August 2004

Gone is beauty

By David Feela

It’s understandable that, living just a half-mile from the county landfill, I should regularly see truckloads of garbage heading past my house, which is why I’m completely baffled when I go to town and see the same crap scattered around the neighborhood where we live, as if the landfill should know no boundaries. Westerners are junkies, and I’m not talking about drugs.

The Navajo are more optimistic about living beside people they don’t quite understand. They say, Go in beauty. I don’t want to step on any cultural toes, but maybe everyone in the West would get greater respect if we spoke more to the point: Get your trash out of the yard or you’ll be cited for Aesthetic Assault — and have a nice day.

Aesthetics is a form of judgment that some people are born with and most of us have to learn. The word comes from the Greek aisthetikos, which means perceptive, responsive, and appreciative. From a quick glance at the natural world in any of our four directions, it’s easy to see why people choose to live here: the mountains, canyons, rivers, and deserts all contribute to a varied but beautiful way of life. Why, simply waking up in the morning to encounter the horizon brings a jolt of appreciation for the world more powerful than espresso, richer than any carb-laden pastry. To be fed by the eyes is what aesthetics is all about, and to hunger after it denotes an appetite, a deep desire for the sustenance of beauty.

John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Keats was a romantic, which is a beautiful thing, but his sensibility ignores how the quest for power and wealth enters the world like a virus and infects the equation. Substitute the words “money” and “power” for “beauty” and “truth” and you’ll see why we need people besides John Keats and the Navajo to promote aesthetics.

The trouble is that no one takes beauty seriously, yet oddly, so many of us sympathize with the notion of living in harmony with nature. It’s as if we see the world through a polarized lens that filters out the glaring hypocrisy our culture promotes. We turn away from beauty and allow ugliness to quietly make the world over in its image.

But how can this be? A view of the mountains is what many homebuilders and buyers seek for their investment. A good view is money in the bank. Still, it’s difficult to pay attention to the ugliness that sprawls across every corner of the West when one’s picture window faces the majestic snow-capped peaks.

Living near the mountains deludes us into believing that the immensity of the landscape in some way minimizes our impact on it. We inhale the distant scenery like a flower, then we Malathionize our backyards. We praise our rivers, then dam them.

Our new cars get no better mileage than our old ones, but their rusting corpses seem to last forever in a neighbor’s backyard. Worn tires and broken appliances slip secretly into public land arroyos, like wreckage to the bottom of a dry anonymous sea, all while we protect and bring to light the ancient garbage sites of the Anazazi.

We contradict ourselves — as Walt Whitman said of himself — and though the grass has grown under his boot soles, I suspect our sense of aesthetics is being crushed under ours.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma- Cortez High School.