Beauty and the Beasts

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My cat doesn’t even see the moon. All grace and suppleness, it walks onto the deck with me and pauses, intent. It’s 4 a.m. I woke to the moon flooding the house with light. Now, low in the sky, it enflames the edges of dark clouds and drops, even as I watch, down the silhouettes of trees near the creek. The early morning birds twitter in those trees, senseless as schoolchildren. A few hours from it now it will be the blackbirds, individual and abrupt, but for not its nameless early morning summer birds, which sound the same anywhere I’ve been.

 

“Cat,” I say. “Look. The moon.”

 

For an instant he looks at me, then disappears, quiet as a shadow, around the corner of the house. All he wants to do is kill something. In the spring it was mice, and lately it’s been snakes and silly attempts at birds across the open lawn. The world’s spread out before us, the moon marking and enlarging space, and this animal wants only to kill something. I’ve got nothing against that. Killing things is what cats do. What interests me is the fact that it doesn’t notice the moon.

 

I’ve learned that animals are more aware of the world than human beings. Pronghorn antelope have eyesight equivalent to a man with eight-power binoculars. Dogs can detect the smell of marijuana sealed in plastic bags and shut in a car trunk. A hawk can see a mouse moving through grass from a quarter mile up. Yet this cat, with all the instincts of the tiger, with the same soft movements and potential roll of muscles, aware of sights, sounds, smells that totally elude me—this animal doesn’t notice the moon: how it rides the heavens, demarcates the clouds, slides branch by branch down the dark trees.

 

No human hunter I’ve ever known could step into this morning and not notice it: the entire morning, including the way the light descends.

 


 

When my 6-year-old son and I walk in the small meadow behind our house, or along the creek, we learn much from each other. He’s fascinated by insects, and he’s closer to the ground than I am, and his eyesight is better; he is constantly surprising me with the variety of insects in our world. “Look,” he says. “Water-skiing bugs.”

 

I look. I see the creek—then, coming into focus, a fuzz of light flitting over it, and finally individual insects, small as gnats, riding the still surface along a rock, lifting into the air, settling again. I don’t understand how they escape the surface tension.

 

Water-skiing bugs!

 

On the other hand, my son walks right past the wild violet, its small, bright flowers standing out amid dark green grass. “Look at that,” I say.

 

“What?”

 

“The purple flowers. Aren’t they pretty?”

 

“Oh,” he says. “Yeah.” He looks for a moment, out of respect for me, but also, I think, to try to understand this concept of beautiful.

 

He and I see different things. He sees what he’s intent on, and he points it out in what is, for him, a technical description: water-skiing bugs. I’m the one who sees the metaphoric beauty of the description, and the humor. He points out for me the marvelous variety of a world focused in his senses. I, in turn, point out to him the strangeness, the wonder, the beauty of the obvious: the violet right before his eyes.

 

When we walk at night I must raise his eyes to the stars. I am the one who sees the beat wheeling around the heavens, the queen reclining, the hunter with his bow and dogs. I am also the one who sees the blackness and the points of light within it, and how the points of light are red or blue or green, and so very, very many. My son tips back his head and listens. He tries to understand. It’s all there before him. But he knows he’s missing something—whatever is conveyed, not by my words but by my tone, when I have him look.

 

When we explore, though I usually let him go in front, I think that I am leading. He teaches me to look. I teach him to see. He brings me into his intensity. I try to point him to distractions.

 


 

Children, of course, are immensely distractible. If I tell my son at 8:30 to get ready for bed, it will take him until 9 o’clock. He’s not slow so much as unable to keep his mind on the tasks at hand. A toy, the cat padding into his room, will cause him to forget what he started out to do.

 

This, though, is different than a distraction into himself, his own needs, desires, dreams. He can also, if placed before Sesame Street, become so intent that I have to stand in front of the television to break him from his world.

 

Outside my window my cat stares up a tree. In the tree’s branches two blackbirds twitch and screech. The cat stares and stares; then it leaps onto the trunk and climbs. Its eyes, in spite of obstacles and movement, never leave the birds. It climbs unaware of climbing. The birds go into a raucous frenzy. When the cat reaches the first forking of the trunk, they move higher up the branches. The cat twists onto the fork without losing the blackbirds from its field of vision. It goes up, through the third and fourth branchings, until the twigs begin to sag with its weight. Dancing on twigs sprung with their lightness, as if on capillaries where tree melts into air, the birds look down, calling.

 

The cat can go no further. It stares at them. It wants to kill something. It has never seen—but I have—the many branchings of the tree, how it doesn’t really end but instead, smaller and smaller, almost becomes the air, the blue arch of sky which will bear the birds away.

 

The capacity for intensity and singleness of vision seems to be a special capacity of animals and children. For this, we often envy them. Who of us wouldn’t be, if we would, caught up in our own private drives? Andrew Hudgins, in what is currently my favorite poem, writes: “I envy the driven/ They’ve ceased to agonize on what or why—just how.”

 

For the most part, when adults focus, they combine it with their sense of time and the future, which destroys its innocence. Recently, outside the small community where I live, a piece of land went up for sale, a beautiful meadow that pastures horses and runs into the trees of the Black Hills. The very day this pasture went on the market it was bought by a developer from two states away who plans to build houses.

 

My amazement at the intensity and pounce of this developer is counteracted by my stronger sense of loss. From two states away, with eyes like a cat, he sees prey and jumps. He never notices the moon or the violets, not the horses, hills or trees. Or he does, but transforms them, even as he springs, into palms.

