Shared vision: The quest for beauty has deep roots
Remember the story of “The Red Shoes,” where the girl cannot stop dancing? These past several days have been like that, except with clippers and a saw.
I’ve been gripped by this obsession for a week now: Arising at dawn, I suit up in boots and denim, douse myself with tick spray, and head out to the jungle.
The gnarled, woody, mountain laurel has grown higher than my head; young oaks, maples, and thorny vines are all around, and I hack away at them with a hand saw for the big stuff and a two-handled lopper for the small stuff.
The object of my obsession is a hillside that slopes down to a man-made pond, a pond I try not to fall into. It’s hard to see what’s underfoot, and I say, out loud at regular intervals, a thank you to any copperheads or black snakes for staying out of my way.
Within minutes of starting up each day, sweat pours off me, stings my eyes, and my hands and arms ache from forcing together those long lopper handles. My legs are covered in bruises from unyielding branches and stumps, and I dream about ticks.
Every day, I head back to the house, soaked in sweat, and swear I’m done, that this is good enough. And every morning, the itch to don those red shoes again— to hack away at the jungle— returns, and off I go.
We’ve lived in this house for exactly 20 years. My husband and I fell in love with this particular spot because of the lovely one-acre pond next to the house and the views of the foothills in the summer and the Blue Ridge in the winter.
From the comfort of our home, we could see the water, a mountain or two, and our long driveway threading past the pond and up a hill. Beautiful.
But as the years have passed, I’ve neglected to maintain what I liked best about this place. Inch by inch, the bushes have crept upward. The pine, oak, and maple branches have spread outward, and a green wall has obscured the landscape that was so curiously pleasing, swallowing first the Blue Ridge, then the foothills, and finally, the pond.
Alert readers of the Hook will recall my despair regarding our neighbors planting trees intended to screen expansive mountain views from passersby on the street. I can’t control what other people do with their property, but I can buckle down and maintain what I’ve got.
Today, with muscles sore from the exertion of this morning’s efforts, I’m blissed out, cradled in the porch swing— safe from snakes and ticks— and listening to the radio.
And in one of life’s amazing coincidences, as I’m surveying the newly visible sections of our pond (featuring a pair of huge turtles floating just below the surface) a philosopher holds forth on The TED Radio Hour on NPR and appears to be addressing me directly, informing me that the source of my brush-clearing obsession lies deep in my DNA. It lies in our DNA— our pre-human heritage.
Philosopher Denis Dutton is the speaker. He’s the author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, in which he posits that we human beings are hard-wired to seek beauty.
According to Dutton, the features of the Pleistocene savannas in which humans evolved are the same features that characterize a particular landscape that people all over the world consider beautiful. This preference holds, amazingly enough, even in countries that don’t have such landscapes.
Dutton says that the characteristics of this pleasing scene are:
• Open spaces of low grasses interspersed with clusters of trees. Especially trees with low forks to provide shelter.
• Presence of water directly in view.
• Indications of animal or bird life.
• Diverse greenery.
• A path, road, riverbank or shoreline that extends into the distance.
Well, how about that? The landscape that I’m laboring to restore (with the water, open spaces, small groups of trees, animals to watch, even the driveway winding up a farther hillside) has all the elements of the ideal savanna landscape, which, Dutton believes, “…is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.”
It’s a place where our mammalian ancestors could monitor the approach of predators, and find food, water, and shelter. And there was a clear way out, an invitation to explore.
I haven’t finished this project. A green curtain still obscures part of the pond, and I can’t see the driveway yet. (To restore our mountain view would require chainsaw proficiency that I do not possess.)
But I’ll continue to hack away, taking strength from Professor Dutton’s theory that my quest for beauty such as this has deeper roots than any mountain laurel or oak that comes between me and the ideal savanna landscape.
And, in truth, I owe a debt of gratitude to my mountain-view-obscuring neighbors for turning my attention to the beauty I have right here in my own backyard.
Janis Jaquith lives in Free Union, and is the author of the Kindle eBook Birdseed Cookies: A Fractured Memoir, a collection of radio commentaries she has broadcast on NPR stations.Read more on: janis jaquith