My neighbor has a magnificent magenta magnolia tree in full bloom during this faux-springtime week of ridiculously warm weather. Despite the fact that winter continues for many weeks into approaching March, that magnolia tree has exploded in celebration for anyone interested in noticing and appreciating the joy. The tricky part about the magnolia is all in the noticing. I have to remind myself to look at it when I pass, to pause for a moment and see it while it’s gorgeous for this brief time.
Philosophers and thinkers have written prodigiously on the topic of aesthetics. I don’t presume to imagine I could add anything new to that discussion. So I’m not saying anything original when I say that the brilliant beauty of that magnolia reminds me that there are forces at work in the world beyond human enterprise. The magnolia takes me out of myself and into the greater, the greater what? The greater all? Greater oneness? The greater.
Sometimes when I am out on my morning walk, whether in my rural suburban neighborhood or in the forest behind Lake Mendocino, I encounter a person who is also out walking and who is talking on a cell phone. There is one woman in particular who always talks on her phone while she walks. She doesn’t acknowledge me when I pass. I feel sorry for her, for all that she is missing on her walks. Our neighborhood overflows with exquisite forces of nature and she is largely missing out on them. Deer and wild turkeys regularly stroll down our streets. The quail with their adorable topknot scurry in a quiver of wings when I approach. This past week I had a remarkable flock of a hundred or more creamy-gray mourning doves in an oak tree beside my deck. They swooped and looped in my back yard, catching the morning light in their tail feathers. A few days ago I saw a charcoal-gray fox loping up my driveway. I bolted from my desk chair and ran to call my cats inside to safety. That got my heart racing, but the fox was certainly a beautiful creature to behold. Early purple crocuses are peeping in my front garden. In these winter months, the graceful live oak trees in our geography are a fling of bare branches draped with chalky-green lichens. I am hopelessly in love with Mendocino trees; the many kinds of oaks, the fir and redwoods, the manzanita, madrone, buckeye, wild flowering plums. How can that woman walk through this wonderland with her nose buried in her cell phone, eyes glazed over, unseeing? It’s almost criminal.
There is a famous story about the 19th-Century French writer Gustave Flaubert, who is the author of the classic novel Madame Bovary. Flaubert is credited with being the “inventor” of literary realism and he is often considered the quintessential aesthete. He was obsessed with precision and beauty of language. During a period of malaise, before he wrote Madame Bovary, he was persuaded by his friend Maxime Du Camp to travel to the Middle East. According to Du Camp’s diaries (although Flaubert never mentioned this episode in his own diaries), as Du Camp and Flaubert drifted down the Nile on a boat, in the midst of extraordinary scenery, Flaubert turned to Du Camp and declared, “I will call her Emma Bovary.” I have always identified with this story. I interpret the story to mean that Flaubert was so far inside his own head that he did not even see the gorgeous Egyptian landscape. He was too busy writing Madame Bovary in his mind to see his surroundings. I confess, I am guilty of the same.
It’s easy for me to criticize the oblivious cell-phone-lady. But I do the same thing in my own way far more than I would wish. While walking in the beautiful forests and meadows behind the lake, I all-too-often remain stuck in my head, writing novels, writing grants, writing blog posts. I “time travel,” remembering the past and projecting into the future, instead of experiencing the glorious present. I must constantly remind myself to come back to the moment and see the red-shouldered hawks swooping from oak to oak. I must remember to come out of my head and look at the beauty that takes me out of myself and my small life; to bear witness, to appreciate, to admire. The natural beauty in my surroundings calls me to participate in the moment, to actively see the miracle of that dazzlingly pink magnolia.