Beauty May Save Us: The Power of Nature’s Beauty

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By Madronna Holden

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, a young Appalachian woman’s longing for something different—something just for herself—pulls her toward disaster in her susceptibility to sexual manipulation.

But on her way to an illicit rendezvous, her course of self-destruction is interrupted by a natural wonder.  She see the woods full of what seems to be a mysterious orange fire that she later learns it is a gathering of monarch butterflies.  This experience tells her that the passion she seeks is not about giving herself away.  It is erotic in an entirely different way:  a way that turns her onto a path of care for herself, her children– and the miracle of nature endangered by climate change.

As this novel indicates, our response to beauty can be centrally implicated in our personal choices.  It is also implicated in our cultural story.

That story prompted pioneers to ravage the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in their attempt to tame the land.  Some felt a fear bordering on panic of the grandeur of the old growth forests –a fear of the beauty that not only set humans in their humble place in the nature of things but was simply too much for them—too overwhelming. The self-styled heroes of Manifest Destiny hardly sought to be overcome by wonder.

We can only imagine how different our history might be had pioneers instead told a story that honored the beauty of the world that bestowed them with life, as did the Seri of the Baja Peninsula. Seri tradition has it that inside each of us is a flower and inside that flower is a word– the seed of language. To lose the beauty of such words is to lose the world they belong to.

Indeed, words of this kind have the power to revitalize our lives.  Poet, initiated Seneca medicine person, and translator of world poetry Jerome Rothenberg tells us that poets today inhabit a “Neolithic subculture” in which nouns become verbs and the leaden surety of ownership, hierarchy and control become vision, vitality—and life.

This reverses the dynamic in advertising that moves in the direction of life to death– as it downplays natural beauty in favor of consumer icons.  The feminine bodies such ads sell us are flawless –in a mortuary version of beauty possible only in the death of the actual body.

The intrusion of death into so-called beauty products is reflected by their ingredients—which include lead and other toxins.

Unfortunately, ads that link eroticism and death reflect a cultural truism.  The majority of women murdered in the US are murdered by lovers or ex-lovers.

Eroticism is connected with violence in another way observed by Maria Mies in her essay, “White Man’s Dilemma”. She observes how those responsible for destruction of the environment and its indigenous lives tour “exotic” places and partake in “sex tourism” in the attempt to regain the mystery and excitement of what they have destroyed—to recover the vitality of their own lives.

Just as love is at odds with control, beauty is at odds with ownership– whether that beauty be in other humans or the natural world.

Expanses of monochrome lawns exhibit an aesthetic akin to the airbrushed complexion of women in ads—and with as much hazard to the vitality of each.  Such lawns showcase the control of nature reliant on the death of unwanted  insects and “weeds” —and of lives shortened by exposure to pesticides.

Expanses of unremitting sameness are not an element of natural beauty.  Indeed, as educator Jean Kilbourne points out, they are not an aspect of life.

By contrast, our affinity with the natural world—our perception of loveliness based on diversity and vitality—results from the hundred thousand years in which we became human in concert with the natural world.

In that history, our sensual alertness developed as a survivor’s trait.

To deaden this sensual alertness takes considerable denial—and can result in considerable destruction. Nazi doctors interviewed by Robert Lifton cut off their own sensual awareness to facilitate their terrible acts– since if they had been fully present to those acts, they knew they would have been incapable of going through with them.

I heard a member of the Allied Liberation Forces in World War II make a similar point.  For him, the horror of the camps was encompassed in their smell:  the smell of dead and decaying human bodies.  He washed his clothes for a month after returning home in the attempt to get the stench of death out of them.  Yet when he asked inhabitants of a village near the camps how they stood the smell, they replied, “We smelled nothing”.

Today we numb ourselves to the ugliness of bulldozer- scraped land, ignoring its ruin for the sake of “development”.  But we do so at our peril. The same peril that follows our ignoring climate change in spite of the droughts and storms currently escalating in our weather patterns.

Indeed, it is only at our peril that we ignore the results of any of our actions.

Natural beauty may save us from such peril by calling us back to the world– re-awakening us to our sensual presence in the world– and our conscience in the process.

According to Navajo tradition, the harmony of the natural world expresses a model of harmony  in human life.  To “walk in beauty” is to be blessed with goodness.

Artist Lily Yeh would agree.  Her work  illustrates the potential for healing that exists in beauty.

In 1986 Yeh began an eighteen year campaign to bring beauty to impoverished neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.  She involved  local children in painting murals and constructing mosaics, creating oases of beauty in abandoned lots.  Eventually community adults joined her, including former drug lords who gave up their addictions to do so–and together they reclaimed large swathes of formerly devastated neighborhoods.

Yeh sees her creation of jewel-like mosaics as a powerful symbol, since we are all broken in some place–and mosaics use this brokenness as material with which to create beauty.

