Monday, March 22, 2010

Why We Go to the Summit and to the Shore (and to the Sky and to the Cave)

I just finished reading John Muir’s The Mountains of California. While there were several passages that stirred my soul and re-ignited my desire to return to the mountains, overall the book did not live up to my expectations. Nevertheless, a paragraph in the penultimate essay, “In the Sierra Foot-Hills,” offers an argument for our setting aside and protecting wilderness areas and why we visit them, and prompted me to pen the following reflection. But first the passage:

"Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountains-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to the common every-day beauty."
Unless you experience Central Park or one of New York City’s other parks, you might think there is not much fresh beauty in New York City. Yes, New York City has its share of urban decay and blight, but there is still common every-day beauty to be seen in places other than the obvious, from tree lined streets, both residential and commercial, to wildflowers growing in window boxes.

An ordinary lone evergreen growing in a yard in Queens takes on symbolic significance once you have seen the giant sequoias of Muir Woods. Skates and mussels in Jamaica Bay look more beautiful once you have snorkeled amongst the coral and tropical fish of the Caribbean. Even calcium deposits dripping from underneath bridges and in the subway appear more sublime after you have seen stalactites in Mammoth Cave.

We normally think of large wilderness preserves as a place for urban dwellers to retreat to, to find fresh air for the lungs and solace for the soul. Wild places, once visited, can also transform how we look at the urban environment and help urban dwellers to appreciate even a common orange pansy growing in a front stoop flowerpot (photo right).

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A day spent in the wild can help us refocus our gaze and see our urban landscape in a fresh perspective.

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