On Possessing Beauty

On the second-to-the-last day of September, in the year of our Lord 2011, I came into possession of a hill in the English countryside.

I marked the event that evening with all due solemnity and appropriate honors. My husband and I had ostensibly walked out in the late afternoon to watch the sunset from a neighboring slope, but with a few quick modifications, and all the young joy of a first-time hill-owner, I adapted it into a celebration. I cut a few swinging strands of ivy that hung over the rutted path we took from our cottage, and as soon as we had spread our blanket on the grassy prospect, I sat down and began weaving them into a coronet. Philip grinned a little ruefully as I studded it with tiny thistles—the bane of any pasture-keeper’s existence; the amethysts and jasper of the woodland lapidary. But when I opened our tea caddy and produced, not the expected and well-traveled thermos and tin cups, but a bottle of champagne, his smile registered genuine surprise.

“This is a momentous occasion,” I said gravely, attempting to loosen the cork and then passing it to him in a sudden fear of flying consequences. “It’s not every day you come into property.”

I had wanted it the moment I had seen it: that green, sweeping hill, mounting in an undulation of gentle swales to a point dark among the hedges. The longing had leapt up in me with a thrill of pain and joy and I knew it had to be mine, right down to the least blade of grass. And not the hillside only, but the lane by which I had reached it, overarched by chestnuts and wizened holly trees, and the cottage it led from, buried in a steep fold of the Dorset hills. I wanted the orchard I came through and all its ripe burden of sun-warmed fruit. I wanted the sunlight itself, falling dapple-dazzling in pools of wealth upon the landscape and I wanted the blue bowl of sky arching cloud-swept above. I was inexorable in my demands: I even required the very lambs and ewes with which it was populated, grazing in ceaseless content upon its verdant slope.

The transaction had gone through without a hitch—and completely unbeknown to the thoroughly lovely and gracious couple that occupied the land. The husband, a gentleman farmer of the old school, even witnessed the proceedings from afar, hailing me from his tractor as he chugged off down into the hollow, and hadn’t the least suspicion what I was up to.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced such an overmastering and irresistible passion for ownership. In like manner, I had snatched up every last Canova in the Louvre, and the Alpen-crowned sapphire of Italy’s Lake Como. I had collected a red sandshore on Prince Edward Island and a time-forgotten homestead in the Shenandoah Valley and an entire jewel of an island off the coast of Georgia. I had even managed to purchase, in a happy circumstance of exceedingly good fortune, a certain majestic cedar tree, gleaming out from a dawn-lit mist and hung with diamonds of rarest dew. This last was a steal, and genuinely rare, for I found it in my own backyard.

The cork flew off the bottle with a festive pop and we watched it soar straight over our heads like a springing lark. I retrieved it from the grass at my side and dropped it into the tea caddy as a souvenir.

“I’m landed gentry,” I told Philip, lifting my glass to a level with the departing sun and watching the rose-tinted light flit and sparkle among the bubbles. “In good standing and by all the inviolable laws of fairyland.”

In his elegant collection of essays, The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton observes that this insatiable yearning for acquisition in the face of overwhelming beauty is common to the human condition. “A dominant impulse on encountering beauty,” he writes, “is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this, and it mattered to me.’”

I had never heard it expressed that way, but de Botton’s words were a wind upon the Aeolian harp of my deepest sensibilities, and I knew by the hints of that far-off song that he was on to something. Perhaps something bigger and truer than even he imagined.

He went on to recount how John Ruskin had considered this phenomenon and had concluded that there was a respectable and thoroughly effective means of satisfying such an insatiable craving: to look deeply enough into the beauty to gain an awareness of its specific elements and effects, and to make the attempt to express it artistically.

In other words, to see, and to describe what you have seen.

This was Ruskin’s motivation, both in his teaching and his drawing manuals: to help others to see. To open their eyes and to loosen their fingers. To ‘direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.’ He espoused two particular mediums for this endeavor, sketching and ‘word-painting’. (Photography was initially advocated, as well, until it became apparent to him that the general enthusiasm was leaning all-too-precariously towards the temptation to let the camera do all the seeing.) And in both cases, he was adamant on one point: natural aptitude and talent were secondary—even inferior—to open eyes. To teach a person to draw, with strokes of a pencil or with words, was to place a golden key in their hands—they would never look at the world around them the same way again. The old indifference which is the curse of familiarity would give way before the staggering particularity of nature and design. And in the effort to produce a creative response, howsoever imperfect, the beauty could be owned in a way that even physical possession could not guarantee.

My contract on the hill was drawn up in the form of a poem. Candidly, I don’t know the first thing about writing poetry; it would be generous to call all previous attempts awkward. But when I saw that hill, when I knew I must have it, I knew with equal conviction that the payment had to be made in verse. It was so far beyond my powers that the added humility of ineptitude seemed appropriate. For three hours I sat there in the sun, a blue English sky above and the beloved, satiny English grass beneath, and waited upon that work. I was aware of every flick of a bird’s wing in the hedges behind me, and the deep, concentrated indigo of the bloom-frosted sloes tangled thick within the branches. A cockerel saluted the world from some unseen farmyard far below and the uniquely pastoral, slightly ovine scent of the countryside rose up to greet me like a friend. I watched the shadow of a tree travel over the velvet surface of a mounded hill to the south and saw the wood doves fling themselves skyward with a bustle of feathers and matronly complaint. And when, at length, I collected my things and started back down towards our cottage and my tea, I could almost hear my own heart pounding in my chest, I felt so alive.

