Far afield

My desire has been to wander, but my inclination does tend toward staying at home. One reaches a point in one’s life, however, at which wandering will shortly become more challenging than it was in youth. Also, it gets far too easy to stay comfortably within one’s zone of familiarity, which limits transitions and other difficult things.

Recently, I went far away, found myself (among other interesting places) in a field and happily fell into familiar behaviors I follow at home. In this case, scoping out the local flora and minor fauna in the hills in July.

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We were touring a small region of a small but extremely varied country: Portugal. The field featured small lizards that were so quick I couldn’t photograph them; dozens of types of wildflowers and grasses and their assorted tiny pollinators; robins, black redstarts, kestrels, and other birds I couldn’t identify. I am pretty sure we saw a hoopoe, which for me is exciting, though I expect it is not uncommon in Portugal.

As a humanities geek who loves Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, I love the old cities; and the sea’s appeal abides, but the mountain regions appeal to the introverted gardener and naturalist in me. I was pleased with the quiet, with the pure air and blue sky, the twisting roads, the small farms. Most of all I was pleased to find so many plants and pollinating creatures in the field next to where we stayed for two nights, not far from the Peneda-Gerês National Park.

Some of these flower photos feature at least one bee or wasp or beetle-y thing. Below, a common sight on the mountains: heather, flourishing as well as it does in the British moors. Not much rain, but many misty mornings, even in July.

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This region is wind farm country. There are large, electricity-generating windmills atop much of the range, and quite a few of the many small rivers are dammed to create electric power and places to fish and swim. There’s certainly very little air pollution up in the hills…I have visited few places so pristine.

More little critters among the field flowers. Easy to overlook, despite how vivid these photos may appear.

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Nice to dwell, if only for awhile, in a place that offers a beautiful change of perspective.

Aesthetic values

Today, the weather was beautiful; the trees, early-greening, and the gold tassels of oaks shimmering in the sun, and the cherry and dogwood blossoms: beautiful.

I think about how we value beauty. And maybe do not know what it is–or recognize its many forms–as it is, by its nature, subjective.Liz MZ

A friend I knew was physically beautiful. Or was that mostly her generosity and cheerfulness, her sparkling eyes? She had specific aesthetic tastes she followed with delight; but she remained practical, full of humor. Today, there was a poetry reading in commemoration of her life.

A beautiful day, a beautiful event, a beautiful friend.

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The aged best-beloved who recently departed was also a person who had particular ideas about beauty. She cultivated flowers, liked certain artists, wanted her rooms decorated just so. She had an expectation that she could control her death, too–she wanted it, also, to be beautiful.

She was, I fear, thwarted in that desire.

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My brother the amateur science historian has taken it upon himself to defend the reputation of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a late-Enlightenment scientist best known in the 20th century for coining the term “Caucasian” (though there is some dispute about the neologism). An overview can be found here, but my brother’s argument hinges upon the way the word “beauty” was defined in 18th-century Germany and the ways Blumenbach employed it in Latin in his 1795 masterwork, De generis humani varietate nativa (3rd ed).

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What do we mean by beauty? Must the meaning hinge upon perspective and culture?

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There are tumors in the body of the beloved. The surgeon, with his amazing equipment that can take photographs deep inside the tubes and organs of a human being and his unimaginably small and precise surgical tools, shows me “before and after” images.

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His enthusiasm enlivens his description of the surgery: Look at these tumors–unusual, hardly see these and I’ve been at this thirty years–but afterwards, very clean. Look here–no sign. Went very well. Beautiful!

Beautiful?

Does he mean the tumors, or his surgical work? In either case–would I define this as beautiful?

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And a colleague who has had major surgery does a close reading of the (“rather horrifying”) fluoroscopes from the operation and in them finds something beautiful. Something she can create her own art from. Because what the surgeon accomplished was to her mind art; and art is beautiful, though often in a way that isn’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing as, say, a lilac in bloom is pleasing.

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Does it matter–should it–that something is ‘beautiful’ ?

I am asking but I do not expect to find an answer, myself.

 

 

Nesting

When I go out of doors on a splendid day, I keep finding things to observe and tasks to do–before long, I realize I have spent more time than I intended (and indoor tasks are calling). Today’s yardwork entailed cutting back weed brush and vines before the trees and shrubs leaf. It can be challenging, as it requires the intrepid gardener to crawl into the woodlot and under the large pines and tamarack to yank loose entwined wild grape, Asiatic rose, elderberry, blackberry, and poison ivy stems, there in the tangled vitality of plants-that-thrive-where-I-don’t-want-them.

The mourning doves kept me company with their coos, and small birds busily checked out the birdhouses in the meadow. Soon it will be nesting time (already is, for the owls).

