On Man, Nature and Beauty

The weekend before last, Betty and I ate a sumptuous Sunday supper with our daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Baruch Ellsworth, at The Corson Building in the Georgetown area of Seattle, Washington. After dining we headed back north to our lodging and noticed Mount Rainier, whose bottom was obscured by clouds that made the mountain look like it was suspended in a pink space, the pink coming from the setting sun illuminating the snow covered sides. The majesty of the instant reminded me of all those moments when nature sneaks up and surprises us with the magic of an unforeseen display.

Driving north we looked to the west and the peaks of the Olympic Peninsula jutted up like busted-off teeth, the recent snow only slightly more radiant than the mountain range’s rocky parts, all of it defined by the splayed light of the dying sun. A rose tint cast on the western sides of glassy skyscrapers. The thin clouds overhead captured their own pink tints, so that the night hung with a pregnant beauty created by a mix of season, sunset, snow, rock, and the steel and glass of tall buildings.

Since returning to our home in Boise, the mental image of all those pinks captured in both natural and manmade surfaces has set me to thinking on the nature of beauty in landscape.

I am a creature of the American West, having lived in desert, city, coastal and mountain environs, and have learned to appreciate what the land has to offer. Coastal rips of white and blue waves engulfing craggy rocks populated by black cormorants; fierce-toothed dust storms looming over spiny Sonoran desert mountain ranges; Rocky Mountain meadows and creek banks pocked with purples and reds and yellows of lupine and Indian paintbrush and cinquefoil; acres of high-basin barbwire and sagebrush dusted with an early morning snow; the lacy fingers of ice on the edge of a winter river. And not just nature, but also sunlight jigging in the windows of tall buildings, or the reflection of the spring-green hills in the glass of skyscrapers, the exquisite arc of a bridge over a foamy river…mixtures of man and nature’s creations that generate moments compelling one to mumble, “Aha.”

I suppose that those human/natural creations can be either serendipitous moments of sun and glass and cloud, or something envisioned by an architect or urban planner designing a building, a park, a bridge. Either way, there seems to be beauty in the meeting of land and man.

Granted, sometimes the meeting doesn’t result in something particularly grand, but in something heinous and ugly. I often recall moments of driving down boulevards of towns in the American West when the view of mountains, meadow or canyons has been blocked by cheap buildings, too many catty billboards, street lights, telephone lines, street signs all jumbled, with no thought given to how they may meet the human eye.

When we decide, as humans, to do it ugly, we do it well. Yet it’s not so simple as saying man only creates—through his bad behavior, his greed, his lack of foresight—things that are monstrosities to the eye and our sense of aesthetics. That would be too easy. Sometimes, I think, through his most catastrophic acts, man, in conjunction with nature, does create beauty.

Before I continue, don’t get me wrong, because I despise warfare on the most elemental levels. But as I sat trapped in the Siege of Khe Sanh, 1968, one of the things that rattled me the most was the stark and searing beauty created by war.
Bombarded trees shattered, their stripped limbs backlit by the early morning sun, or caught in stark white-barked contrast to the bomb and artillery shell-hole-pocked red mud landscape and the long spine of rugged jungle-tiered mountains in the distance. Those same tree limbs observed in juxtaposition to the hulls of blasted coffee-plantation houses, the roofs bashed in, the walls half gone, their surviving bricks delicately fingered out into the space left behind when incoming artillery killed all the life inside. Or the jumble of sea bags and ammo boxes with their weird geometrical scatter against the dull green of a shredded Marine Corps tent and the red dirt of the surrounding terrain. The abstract expression existing in the jumble of spent artillery casings and scraps of torn jungle dungarees, a collage it seemed; and a Guernica-like Picasso-esque helmet without a head, a boot close by, no foot inside. Beauty…our horrible beauty.

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