I had come to inquire and I was leaving in possession.

But ownership is not all, of course, even in this imaginative sense—there is a much deeper magic at play for the child of God. For the true apprehension of beauty, like faith itself, is an exercise in laying claim to what is already ours. There is a low door in the garden wall, and it opens on an inheritance: this is my Father’s world, and He has given it to me. All of the beauty in this astonishing universe of ours has already been lavished by a self-giving Creator. Wakefulness and effort give forth upon our birthright; seeing becomes receiving. Of this sublimity the Restoration-era minister Thomas Traherne waxes exuberant in his masterpiece of meditation, Centuries: “Your enjoyment of the world is never right,” he says, “till you so esteem it, that everything in it is more your treasure than a King’s exchequer full of Gold and Silver…till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

In short, if we find ourselves wandering through this beautiful world of ours with ink-stained fingers and dreamy eyes and a slightly lopsided ivy crown, gazing about like we own the place, it’s because we do.

originally published on The Rabbit Room, February 2012

11 Responses to “On Possessing Beauty”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Oh my goodness…I don’t even know what to say. So transported am I to another place, not just an English hillside, but Another Place entirely. My teenage son has been trying to ask me a question about something and I find myself a million trillion miles away, unable to comphrehend. I see him standing in front of me, his mouth moving…I’m sure there must be sound coming from it, but I can’t hear it, can’t comprehend it, because I’m not really here, so removed am I from this worldly place.

    ‘Thank you’ is insufficient.

    May God’s blessings shower upon you, Lanier.

  2. Abby Maddox says:

    I simPly love this post. I identify with it on many many different levels. Just last week, I was watching a sunset from the dock of our Little Pond. I felt the old familiar urge to OWN, to know it was OURS (we are just renting this land, you see). It is a deep longing that I don’t understand, and the way I explain it to Jeremiah is that I surely must be of Irish descent 🙂 In the midst of my longing, however, I felt a check of my reigns? Would I really enjoy the sunset anymore if it were MINE? Is this desire to possess…sinful? This post answered those questions for me, beautifully. Thank you

  3. Josie Ray says:

    “Kings may
    Find proud ambition humbled at the sea,
    Which bounds dominion: But the nobler flight
    Of poesie hath a supremer right
    To empire, and extends her large command
    Where ere th’invading sea assaults the land.”

    –William Habington: To William Davenant (17th century)

  4. You expressed so perfectly how I feel about my “backyard”. I do, in a way, “own” it, but in many ways I don’t. God decrees the amount of rain that falls and the migrating birds that decide to stop here.

    We had Painted Buntings 2 years in a row – a bird I though I would never see in the wild, let alone in my backyard at my feeders – and God brought them to me, both male and female. They are the most beautiful birds outside of the tropics and parrots – blue and green and red and yellow. And they decided my yard was the place to spend the winter – now 2 years in a row. I let the backyard do what it wants. There are as many native trees and butterfly/hummingbird bushes and flowers as I can stuff in it. I have to try to keep the various vines from overtaking each other. They all have to get along, no one becoming stronger than the other.

    You described the feeling I get every day when I walk into my back yard and see what butterflies, insects, amphibians, birds, etc. etc. that God has brought today. They are all precious in His sight and my job is to make sure they have a nice stay. What a privilege-and you have described it perfectly.

  5. So does this mean you are in England?!

  6. Gill Bourne says:

    Lanier, It occurred to me you might be interested in reading this short article on orchards in West Dorset as you love the area so much. I live in Devon not far from the Dorset border. It is beautiful country and there are many small orchards here though sadly many have fallen into neglect. Cider has recently begun to be fashionable again and many of these historic and charming little orchards are being rescued and re-loved as small farms remember the cider presses of generations past mouldering in the barn and put them back to use!

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Oh, Gill, that was so fascinating! Thank you for sharing it. (Though, I must confess, reading it gave me a bit of a pang as I recognized the names of so many towns and villages. You make me miss England even more. 🙂 ) I am so glad to think that the art of cider is not falling by the wayside. I remember having some lovely cider in Somerset, but now I wish I’d sought some out in Dorset. And Devon, too! 🙂 You are so blessed to live in such a wondrously fair corner of the world. Blow a kiss in all directions for me!

  7. […] missing the place so painfully I thought I’d share it. Incidentally, I penned another which I wrote about here, and which managed to find its way into print this autumn by way of The […]

  8. Joyce mcCune says:

    I’m reading this tonight with the raindrops bouncing off my window. My sister and I have journeyed to England twice and both of us feeling this ‘homesickness’ while we were there. A deep yearning to be a part of the villages and countryside. Don’t quite understand it but reading your piece feels soothing to my soul on this rainy night. England………felt like home to me!!

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