I was kayaking off Danzante Island, on the Baja Peninsula with a group of women friends. The island, located in the Loreto National Marine Park, is only a few miles paddle from the coast. I was enjoying the crystal blue waters, watching birds dip and dive above our heads, exploring the craggy desert landscape around the island when our group leader and naturalist, Patty, eased up beside me.
She pointed to and named things as we paddled. She named cactus, flowering plants, marine fossils, birds. She talked about the volcanic layers of ash and breccia, how faults, uplifts and intrusions had formed.
Suddenly the vast beauty of the landscape exploded in my mind, merely by her giving name to what I was observing. The landscape imported a clearer impression on my senses, due simply to her distinctive designations.
Later I thought about how her naming elevated the beauty of the experience. Emerson, in his work, “The Poet” proclaims…” the beauty of things becomes a new and higher beauty when expressed.”
Maybe it all comes down to how we place our attention. The writer Proust said that the secret of life is to be found in the arts of attention, what he called exaggerated attention.
He wrote very long rambling pieces that described minute impressions and sensations, things other writers before him hadn’t done. He offered instruction in the art of paying close attention to what’s right in front of you, moment to moment, as an antidote for the dread we may feel that life is passing us by, too quickly, and without notice.
Does the beauty of a scene or experience become advanced, or elevated through the naming?
Definitely, yes. Yet another experience taught me the inverse is also true.
I was driving home after a watercolor class on a sun-soaked summer day. Observing the landscape outside my car window, I saw rich and vivid colors as if for the first time. The cottonwood leaves appeared neon green. The hillside exploded with many shades of green I had never noticed before.
It felt like an out-of-body experience and soon waned, and I could not conjure it back up again, although I dearly wanted to. But it was gone, rushing away in a few minutes and any effort to bring it back was futile.
Maybe the observance of beauty requires no explanation; maybe at times, a beauty observed supersedes and goes beyond that which is captured in mere language.
How many times have we said, I am at a loss for words. Words cannot adequately describe it. Maybe sometimes an experience is beyond words and can’t be elevated with them, so instead of descriptive language, you stand quietly, in awe of the beauty and are not compelled to name it. When this happens, one’s consciousness and sense of physicality seem to expand without effort.
Like music; I do not know how to precisely analyze a score of music, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the melody reaches my mind and comes alive through my senses without the requirement of naming or notation.
Both reflections offered a brief transformational experience and that is the power of art and beauty. The beholder is shot out of the ordinary, out of “psychological time” and into another zone not experienced on an everyday basis.
The lesson here, as I see it? Be watchful and conscious of what unfurls, avoid over-thinking, be open to an altering of consciousness that launches us out of conceptualizing and into pure ineffable awe…and, at the same time…
…look at the world twice. I once read of an Indian elder who advised of the necessity to look at the world twice if you are to really see it at all. Focus your vision on the droplets of water on a flower petal; notice the texture in an old piece of wood.
Size up an image by making a photographer’s box with your hands (I remember doing this as a kid) and only see what’s inside the box. Or lay a string on the ground in a six foot wide circumference, and only view what’s inside the string. In most of our waking life, do we not really see with clear eyes?
Is this due to the fact that in both cases, I was merely an observer…
and whenever something is observed, it is separated from the one who is watching?
Maybe so. But in both instances, I didn’t feel separate at all…in fact, I felt more alive and connected to the natural world than ever before (maybe I didn’t know I knew I was observing). Oh, brother…you still with me?
This much I know to be true. Beauty is augmented and elevated by words…AND…where words and denotation ends, the real mystery of life begins.
Hmmm. Always and forever, a paradox indeed!