Always, when I cut brush, I find last year’s nests. Look at this one:

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A bird made this! Probably an oriole. It is a sweet little bag woven or knitted without any tools but the animal’s own body. Beak and feet, saliva, and the nestling body rounding out the basket within.

Here, you can see the interior of the nest; I folded back the strong but delicately-woven sack and the interior nest is visible.

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I was a little surprised at how well the bird-made mesh held up as I handled it. It is really resilient–those birds know what they’re doing!

Here is a more detailed photo of the little nest-basket inside of the sack:

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The process of gardening heals me in so many ways. I sense the need to write poetry again, and I get the urge to tidy up the landscape and prep the vegetable patch. Things will return to themselves in their own time and their own ways. The birds return. The flowers return. My own nest needs attention, and the energy for that attention will also return.

Give it time.

In this photo, the shadow on the right shows how porous the nest’s weave is, almost like macrame. It seems like a miracle to me. And so beautiful.

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Moment for beauty

Bill Lantry over at Peacock Journal has been endeavoring to continue our appreciation for the beautiful. I’m pleased that the editors chose three of my poems for the journal, which is a rotating online site, well-archived, and quite lovely.

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Dirk Van Nouhuys–photo

Here are the poems:

Peacock Journal–Ann E. Michael poems

Please explore the site further. Yours, in beauty.

Negotiating the storm

I have lived and driven vehicles in regions that receive a great deal of snow, but it has been awhile–and I am not as spry as I once was–and I don’t even own a pair of cross-country skis anymore (a favorite winter activity). Being responsible for keeping a house and property and cars and pets maintained while the ice comes down and the snow piles up and the heat stops working and the power goes off has also somewhat dampened my enthusiasm for snowy winters. Plowing and shoveling are no substitute for XC skiing, and harder on the back. Worries about possible frozen pipes or whether the oil truck can get down the driveway (which resembles a bobsled run) shove more leisurely, more inspired thinking out of mind.

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Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the beauty of fields and trees in snow or branches rimmed with ice or–as tonight–the cold, bright moon above the cold, white earth. I remind myself that snow is the best mulch. I think of the crocus and narcissus bulbs snug and dormant below the deep drifts. The house we built does its job of upholding us and protecting us. The house, wearing its white hat…

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A poem from 2007, an experiment in sapphics, that seems appropriate.

Negotiating the Storm

Dawn. I curl away from the ice storm toward you,
your breath cools my face and my hair, the warm room;
Love, we’ve had too few of these moments lately—
other storms plague us.

Ice assaults the windows with droves of needles,
gusts shove over pines and flatten the birches.
I am glad for the weather’s impersonal aspect:
nothing to blame there.

Sleep. The sleet does not suffer indecision.
You don’t have to touch me, just breathing is plenty.
Walls and roof are stolidly doing their jobs,
power is on yet.

Let’s recuse ourselves from the task of judging
guilt or merits the past twelve moths have garnered,
forge a drowsy peace between us and also the
guileless brute outside.

~

© 2007 Ann E. Michael

Sublime beauty

In his book Survival of the Beautiful, David Rothenberg says perhaps it was the evolution of an abstract aesthetics in art (abstract work as beautiful) that enabled human beings to begin to see natural things as beautiful in themselves–as opposed to the Romantic view that human yearning and elevated sensibility could best be encountered while experiencing Nature or Classicist ideas that found natural things corrupt and irregular, in need of perfection into better-proportioned objectification. In History of Beauty, Eco allows the Romantics their view of the sublime but says that in the late 17th c “the Sublime established itself in an entirely original way, because it concerns the way we feel about nature, and not art.” His text offers the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich as an excellent example, paintings that depict people as observers of the Sublime:

The people are portrayed from behind, in such a way that we must not look at them, but through them, putting ourselves in their place, seeing what they see and sharing their feeling of being negligible elements in the great spectacle of nature…more than portraying nature in a moment of sublimity, the painter has tried to portray (with our collaboration) what we feel on experiencing the Sublime.

I love the idea Eco parenthetically notes here: with the viewer’s collaboration. These paintings permit us to enter into the experience as the great preponderance of the artistic canon did not. Some critics suggest the environmental “movement” (in the USA, at least) owes its lineage to Leopold via Thoreau through Darwin, Wordsworth, and the German Romantics.

Friedrich’s work tends a bit over the top for my personal tastes, but I do think some of his best work (notably The Wanderer above the Mists, Woman on the Beach of Rugen, Moonrise by the Sea) does exemplify a sense I have experienced myself in natural surroundings when I feel myself a “negligible element” amid the remarkable scope of the cosmos and the world.

