The World’s Unbearable Beauty
I find myself looking up at the sky more these days. I’m lucky. I live in two places that have the most amazing skies, New Orleans and Saint Simons Island. And even in the midst of these pandemic days, both are open for business 24/7.
Tennessee Williams once remarked on the uniqueness of the skies in New Orleans. He said there is something about the topography of the city, the way it lies low beside the water, that makes the sky feel so close you could reach up and touch it. I’ve felt that. Sitting on the front gallery of the old house I live in uptown, those ragged palm trees leaning river-ward just beyond the front stoop, the clouds drifting up from the Gulf on a languid slip of air.
The island also displays a startling variety of clouds. The sunrises and sunsets look like they are produced by an artist with an unspeakable gift for color. In the evening, especially this time of year, the sky might turn from cerulean blue to slate one day, from cobalt to yellow another. And the mare’s tails demonstrate in their continual swirls and lifts and turns that God is an Impressionist of the School of the Later Monet.
Emerson, in his magnificent essay, “Nature,” writes: “These enchantments are medicinal, they sober and heal us.”
Indeed they do. Or, can. If, that is, we will let them.
In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, the British journalist Michael McCarthy speaks of the healing power of the natural world. McCarthy says that we humans may have “left the natural world, but the natural world has not left us.” To make his point, he observes that the birth of what we recognize as civilization was only five hundred generations ago with the advent of farming. Contrast that with the fact that for the preceding 50,000 generations we were “wild life.” (My mind cannot but think of that earliest human story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which places these two “humanities,” the wild man and the civilized side-by-side.)
The natural world is our natural habitat. Even when we are not immersed in it, it inhabits us. Which may explain why even the marrow of our bones yearn for a breath of forest air, with its luxurious spices; the touch of ocean water, which forms the liquid core of our blood; the distant purple vistas of a sun-charged dawn from the side of a mountain. We are natural beings, animals, in need of solace; deep inevitably must call to deep.
When Debbie and I lived in Kentucky, I regularly retreated at the Gethsemani Abbey. In addition to silence, and solitude, and a rich liturgy of prayer from sunup to sundown, what I found there was what Jack Kornfield has called, “the world’s unbearable beauty.”
The Abbey is ringed by a communion of hills, some of which are those strange hillocks known in that region as knobs. Whenever the weather permitted, I would go for long, long walks up into the knobs high above the Abbey to find places where I could hear the forest breath and speak its peculiar language.
The forest does breathe. When you stand still or sit on a stump or rock, when you allow your own self to quiet down within, gradually you become attuned to its respiration. Sometimes only sighs can be heard, but sometimes the forest gulps deep breaths in and out. The heads of tall pines genuflect to nature’s windy prayers. And the forest intones its intentions through the chatter of small animals and the stirring of larger ones, as every branch and bush teems with life.
The joy I felt in those visits, could bring me to tears, which recasts the remaining words in Jack Kornfield’s memorable phrase: “the world’s unbearable beauty … and ocean of tears.”
Happiness is wonderful, but why would we settle for happiness when joy is what we really need?
A band aid and an aspirin will help us get through the morning assault, but why settle for first aid when what we require is healing?
Even the most urban humans in our country, the denizens of the Big Apple live their lives around the heart of a great park. And it is a sad New Yorker, indeed, who has not made friends with the great city’s inner wildness. And we, the people of New Orleans, have two of the greatest parks in the world within steps of many of our doors. They await. And the solace they can provide is beyond words. As is also the solace of the sky and the river and the sea.
But it is not too much to say that our souls also long to look upon and to walk within those wilder places, the depths of which call to us, offering restoration and wholeness. Their “enchantments,” again, as Emerson said, “are medicinal, they sober and heal us.”
Fall in the forest above Gethsemani Abbey