 


 

N. Scott Momaday has said: “Western man doesn’t really perceive the world as beautiful. He perceives it, rather, as useful. . . . I believe that unless we change our view, we will simply destroy the earth.” When asked if this was true even among environmentalists, Momaday replied: “Yes, I think so. To preserve the natural landscape is desirable whatever the motive, I suppose. But it would be better if the motive were aesthetic as well as whatever else, and I don’t think that’s always the case even among environmentalists.”

 

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was, if anything, a long essay about the beauty of a particular place and, in turn, its place within a beautiful world. But much modern environmental talk is about utility: saving the rain forests for their medicines or because they act as filters for the atmosphere; or limiting ocean fishing because our food supply may come to depend on it.

 

I suppose that always, when opponents engage in a long battle, they come to use the same blows, the same arguments. So it is that environmentalists and developers in this day often speak the same language of utility and use. Nothing is more indicative of this than the notion of “multiple use” of wild lands, a term both sides accept but manipulate to their own ends.

 

Momaday says that we need to learn again to see the world as a beautiful place. I would add that the values of “use” alone lead eventually back to the most basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy: food, shelter, warmth. Imagine a technology that could answer all arguments against the exploitation of our resources: machines that could spew back the lost ozone in the stratosphere, recycle the planetary air, purify our waters at the tap, synthesize food from elements and minerals themselves. What reasons, based in utility, would we then have not to destroy the ecology of the entire planet, drive its animals and plants to extinction, in order to provide ourselves with luxuries or quaintnesses?

 

If we have no sense of beauty instilled in us, beauty itself becomes nothing more than a luxury competing on even ground with any other luxury. Thus it is that the man who wishes to take his knobby-tired motorcycle and roar through the desert, destroying the desert as he roars and enjoying not the desert but the power under him and the space in which to exercise it, can claim with vehement sincerity that his “use” of the desert is as valid as the person’s who wishes to sit upon a rock, listen to the desert’s silences and know that it is beautiful.

 

When beauty becomes a use, it ceases to be beauty. The person upon the motorcycle is not seeing the same thing as the one upon the rock. The person upon the motorcycle cannot even understand the one upon the rock, and so with the word “use” brings him or her down to a level which can be understood—and in so doing perpetuates the lack of understanding.

 

When Momaday says that we must learn again to see the world as beautiful, he means, certainly, that beauty is whatever it is: in and of itself, mysterious, fleeting, perhaps beyond category of definition—yet certainly knowable, learnable and teachable.

 


 

The stars are wheeling overhead. I point and speak. “Yeah,” my son says, looking where I point. He’s puzzled, but he’s trying.

 

My cat, on the other hand, walks off the deck, looking for something to kill. He sees with the moonlight, but doesn’t see the moonlight. He never can be taught to see it.

 

This appreciation of what is beautiful may be one of the major things of which we are capable that animals are not. It is true more than philosophically that if we cease to see the beauty of the world, the world will cease to be beautiful. For this reason alone, we must take the time to teach our children what we know of beauty and its mysteries. Just as significantly, it is also true—to paraphrase Janice Maupin, a student of mine, though she was writing of morality—that when we teach our children to see beauty, we teach them they are worthy of it.

 


 

Tenuous as it is, awareness of the earth’s common beauty may restore innocence to our planning. The recognition of beauty is, it seems to me, first a recognition of otherness, with all the wonder that springs from such a recognition: that such amazing things exist as violets and moons and thin end-twigs of tree. Unlike the cat, we stand outside the tree and see it all: the tree and the cat within it and the shining purple birds that, we know though the cat does not, will in a moment fly, and the blank, blue sky beyond that does not now but will bear birds, and the ladened twigs unladened. We need to be outside the tree, and outside the world, so that we can see it. But as soon as we do—not just look, but see—we are called back to join that which we see.

 

We call forth beauty when we see it. It then calls forth us. We stand transfixed in time, there is no future, and the birds, sprung on the outermost energy of a tree, never fly—never—though we know they will, they will.

 


 

One evening last fall I was on the breaks high above the Missouri River. I was alone. I walked away from lights down a dirt track I could barely see, through grass as tall as my thighs. After a while I lay down on my back in the grass. As darkness grew the sky’s blue faded, and as it did the stars came through, revealing finally behind the blue cloak of day, in the spaces between them, a space and distance greater than light can ever show us. I was filled with longing. Those points of light seemed like cool oases, winking with whatever water, undefined, I needed. I wanted more than anything to be among them.

 

Of course, I am. I live on a planet that grows long grass from which I finally rose. I began to walk this planet’s surface back toward human dwelling. Suddenly I was startled by a whistling dropping from the sky. I froze, then looked up just in time to see, etched against the intermittent scattered whiteness of the Milky Way, the dark, flickering silhouettes of five low-flying ducks, close together, on their way from water to water.

 

The wings faded. The moment stayed. I finally moved. We live in a world where out of darkness the whistle of life descends. As much as that frightens us, freezing us into immobility sometimes, it is a wonder. If we reach up our hands and stretch them, there is virtually nothing between our fingertips and the edge of the universe.

 

Lonely as that makes me feel, knowing this—lonely and distant—still I will take it. Let the cat be the cat, moving through the grasses—focused, intent, wanting to kill something—and, hearing the whistle of wings, crouching, ready to spring.

 


Kent Meyers is a professor of English at Black Hills State College in South Dakota.


 

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