My daughter and I decided to hike the scorched hills behind our house on Thanksgiving Eve to get a firsthand look at the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, and we witnessed the vast expanse of earth charred to smoldering nothingness. It was breathtaking, and I’m not even talking about air quality. Imagine strolling through a gigantic ashtray with a spectacular mountain view of the sun dropping into the Pacific Ocean and that pretty much captures the scene.
It had been an indescribable couple of weeks with one difficult to comprehend event stacked on top of another. Our daughter had not planned to visit for Thanksgiving, but the dramatic events at home led to a change of plans. That we were there together, standing on a mountain with a spectacular ocean view, surveying such immense devastation just steps above our house was more than a little surreal.
Standing there I realized on Thanksgiving Eve that I had much for which to be thankful. Friends and family. Life and love. Work and community. Health and safety. Even that moment. An unforgettable moment.
We walked back off of the mountain and returned home with that slight feeling of exhilaration that comes when you realize that you have just witnessed something special.
Later, looking out at that mountain ridge that from our window is the color of dark-roasted coffee grounds, it dawned on me that things look very different from the top of the mountain than they do just a few steps down here below. The perspective changes everything.
Sometimes it is a pretty comforting thing to realize that somewhere up above things look significantly different.
My great privilege occurred to me as we raced along the bumpy roads of the Maasai Mara. The tans, browns, and yellows of the passing landscape waved our direction and the unspoiled breeze blasted our faces as we stood and braced for the ride of a lifetime. There are many in the world whose primary dream is an African safari, and in a moment it occurred to me that I have now been twice. What a humbling thought.
The hunt for rare sightings was exhilarating, and the sensation of racing through the Kenyan wonderland defies description, but the animals themselves are the superstars. Of course I snapped pictures. The lioness and her cubs. The curious giraffe. The lumbering elephant. The lazy leopard. The stalking cheetah. The ridiculous ostrich. The enormous hippopotamus. But every so often I remembered to put the camera away and simply be present in the wild with the magnificent creatures. It was in those moments that I discovered an unforced smile and a childlike sense of joy and wonder.
The sun set on the Mara at the end of our first game drive, and our driver stopped so we could behold the glory. From our vantage point the flaming ball of fire descended through an iconic acacia tree as we furiously snapped pictures as if we could ever forget. Yes, the animals are the stars of the safari, but the sunset stole the show.
Nature. That’s the word we use to describe the indescribable reality of that which is beyond human production. We create platforms to simply to stand as humble spectators and observe the magnificent world that we did nothing to create. Such primal beauty is difficult to see and even more difficult to comprehend immersed in what we call civilization. But I was privileged to catch a glimpse as the sun set on the Mara.
“Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am embarrassed to admit that I avoided art appreciation in college because it just sounded terrible. While we are all naturally drawn to beauty, some of us are raised to find that hard to admit or believe or even notice. The creation of beauty (as Emerson defined art) was not my native language, and it has taken me years to recognize that my reticence to embrace an appreciation of beauty is the real terrible.
So I am making up for lost time.
Last week my wife and I gorged ourselves on beauty with a trip through stunning Arizona. At one moment we were rocketing through the searing desert in our air-conditioned car in silent admiration of the towering cactuses (saguaros) standing proudly against the otherwise nothingness. At another we are winding our way to otherworldly Sedona where the colossal Red Rocks attract their spiritual disciples—and we were speechless in our reverence. And then we climbed to higher elevations where the ponderosa pines seemed to appear out of nowhere and made us wonder if we had been magically transported to Colorado, especially when we saw the summer snow high on the San Francisco Peaks. Oh and there was this little place called the Grand Canyon up there, too. Breathtaking is no hyperbole.
We were determined to watch the sunset at the Grand Canyon, and it was a good decision. We arrived about an hour early—the magic hour—and found a point just west of Mather Point to watch the sunlight play off the canyon walls and witness the beauty for which no human being can claim credit. Words and pictures all fail. The sandy browns and the sleepy blues and the flashy reds and oranges undulated across the vast expanse like a wave of exploding fireworks in extreme slow motion.
I would love to say that it was unforgettable, but I know myself too well to say such a thing. I still have the ability to dismiss the grand spectacle of nature and revert to seeing beauty merely in utilitarian terms. That is my particular training, and I am nothing if not a good student.
Utilitarian Me asks what good watching something like a plant or a tree or a big rock or a ravine or a sunset does for me. Utilitarian Me can be a pain in the butt and doesn’t always deserve a response. But I will give in this time and respond with a quote from Kafka: “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
I feel younger already.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged appreciation, arizona, art, beauty, cactus, desert, emerson, grand canyon, mather point, ponderosa pines, red rocks, saguaro, sedona, sunset