The mystery of beauty

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

What if birds didn't sound as lovely as they do? I thought about that one morning before the sun rose.

Most mornings this spring, I have awakened to the sound of birds. They start singing early, just after 3 a.m., beginning with a robin, usually, in a tree outside my bedroom window. Doesn't matter whether the window is open. I can hear them. Sometimes a cardinal joins in, accompanied occasionally by sparrows. A virtual pre-dawn concert.

In the wee hours, with my body relaxed from sleep, my mind taking it slow, these sounds are enormously pleasant to listen to — sweet, smooth, soft, melodic, predictably repetitive, sometimes intensely insistent. A call, perhaps, or an affirmation — or both. An expression of experienced beauty or a beautiful expression of experience? Hard to say with birds.

But what, I wondered, if they didn't so pleasant? What if human beings couldn't abide the singing of song birds? What if the effect were worse than fingernails on a chalkboard? What if all birds were crows?

Aren't we lucky, not just that the sound is tolerable, but that it reaches the level of beauty? And isn't it remarkable that the world in general is beautiful, and each season in its turn? Beautiful to us, at any rate. Not all of it, of course, and not all the time. But the fact that human beings experience beauty at all feels like a minor miracle — except when we're taking it for granted, which may be most of the time, until something marvelous exceeds our normal threshold or someone points it out to us.

Some human beings seem to have a more highly developed capacity for appreciating beauty — or they just have more time on their hands. Maybe they work at it, are more deliberate about it, seeking it out, surrounding themselves with beauty or slowing themselves down, putting themselves in circumstances conducive to the wide-eyed, clear-eared, open-armed reception of the world around them.

When was the last time you were conscious of beauty? Another human being, perhaps? A musical performance? A particular day? Last Thursday was an extraordinarily beautiful day, whether you were stuck inside and looking out longingly or outside steeping in it.

Does beauty only exist in the interaction — when we perceive it and appreciate it, a confluence of enriched awareness? Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Does it make a sound if no one is around? Does it even matter (to us) if no ear drums are close enough to resonate against? Maybe it's the same with beauty if there is no eye (or ear) of the beholder.

Even when we do hear the tree falling, it is more than a matter of audible vibrations. We might be overwhelmed by the sheer power of the sound — or the mystery of what caused it if we're far away. It might fill us with wonder as we reflect on its meaning. If we have the verbal ability, we might freeze-frame the moment in a poem. If we're skilled enough, the poem itself might incite an experience of beauty in the listeners or the readers.

The same is true of beauty. The lush green of leafed-out trees, the thick lawns of spring, the way sunlight infuses them with multiple shades of color, beautiful indeed, but what if they repelled us, made us nauseous or irritable? Thankfully, they don't. As an old Irish gent remarked to a shopkeeper within earshot on the west coast of Ireland some years back, "Green is good for the mind."

How fortunate we are that it should be so and that beauty nourishes us. What a remarkable interface exists between creation and sensory beings capable of appreciating it, celebrating it, communicating it to others, perhaps teaching others in the process how to appreciate the world more deeply than they already do.

Scientists with an evolutionary bias might say that this is just payoff, an activator encouraging us to do the important tasks we are biologically programmed for. The important thing isn't that bees are so seductively drawn to flowers but that they pick up pollen and pass it on.

Physical intimacy, they would say, is pleasurable so that human beings will procreate. But that doesn't explain why or how the procreative act transcends the mere physiology of pleasure to become an extraordinary, deeply emotional expression of love. No longer base but beautiful. Neither does it explain how our loved ones appear beautiful to us one moment, then somehow become more beautiful still.

Ultimately, beauty is what draws us out of ourselves and deeper into the world. To what end remains a mystery. But it's a beautiful mystery that plants within us myriad metaphors that eventually blossom into wisdom.

Maybe that's what these birds are singing about as each day dawns.


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John Hubbuch from Oak Park  

Posted: May 19th, 2012 9:39 AM

One of the really important debates in philosophy concerns whether Beauty( and Truth or Justice) is one or many. Is there a unifying absolute or just subjective individuality. I might go with the later. Ken's early morning birdsong might not be a thing of beauty to an insomniac who had just fallen asleep or a wake up call to someone who hates his job. Beauty is probably in the eye of the beholder. But for the record I do think that early morning is a beautiful time of the day.

Brent from Oak Park of course  

Posted: May 18th, 2012 11:22 PM

Great piece of writing Ken! I think that if one can find beauty in ordinary situations and see beauty in common things, that this ability is a great gift. By the way, isn't Oak Park a beautiful place? Nothing more beautiful than a spring day in Oak Park, except maybe a fall day? Brent

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