“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach: it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need—if only we had eyes to see.” Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968
Just last week, I asked an old friend, “Whatever happened to beauty?”
She smiled quietly. “Beauty is still here. It’s all around us—if only we had the eyes to see.”
I didn’t intend to write about Edward Abbey, but his words struck a deep chord. He was a writer, environmentalist, sometime anarchist. He was certainly was no angel: Abbey took controversial anti-immigrant positions, was accused of being a racist and an eco-terrorist, and unapologetically married five different women. (He once described the “domestic routine” as “…same old wife every night.”)
But it’s hard to dismiss a certified individualist who gives clear instructions on “How to Overthrow the System.” To wit: “Brew your own beer, kick in your TeeVee, kill your own beef, build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.”
His lament for our endangered earth—if only we had the eyes to see—goes right to the heart of a new project we’ve created. It’s called Beauty Reignited. Quite simply it aims to open our eyes—indeed, all our senses—to the universe of beauty that is everywhere around us, but is invisible to our dulled spirits.
The question we may ask, of course, but never completely answer is, “What is beauty?”
The poet John Keats famously said, “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’–that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Dictionary definitions are less lofty. Merriam-Webster calls it “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” On the Huffington Post, Lexi Herrick says real beauty is nothing more, or less, than “happiness.”
With apologies to Keats, I think that Webster and Herrick are actually on the right track. At its best, beauty in any form—a magnificent night sky peppered with bright stars, the subtle taste of rose petals in fresh fig jam, the spine-tingling notes of Puccini’s aria Nessun Dorma (especially as sung by the late Luciano Pavarotti)—simply takes our breath away. It stirs the emotions, melts the hardest of hearts, brings life back to our benumbed senses.
Beauty awakens us to life’s possibilities by calling to our better natures. It cultivates a sense of wonder.
As a project, Beauty Reignited takes a stand against the ugliness—real and metaphorical—that is running amok throughout the world. As a practice, it pulls us out of the information silos we choose to live in. It softens our hard edges, letting us escape the deadening effect of 24-7 news cycles and social media firestorms.
In an op-ed for The New York Times, Pico Iyer tells a delicious story to illustrate the pitfalls of our digital culture. Visiting an unnamed campus, he was invited to dine at a professor’s home. To do some advance research, he googled his host. He quickly found himself on a website, RateMyTeachers.com. There he “learned” that the professor was “arrogant, ignorant, cruel and even sadistic.”
“I went to my host’s house on guard—and hardly knew what to do with the kindly, courteous and really fun man who stood in front of me. He no doubt wondered why I was being so standoffish and reserved. Or maybe he’d come across reviews of me online and knew already that I’m arrogant, ignorant and cruel.” Only later did Iyer suspect that he’d been taken in by a few angry 19-year-olds to whom the professor had given C’s.
The more we know, the less we really know about the important things in life. Beauty can put us back in touch with what matters, especially our connection to the many people with whom we share the planet.
In the coming year, I’ll keep writing SpiceLines, posting about spices, cooking, travel and gardening—all the things I love. But I’ll also be writing about and photographing something else that I’ve come to value: Beauty in all its manifestations–from the natural to the man-made–and how we can bring it into our lives.
Not all of us can travel to the darkest place in the world to see swirling galaxies of brilliant stars undimmed by city lights. But we can all look up, day or night, to the see the infinitely varied, ever changing clouds. We can marvel at a full, low-hanging moon so vast that if looks as if it might engulf the earth—if only we have the eyes to see.
We can thrill to the silent magic of the first snowfall, feel the velvety texture of emerald moss on a stream bank, tingle to the symphonic harmonies of a dozen singing bowls as their vibrations resonate within our bodies, inhale the fragrance of Vietnamese pho simmering on the stove, perfuming the air with scents of star anise and cinnamon—if only we reawaken our senses.
Beauty Reignited—it’s my mantra for 2017.