Beauty comes to me as a love letter. Unfolding it, something enfolds me, and I cannot move past it. I am held by sight, sound and touch, sometimes even by a scent of something so lovely moving on is simply impossible. I must pause from whatever I am doing, wherever I am going. I must look, listen, handle. I must linger, nosing the scent until it loses me, lets me go.
These days, I cannot wait for beauty to find me. It will, of course, for beauty is like that. But in these days of uncertainty and pain and waiting, I am so hungry for beauty I find myself composing my own love letters.
I compose a haiku by setting a vase, cross and twigs on my desk. I paint slivers of light by focusing my camera lens on sunlit stems of dogwood and pampas grass. An orchestra tunes itself in my head as I walk along a woodland path, the birch trees finding their pitch against the trill of finches and squawking blackbirds. Carefully stripping a twig from a stand of alders, I finger the nubs where buds are pushing through and carry it home where it will become a small living sculpture. When scent comes to me, whether in dank peat or fresh grass, I try to hold it in memory. But it’s fleeting, scent. I cannot even really describe it. I let it go.
Some love letters are meant to be savoured singularly and in solitude. But others? Others call out to be revisited. And, perhaps, passed on.
These days, I have taken to walking once, twice, sometimes three times a week to the ponds where grebes nest. They come back year after year to these man-made holding ponds, where remnants of plastic, tin and paper pile up against the rocks and rushes. The grebes swim and sleep and fish and court one another for weeks until eventually they settle into building their nests on small floating platforms. They are clever, these birds, making use of the platform some human has anchored in the centre of the pond. They scour the water for last year’s leaves, this year’s algae and even make use of plastic, which could be from any year, its life unrestricted by nature’s seasons.
On Saturday of this week, I walked, camera in hand, to the ponds, wondering what the grebes might be up to. On previous visits, I’ve witnessed them floating so close together in sleep they bump into each other and wake up cackling with complaint, then promptly fall asleep again. Sometimes I see them swimming far apart from each other, then one lifts its head and calls to its mate with high-pitched urgency. They swim towards each other, then paddle in place almost close enough to touch, then open their beaks and chortle with gleeful passion.
I am sure this is their love song because this week when I reached the pond, one of the grebes was finally sitting on its floating nest, its mate close by, tenderly tucking strands of algae around the edges. As I positioned myself against a railing to steady my camera lens, the nesting grebe rose up, beat its wings to fan feathered embers. Then it slipped off the nest and into the water, revealing two eggs of palest blue.
As the grebe swam away, its mate stepped up onto the nest and gently nudged the eggs, tucking bits and pieces of nature’s birthing blankets around them. Then the grebe settled into waiting.
It was beautiful. And I knew immediately I’d been given another love letter, imprinted not only in my memory but also in my camera’s. This one, I could send out to others.
Steve, through a song written by Jim Croegaert, asks, “Why do we hunger for beauty?”
And, Malcolm, through reflections and a poem, asks: “Is it not enough to simply be here and see it? Singers, painters, sculptors or poets (and writers and photographers, too, I would add) …we want to reflect it back.”
The two questions resonate. I hunger for beauty, I think, because I hunger for something beyond myself. When I find this extraordinary otherness, it is not enough for me alone to see and hear and touch and smell it. I have received a love letter too beautiful to keep to myself.
It is too precious to hold in my own memory. And so I send it out, in words and pictures, hoping that others will unfold it, and be enfolded, too.