In the USA, at about the same time as the German Romantics, the paintings of the Hudson River school evoke some of the same sense of nature-as-sublime. (Frankly, I prefer Thomas Cole to Friedrich.)

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This, too:

“The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm…while it is not actually pleasure…”   Friedrich von Schiller, On the Sublime (tr. Alastair McEwen)

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“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I am pretty sure W.H. Auden said that. Which, by the way, gets us into the territory of the Sublime as described by Schiller.

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In Japan, in the 17th century, Matsuo Basho composed haiku, some of which demonstrate the sense of the Sublime (without being Romantic at all)–i.e. that sense of rapture tinged with the shudder of grief or the feeling of awareness of one’s negligibility:

A wild sea-
in the distance over Sado
the Milky Way.

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I stand on my back porch; I am small and negligible, the sky is large and Sublime.

Abstraction, evolution, & sky-beauty

I awakened this morning to a sunrise of surpassing beauty. As I drove to work, I remembered that the first poems I recall ever writing were about the wind and about dawn–perhaps I wrote other poems as a child, but these two are the only ones I remember: poems that celebrated something I found lovely in nature.

After the vivid morning sky, we had a day of rain; and on my commute home, a compelling sunset bookended the working day. I call these skies “beautiful” and would definitely regard my experience of looking at them as aesthetic.

And yet, it’s only the sky, some clouds, the sun, phenomena that science has explained. What makes it beautiful?

photo: Beejay Grob

photo: Beejay Grob (North Carolina coastal sky)

David Rothenberg’s 2011 book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution has accompanied me for the past week; I have been reading it when I can find time to read and to cogitate. Rothenberg speaks directly to the question of what makes us experience beauty, whether beauty is a human-only construct, and from where the qualities of aesthetic experience arise. He explores among other things whether beauty (especially in the form of art) evolved along with us, what makes it timeless (if it is indeed timeless), and whether our grounding in nature as earthly beings formed the grounding for what we deem beautiful.

And he considers symmetry and biology and abstract art and math and music. There’s quite a good deal of synthesis and speculation going on in this book.

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Rothenberg writes that he is interested in whether humans’ developing education in abstractions–concepts and abstract arts–might produce an outcome that increases our appreciation of things in nature and the cosmos. He writes:

It might seem this century has freed us from interest in any kind of constricting form or function in art, but I want to test out a different theory: that abstraction in the arts has made us find more possible beauty in the natural world…as art exalts pure form and shape, the laws of symmetry and chaos found in mathematics and science seem ever more directly inspirational. Aesthetically, we become more prepared to see beauty where before we saw only the clues of beauty, its glimmers or possibilities…our minds are more attentive to an abstract kind of beauty that we can discover but not necessarily build or create.

It takes him several chapters to braid together the many strings of his interdisciplinary inquiries; but the upshot is that while I feel he does not answer the questions he begins with, he does deepen the reader’s thought process about art, beauty, and the evolution of ideas as well as of organisms. He says the interesting discussion lies not with what is or is not art, nor how to evaluate the individual merit of works, but rather “how artistic expression changes how we think in ways only art can accomplish.”

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In light of Rothenberg’s musings on how natural-feeling abstract art can be, here are some examples: Barlow, Ellis, (contemporary) and Klee (modern).

Rothenberg concludes with some ambiguity about aesthetics and evolution, which suits his book-length and life-long explorations on the interweavings of these ideas; but he adds with certainty that “[b]iology is not here to explain away all that we love in terms of the practical and rational. That is not how nature works. Nor should we shrink from our natural astonishment at the magnificence evolution has produced.”

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He mentions John Cage’s work and approach to composing, and I think Cage’s main point in so much of his work is getting us to listen, to see, getting us to be attentive. Viz Rothenberg’s words quoted above, maybe an integration of abstraction does open us to be more attentive to the beauty that exists in the world without any artist making it. We could not, in the past, have appreciated the fractal values of river deltas viewed from airplanes; and perhaps only natural (or trained) artists noticed how the twigs of a tree reiterate the shapes, angles, and curves of the branches, boughs, sometimes even bark. Now we know about Mandelbrot sets and fractal geometry, and those abstractions can generate beautiful patterns. Now we know the Fibonacci sequence of numbers–an abstraction–appears in snail shells and sunflower seed-heads.

We do not have to be mathematicians, chemists, art critics, environmental scientists, physicists, sculptors, violinists, composers, dancers, college professors or biologists to recognize patterns and symmetries, or to find that slight variations in the pattern enhance the experience through the kind of surprise and delight that I discover in great poems.

We just have to be attentive.

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