Yeh didn’t stop with the Village of the Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia.  She next set out to bring beauty to the survivors of a massacre in Rwanda living beside the unburied bones of 10,000 victims of genocide. These survivors wanted most of all to give their dead a reverential burial– but did not have the resources or the heart to do it.

Yeh worked with them to construct an expansive mosaic monument to protect the bones of the dead. The ceremonial burial that followed caused many to collapse in reliving their grief years after the massacre.

But after this burial, the community continued working with Yeh with new energy, turning children’s drawings into community murals that expressed their dreams for the future.

The revitalized local spirit drew help from outside even as it sparked energy within.  By the time Yeh left Rwanda, the survivors’ village  had  recovered weaving, planting and harvesting traditions; they had goats and cows and a clean reliable water supply from harvested rainwater, and they had built  solar arrays to power the sewing machines in a business operated by orphans of genocide.

“We celebrate life in beauty”,  to use Yeh’s guiding words.

But we can only do so if we have the courage, as Yeh did, to face the consequences of our human actions.  In going to Rwanda, Yeh was terrified–yet beauty led her on, since she believes that in the heart of the worst tragedy is a point of light waiting to be brought out.  It is our task to find and ignite the beauty waiting there.

Such beauty may yet heal us:  yet show us the way to repair our world.

Thus we must guard this beauty in one another along with our own creative impulses and the natural beauty that reminds us of our place and responsibilities in life.

Such beauty cannot be controlled or purchased–nor can we guarantee its permanence.

We can only nurture it– and make ourselves available to wonder.


This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.

How can you not plant a rose in wartime?

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By Madronna Holden

updated 8.16.2011

“They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places.  We wanted the hardest place.  We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere.”

— Paolo Lugari (Gaviotas)

Some forty years ago, Paolo Lugari and a group of supporters founded the community of Gaviotas on the llanos-an aluminum-laced plain in Colombia situated between the territories of drug lords, guerrillas, right wing militia and an indigenous people trying to make their life there.  In partnership with native people and holding fast to values of cooperation, non-violence, sharing, and reciprocity with one another and with nature,  Gaviotas shaped a community that restored thousands of acres of rainforest with astounding biodiversity in a formerly ravaged area.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this restoration is the fact that the community of Gaviotas did not set out to do it intentionally. But as they held to their values of respect for the land and refusal to use chemicals and pesticides, their actions created this magnificent surprise.  Standing amidst its canopy besides a village where peace reigns in the midst of social turmoil, a bacteriologist declared, “This place is proof God exists”.

There is a folk story in which a man asks, “How can you plant a rose in wartime?”  The answer comes back: “How can you not plant a rose in war time”?

Kenneth Helphand cites this story in his book, Defiant Gardens-Making Gardens in Wartime, in which he describes gardens planted in the worst of times-by the prisoners in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, for instance, who planted gardens they knew they would not live to harvest.  But as these prisoners tended their gardens, they also tended something inextinguishable in their spirits, Like that to which W. S. Merwin refers in his poem, “Place”: “On the last day of the world, I shall plant a tree”.

“Plant a  tree and plant a new beginning”, says Kenyan Wangari Maathai.  Planting trees led this Nobel Laureate and leader of the Kenyan-based Greenbelt Movement, to her courage and her persistence–and the hope that she wants above all to pass on the next generation despite the crushing challenges the future brings.

Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye expressed the sustaining power of the natural world this way, “The only word a tree knows is yes”. Perhaps all humans, like Nye in this poem, “are born to answer a tree”. Daryl Forde researched an African tale known by many of those sold into slavery that helped them endure the horrors of their oppression.  In that tale, the protagonist plants a “life tree” that survives him when he is stolen into a world where he is helpless.  However, his spirit revives when his brother comes upon the tree he left behind and waters it.

In line with such ancient wisdom some have transformed the “worst places” by finding a way to plant a garden there.  West Oakland is one such place, a disaster zone created by the industrialized global economy, where children are subject to lead poisoning, and residents are sandwiched between ports and warehouses, rail yards and diesel truck depots. Seventy per cent of the 30,000 people here live below the poverty line. Five years ago, this was no place to look for a garden.  There was no oasis anywhere where children could contribute their labor to an effort that mattered to them while they felt physically secure. But thanks to Willow Rosenthal and a dedicated band of neighborhood residents, that has changed.

Rosenthal chose West Oakland as a place to focus her efforts on organic gardening not in spite of the conditions there but because of them. Her effort started with a 2000 foot lot lent to her– and community support.  She worked on the supposition that the community contained its own answers to the desperate issues of hunger and pollution that faced them.  The first year, they harvested 2000 pounds of quality produce from their tiny garden and their effort grew from there.  Today West Oakland sports a Saturday farm stand which sells produce on a sliding scale that begins with zero and offers starts that residents can plant in their back yards, a local composting program where residents can either drop off their scraps or learn to compost them, cooking and gardening workshops, barbecues and other community-wide celebrations, a medicinal garden (established with the help of a local Filipina herbalist), and back yard gardens built and maintained with community effort, in addition to the intensive gardens farmed communally.

