests, I can’t help wondering: what the hell do Venezuelans know about beauty?

“I want a city of my own,” my friend L. said yesterday. She had been dreaming of a large barn that she could clean up and convert into an artist’s workshop. The point, as I understand it, is not to aspire to some sort of static perfection a la Martha Stewart, but to discover or create a space where one’s mood might shift with the movement of light across the walls and floor, a place hospitable to the mind’s eye. To have all the tools one needs, and nothing between one’s impulse to design and build and its realization. To move alone through such a space – and thereby, perhaps, to conquer loneliness?

. . . oh rosa seperada
del tronco del rosal despedazado
que la profundidad convertió en archipiélago,
oh estralla natural, diadema verde,
sola en tu solitaria dinastía . . .
(Pablo Neruda, La Rosa Seperada)

A city of my own: I think first of William Carlos Williams’ masterpiece Paterson, in which the river, the waterfall and the city of Paterson, New Jersey are merged into one, anthropomorphic being – the poet’s alter ego. But I had been thinking of Paterson anyway, as I hiked quickly through the ravines at Rickett’s Glen yesterday, a spot famous for its 22 spectacular waterfalls among the towering hemlocks and pines of an old-growth forest. For all his repetition of the maxim “No ideas but in things,” in all of the 250-odd pages of Paterson, does Williams ever once manage to convey any concrete impression of what the falls look, sound, smell and taste like? Do they ever rise above the level of self-consciously created myth and modernist symbol? Like the unicorn in the medieval tapestry that the poet invokes toward the end of the book, the Paterson Falls seem more of an object we are meant to admire than any real presence that might engage our senses. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti noted in a recent interview, shouldn’t we really be saying “No ideas but in beings“?

The sun
winding the yellow bindweed about a
bush; worms and gnats, life under a stone.
The pitiful snake with its mosaic skin
and frantic tongue. The horse, the bull
the whole din of fracturing thought
as it falls tinnily to nothing upon the streets
and the absurd dignity of a locomotive
hauling freight —
(William Carlos Williams, Paterson)

A city of one’s own: the parallel with the title of Virginia Woolf’s famous book got me thinking about the extent to which women might be able to achieve this quintessential male fantasy of the private workshop – the garage, basement or barn converted into just such a sanctum as my friend dreams about. Aside from artists, I wonder how many women do harbor dreams of this sort? For my mother, the woods and meadows of the square mile of mountaintop land she owns jointly with my father seem to be domain enough. Her 33-year engagement with this land has been both passionate and creative, yielding a stream of essays, articles and books. She frequently laments the absence of any interest in Nature among other women her age (mid 60s); most of her friends are younger.

A wind blew, from what quarter I knew not, but it lifted the half-grown leaves so there was a flash of silver-gray in the air. It was the time between the lights when the colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in windowpanes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish (here I pushed into the garden, for, unwisely, the door was left open and no beadles seemed about), the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.
(Virginia Woolf, a Room of One’s Own)

If the behavior of small children is any guide, curiosity toward the natural world is inborn. So I can only suppose that women’s feeling of alienation from Nature is a result of internalized social norms and values, such as the perception of the outside as dirty, messy and – above all, perhaps – dangerous. But might the success of this conditioning derive in part from the very impulse to feel at home in the world? Given proper knowledge and appreciation of the natural world, there’s no reason why girls as well as boys can’t grow up with a finely honed appreciation of that which resists our attempts to neaten up and exert control.

. . . Had I lived in rural England before the nineteenth century, I might have gone out on St. John’s Eve (June 24) in search of fern seed, especially those of bracken. I would also have carried along twelve pewter plates. Under the first bracken I could find, I would have stacked the twelve plates and waited until midnight. At that time, it was believed, the invisible fern seeds would pass through the first eleven plates and land on the twelfth.

The twelfth plate’s seeds would confer magical powers on me. I, too, would be invisible. Even better, I would understand the language of wild animals.
(Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Summer)

I began by talking about “graceful living”: to me, this implies above all a sense of balance and harmony. Artists and naturalists alike can teach us how to recognize the grace that already suffuses the world without our intervention. Between the garden and the wilderness, it seems to me, we need not erect a barrier as stark as the ring of fencing that encloses the unicorn in the tapestry. But if we value our sanity, we must resist the impulse to civilize and manage every square inch of the back forty. Here’s a poem by Wendell Berry that frames the challenge as succinctly and eloquently as anything I’ve ever read.

To the Unseeable Animal

My daughter: “I hope there’s an animal
somewhere that nobody has ever seen.
And I hope nobody ever sees it.”

Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they are dark and the foxes
have crept to their edges.
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods’ shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have walked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do no know you
is your perfection
and our hope. The darkness
keeps us near you.

(Wendell Berry, Farming: A Handbook)


I see from Google that at least one individual claims that the aforementioned Rickett’s Glen harbors just such an unseen animal: the Rickett’s Glen Sasquatch.

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