On Reclaiming Beauty

The other day, I was walking in Walla Walla’s Pioneer Park, a beautiful spot with towering evergreens and flower-lined ponds where I’ve done some of my finest rambling of the last few years. On the western edge of the duck pond, a man in a wheelchair struck up a conversation with me: first about the Civilian Conservation Corps workers who built the park by decree of Franklin Roosevelt’s alphabet soup in the thirties, then about my Environmental Humanities degree, and finally, and most animatedly, about his life as a farmer in Nebraska.

I’m not usually good at talking to strangers. I don’t get to know my seatmates on airplanes, I don’t form kinships with people I’m standing in line behind, and if the only other seat in the coffee shop is at a stranger’s table, I’ll just go outside–mostly because I tend to assume people aren’t waiting for me to burst into their lives. Other than the fact that this can be rude and unsettling when unasked for (just ask the way too many women who suffer unwanted attention riding the subway), I’m 22: sure, I have some cool hobbies, I’ve done some cool things and been some interesting places, but the most interesting thing about me is the stuff I’m going to do.

Every now and then, though, I’ve had these mystical experiences where someone bursts into my life and leads me on a whirlwind tour before disappearing as suddenly as they came. The last one was a guy with a cat on the Whitman campus who traded for my $2 bill and got me thinking for the rest of the day about how the Declaration of Independence used to be some random piece of parchment in Thomas Jefferson’s stack. This old man, though, had a story that could put Willa Cather to shame: with only brief detours into his staunch Democratic voting record and the loss of his virginity following a surprisingly erotic tractor ride, he described how he bought, at auction, a plot of land whose previous owner had eroded it into the ground by plowing the wrong direction. Starting with nothing, he was able to repair the soil enough to make a living from the federal soil bank program and retire to Walla Walla.

This man (to my shame, we didn’t exchange names) had a recurring theme in all his stories: that of starting with something worthless and making it into something he found beautiful. It was a concept tied intimately to place–the rocky farm in Nebraska, the derelict house on the land which he made into a home with the schoolmate he reconnected with on the tractor, and the cow pasture which became Pioneer Park all had their beauty reclaimed. At the end of the hour or so we talked, he apologized for detaining me, to which I responded that someone trying to write stories for a living will never be sorry to hear one.

I meant it. His tales helped connect ideas that have come to me from other places before. I talk a lot of my philosophy with two dear friends who come from radically different directions, but have both, in the past, described the wounds that come from modernity leeching the world of beauty.

I wrestled with this for a long time, moving from Wales to Texas: I thought I’d been forced to give up a land saturated with history for a bleached suburb of chain restaurants and overpasses. But a recent insight from Patton Oswalt’s admittedly inconsisent Zombie Spaceship Wasteland suggested that nobody truly begins to leave their hometown until they learn to love it. I learned to imagine in north Austin in a way I don’t think I would have in Wales, simply because the place was doing it for me. That’s how reclaiming beauty works: whether you have a rocky farm or a bleak suburb, you work to make it better, and improve in the working.

The labor for people like me is to create meaning in these places, and of these things, that doesn’t fit into the strictly capitalist reasons they were created. I spent a lot of time wandering the back streets and lots of my Texas neighborhood, ranging as far as I could go by foot or bike. I held conversations with a bridge, a friend I still visit today. I read for hours in the ditches they dug to drain floodwaters off the asphalt–that’s where I first finished The Amber Spyglass and sat with the book half-open, exhausted by sadness, thinking about how many millions of words I was going to write to make up for Philip Pullman royally screwing over Lyra and Will (Stephen King’s On Writing describes a lot of fantasists have similar feelings about losing Frodo and Sam to the Grey Havens).

I’m not trying to suggest this work is as demanding as farming, but it’s almost as crucial to our well-being. We cannot survive by accepting the messages dictated to us by the power centers of our culture. They can kill plants and animals, but we will keep songs and stories alive. That overgrown lot with the tree is an ugly blight: get your first kiss there and see if you feel the same. This shopping mall is soulless, and so is everyone in it: walk through it blasting classical music, have a lightsaber fight on the escalator, sneak in after dark and explore with flashlights. If something lacks spirit, we must act on it to bring the spirit into being.

(Sidelight: this has an analog in the commercial sale of books and movies. Just because they are trying to make money, doesn’t devalue the messages in the stories. The author is dead, and so is their publisher.)

Robert MacFarlane, in The Old Wayshis book about walking, describes the Songlines tradition of the Australian Aborigines: “the ancestors emerged to find the earth a black, flat, featureless terrain. They began to walk out across this non-place, and as they walked they broke through the crust of the earth and released the sleeping life beneath it.” On bad days, I console myself this way. When they have paved over and warmed over the world, anybody who has ever taken a story or a song to their heart will walk through the ruins and begin to build something again. Until then, our collective cultural output is a kind of metaphysical soil bank.

Next week: I’m doing NaNoWriMo for the first time, along with future featured artist Kate Seiberlich.

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