West Oakland’s community gardens have some publicity-for instance, an article in spring 2008’s Earth Island Journal.But there are those gardens we may not hear much about that are inspiring in their own quiet ways.  Lily Anderson describes one such garden:

“Two years ago, in the middle of a long period of unemployment, my father was living in Emeryville (also in the Bay Area) and found solace in a community garden, Big Daddy’s Complete Rejuvenating Garden. The garden is on top of what was once a gas station. The plants climb up art installations, sculptures, and paintings. I used to come into town and walk with my father, over the 580 freeway, to help tend his plot. Pesticides are forbidden at Big Daddy’s and so we would lay egg shells and halves of cut melon to distract the bugs from the tomato and spinach plants. I have never seen such a beautiful representation of nature and community before. Surrounded by industrial buildings and road noise, there’s a little oasis where people come together, discuss their garden, and sit among the flowers.”

There are solitary individuals working to green their cities in ways most of us will never hear of.  I would not have learned of “Gardener Robert” but for the information shared by my student, Kristian Godfrey, who worked in a bagel shop in Gainesville, Florida where Gardener Robert bartered his produce.  In her words, Robert “was a man who made gardens, and I mean he MADE them.”  Robert roamed the outskirts of modern American society, since he didn’t work. Perhaps he carried some mental distress that prevented him from doing so, “because he simply couldn’t sit still, he had so much energy he vibrated”-and he refused to deal with money-even the fee for a community garden plot.  He needed more space than that anyway. “Thus Robert would find abandoned plots of land; plots squished between buildings and apartments and businesses, and then proceed to track down the owners and then beg/ barter the use of their land for his gardens. He always had at least four in town. He would also ride his bicycle to abandoned places away from the city and garden. He offered space to anyone who wanted to garden with him, no charge. And the gardens fed him, every bite he ate. He would come to the bagel shop and barter, bags of bagels which would normally be thrown into the dumpster at the end of the day were traded for Robert’s Seminole pumpkins, bags of basil, or whatever happened to be in season.”

Gardener Robert would become depressed when the owners of his city plots would reclaim them, and his beautiful gardens would be paved over. But he would ride on seeking out his next spot to plant and beautify, even if it was only temporary.  As in the community of Gaviotas, “Gardener Robert survived and re- introduced plants in the hardest of places.”

Priti Shah adds another example of what she terms “guerrilla gardening”:

“I had the opportunity to participate in “guerilla farming” when visiting a friend in Honolulu.  We toured a few blocks and harvested greens from patches in front of restaurants and strip malls and dead space between high rises. I then helped plant a garden in the center of a busy road on the strip of dirt enclosed in concrete dividing the lanes. We tore up the dirt, added compost and soil, and then planted beans, sweet potatoes, greens, herbs and flowers. I was incredibly moved and thankful to see how much can be done with such a space.  I later checked in with my friend who notified me that the garden was doing well and people who live on that road are now care-taking and eating from it!”

If ever there was a “hard place” for such a garden, it was North Philadelphia where artist Lily Yeh began her work, in an area over half the original population had recently fled, leaving behind vacant buildings and lots full of garbage-and a remaining population where 32 per cent of the labor force was unemployed, houses were riddled with dangerous disrepair and schools provided the most meager of educations.  There was youth violence, high levels of incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution.

Why should she come to work in such a place by choice? Yeh was driven by a need to reclaim the meaning of art. Being Chinese, she had witnessed the massacre in Tiananmen Square.  Instead of turning away from that horror, she re-dedicated herself to proving the power of art to heal and redeem society.

In North Philadelphia, Yeh felt vulnerable, but not discouraged. She recognized her weakness as her strength, since what she could not do alone was an invitation for the community to help her.  That help early on included a former drug dealer who seized the opportunity to create real meaning with his labor. Yeh worked on “reconnecting what is broken, healing what is wounded, and making the invisible visible” in the most concrete of ways: by hauling garbage from abandoned lots and replacing devastation with plants and with the beauty of her art-sometimes she transformed the very garbage she  found into inspired mosaics.

Today, The Village (as it now called),  sports fourteen parks, numerous community gardens, educational facilities, a youth theater, offices and a crafts center serving 10,000 low income people whom Yeh’s leadership-through-art helped  re-possess and re-build their homes.

It all began with the simple idea that Yeh could offer a bit of beauty as a token of respect for the citizens of inner city Philadelphia.

After all, how can you not plant a rose in war time?