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As I was driving to work this morning I looked out and saw a wetland. The rising sun was reflecting off the surface and little islands and peninsulas of reeds broke the water up into seas, rivers and tributaries. As I watched, a massive flock of birds took to the air, leaving the earth in a harmonious dissonance of motion, their bearings set for South. I turned and saw the sky was already dotted with several snaking V formations and clouds of their kin, and could only assume they were intent on joining them. It was beautiful. In that moment, something resonated within me, welled up like music filling up forgotten empty places, echoing off the walls.
We’re all searching for beauty, aren’t we? Everyday, in the clothes we wear, the movies we watch, the cars we drive and homes we live in, we go out of our way in search of it. On my morning commute, I will often take back roads, adding time to my already hour long trip, just to experience the beauty that I’ve discovered there. I trade time for the chance to see old oak trees standing in plowed fields, century old farmhouses and sheep out to pasture in the morning fog. There’s a nostalgia, a longing that takes place when we experience beauty, and not only are we constantly in search of it, we are also constantly trying to create it.
Every animal on the planet produces something. Worms produce clean soil, birds build nests, beavers build dams, but only humans, being made in the imago dei can create something from nothing. A spark in the darkness. I’m not speaking literally of course, not in a physical sense, but we have been given the gift of abstract thought, the ability to form ideas, conceptualize and then materialize those creations with the resources of our world. Our creativity is a reflection of the creator, and we do love to create.
We’ve taken the world we live on and covered it in a layer, a shell, of our own making. Cities, and roads, sprawling suburbs, manicured parks and monuments sit overtop the natural beauty they replace. And it’s not solely functional by any stretch. This is evident in walking through downtown Portland and seeing the meticulous design that has gone into some of the buildings. Ornate stone carvings, pillars and brickwork aren’t necessary for a building’s structure, but for its beauty. But this beauty is ever changing across time and cultures.
Our perception of what is beautiful, as defined by what we create, is always evolving, devolving, growing more complex and then embracing simplicity. Yet, our perception of the natural world, a rushing river, snow peaked mountain, or ancient forest, remains constant. It’s as if in our attempt to create beauty of our own, we always fall short of doing what a simple walk through the woods can do, perhaps most effectively when unspoiled by our adding to it. It’s a return to beauty we’re after. The greatest achievement our own art can have, is when it speaks across time, culture and generations, the very thing the natural world does simply by existing.
The work of our hands is created, then decays. Great pains are taken at museums to preserve those works of art that ring most true for us, but time is always working against them. But when we look out over a valley, we’re not seeing decay, we’re seeing life, growth, a reflection of something greater and more lasting than ourselves. Perhaps our unending search for beauty is really a return.