Carole Steele wrote one of my favorite poems. It is the first one in her book, Rust Sings. Called, “Winter,” it is a catalog of deeply seen and felt physical detail, presented with the verbal precision that is one of the hallmarks of her writing. But it is the final quatrain that set me thinking.
“What have you seen that was the most beautiful?” And I looked back at my own life and come up with my own list of those things, not merely that were beautiful, but “the most beautiful.” That gave me not just pleasure, but a transcendence. These were all life-changing encounters, that filled my inner life like a freshet fills a pool.
A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. It is hard to describe exactly what it is, but it makes time stand still. It isn’t something you desire, like the pretty, or admire, like the beautiful, but something that stops you in your tracks, clobbers you over the pate and reminds you that you are alive in a universe. In the first two orders, you are distinct from the object of your attention; in the third, you and it become a single thing.
The first time I encountered this, I had no clue what it was, or any way to express it. I must have been five or six years old and riding in the back seat of our 1950 Chevrolet as we drove along the top of the New Jersey edge of the Palisades. It was night and the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson was a new constellation on the horizon. A million pegs of light, like as many pinpricks poked through a black backdrop, gave something of the effect of a waning campfire, blackened by ash, through which the underlayer of flame burned, glowing coals that I now take as a metaphor for the intelligence that burns under the surface of the cranial cortex.
Since then, I have encountered that same scintillating coal sight many times, flying across country at night and looking down at the electric cities, especially as the plane on its final descent brings the city up closer and all the light, as if coming from under a blackened blanket, just burns, flickering like stars, shifting as the plane angles towards the landing.
This is a planetary emotion: the awareness that we live on a round globe suspended in a cold, black immensity. The most powerful and intense encounter with this sense came on a trip to the South Carolina shore in the mid-1970s.
Huntington Beach State Park is 2,500 acres of saltmarsh, fresh water lagoons and live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. It is a haven for birds. I added 27 species to my life list in that trip. It was by far my best single day as a birdwatcher.
An old causeway, paved in concrete, runs ramrod straight from Brookgreen Gardens, on the landward side of U.S. 17, to Atalaya, the one-time beach house of industrialist Archer Huntington and his wife, the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. On one side of the roadway is the tidal saltmarsh, on the other, a pond.
The clown-faced ruddy turnstone flicked pebbles over with its beak; the oystercatcher poked its red-orange bill into the mud, looking for lunch; and the black skimmer sailed inches above the lagoon with its lower jaw slicing through the water, feeling for minnows. And there were alligators submerged like tree stumps in the murky water.
There were also herons, egrets, gulls, terns, coots and gallinules. Ibises, bitterns, phalaropes, curlews, willets and mergansers.
On a dead branch above the receding tide, an anhinga stretched its black wings out in the sun to dry. I wrote what is perhaps the earliest poem I still keep, about that anhinga.
I was with my second unofficial wife, Sharon, and we slept in the dunes and were eaten alive by sand fleas. The next morning, I went down to the beach before dawn to watch the sun come up. When it first appears, you can see it moving, slowly but distinctly.
The sliver of brilliance broke the horizon and mirrored off the tops of the ocean waves, casting the near side of each into an obsidian blackness. The effect was of turning the sea into a shifting net of burning copper laced with black lacquer.
And then, like Joshua in the Valley of Ajalon, I saw the moving sun come to a dead halt halfway out of the water. It was a disconcerting effect. And at the very moment the sun stopped moving, the vast gears and motors of the Earth started spinning and the sand under my feet began to move under my feet, yanking me — and the whole eastern seaboard — toward the motionless sun.
It was as if the whole planet had become a ferris wheel and I was just coming over the top. I momentarily lost my balance as my plane of reference shifted from the local to the sidereal.
A few seconds later, all was once more normal and terrestrial; the sanderlings ran back and forth with the breakers and it was time to wake the others and tell them what I had seen.
It was yet another of those planetary experiences, a complete and involuntary disjunction from the ordinary frame of reference to a more cosmic, perhaps truer, one.
That sort of epiphany doesn’t come often, but it does come. I was camping on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, down 45 miles of dirt road on the way to Toroweap. There was not another person for 20 miles in any direction. At 6:30 exactly, with the sun already below the planet’s edge, the first star came out, directly overhead. It was Vega, in the constellation Lyra. The rest of the sky is still a glowing cyan with an orange wedge in the west.
So far from civilization, the night sky is a revelation. As the night darkens, the stars pour out like sand from a beach pail. By 7:30 the sky is hysterical. I haven’t seen so many stars since I was a child. The Milky Way ran from north to south like the river of incandescence it is, splitting like a tributary stream from Cygnus to Sagittarius.
I sat on the car hood, leaning back with my head against the windshield and looked straight up. For two-and-a-half hours, I sat there, looking up, trying to do nothing and think nothing. Just look.
What at first seemed to be a solid bowl overhead, with pinpricks punched in it for the light to shine through, later took on depth. It became a lake with fish-stars swimming in it at all depths. This is beauty of the third kind, transcendent and transfigured. As I reclined on the hood, I suddenly had the sensation of being a figurehead on a ship, or a hood ornament on a car, speeding into the three-dimensional emptiness defined by those stars.
The realization hit me that, of course, I was. I was having my vision, as it were. But it is my particular stubborn sensibility that epic vision and lumpen fact turn out to be two faces on the same head. This has happened to me before. Each time I enter the visionary world, it turns out that the transforming image I am given is grounded in simple fact.
I really am on a stony vehicle careening through stars. It is just that in everyday life, we never think of it that way. Given the solitude and the velvet sky, the obvious becomes apparent.
When my joints were finally too stiff from sitting in one position for so long, I decided it was time to sleep. I crawled in the tent and dozed off in the silence.
Then, at 3:30 in the morning, I got out of the tent to look at the sky again. It was all turned around. Orion was now up and bright as searchlights. And the Milky Way went east and west, having revolved around the pole star. So, this bullet we’re riding on is rifled.
The night went on like that: One sense input after another, so busy through the nocturnal time-sluice that I hardly got any sleep at all. At 6 in the morning, the coyotes yowled, and I decided it must be time to get up. The east was whitening, although the sun was behind the mesa.
When I drew open the tent flap, I saw the blue sky patched with gray-brown clouds, and dangling from one of them was a rainbow. It was not much more than a yellowish bright spot against the angry cloud, but I saw its familiar arc and promise.
We live two lives. In the common one, we are one in 7 billion, a single voice in a clamor of humanity, spaced 100 per square mile. We function as part of the crowd. But in that other life, we are alone. We are the one, the singular — heroes in our own life’s epic, even, and we recognize the solitary importance of ourselves to ourselves.
It is this second life — so rich and so important to our sense of meaning and purpose — that we come to meet in solitude. That is perhaps what Montaigne meant when he wrote, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”
The first life is brought to you by television, newspapers, books, radio and movies. It is a cultural existence, defined by other people. It is the madding crowd we are never far from.
The second life comes to you when you seek it, alone, in quiet. Ultimately, to yourself and your family, it is this second self that is important. It is this self that is fed by beauty, is kept alive by beauty.
Continued in Part 2