Shared vision: The quest for beauty has deep roots

Remember the story of “The Red Shoes,” where the girl cannot stop dancing? These past several days have been like that, except with clippers and a saw.

I’ve been gripped by this obsession for a week now: Arising at dawn, I suit up in boots and denim, douse myself with tick spray, and head out to the jungle.

The gnarled, woody, mountain laurel has grown higher than my head; young oaks, maples, and thorny vines are all around, and I hack away at them with a hand saw for the big stuff and a two-handled lopper for the small stuff.

The object of my obsession is a hillside that slopes down to a man-made pond, a pond I try not to fall into. It’s hard to see what’s underfoot, and I say, out loud at regular intervals, a thank you to any copperheads or black snakes for staying out of my way.

Within minutes of starting up each day, sweat pours off me, stings my eyes, and my hands and arms ache from forcing together those long lopper handles. My legs are covered in bruises from unyielding branches and stumps, and I dream about ticks.

Every day, I head back to the house, soaked in sweat, and swear I’m done, that this is good enough. And every morning, the itch to don those red shoes again— to hack away at the jungle— returns, and off I go.

We’ve lived in this house for exactly 20 years. My husband and I fell in love with this particular spot because of the lovely one-acre pond next to the house and the views of the foothills in the summer and the Blue Ridge in the winter.

From the comfort of our home, we could see the water, a mountain or two, and our long driveway threading past the pond and up a hill. Beautiful.

But as the years have passed, I’ve neglected to maintain what I liked best about this place. Inch by inch, the bushes have crept upward. The pine, oak, and maple branches have spread outward, and a green wall has obscured the landscape that was so curiously pleasing, swallowing first the Blue Ridge, then the foothills, and finally, the pond.

Alert readers of the Hook will recall my despair regarding our neighbors planting trees intended to screen expansive mountain views from passersby on the street. I can’t control what other people do with their property, but I can buckle down and maintain what I’ve got.

Today, with muscles sore from the exertion of this morning’s efforts, I’m blissed out, cradled in the porch swing— safe from snakes and ticks— and listening to the radio.

And in one of life’s amazing coincidences, as I’m surveying the newly visible sections of our pond (featuring a pair of huge turtles floating just below the surface) a philosopher holds forth on The TED Radio Hour on NPR and appears to be addressing me directly, informing me that the source of my brush-clearing obsession lies deep in my DNA. It lies in our DNA— our pre-human heritage.

Philosopher Denis Dutton is the speaker. He’s the author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, in which he posits that we human beings are hard-wired to seek beauty.

According to Dutton, the features of the Pleistocene savannas in which humans evolved are the same features that characterize a particular landscape that people all over the world consider beautiful. This preference holds, amazingly enough, even in countries that don’t have such landscapes.

Dutton says that the characteristics of this pleasing scene are:

    •    Open spaces of low grasses interspersed with clusters of trees.  Especially trees with low forks to provide    shelter.
    •    Presence of water directly in view.
    •    Indications of animal or bird life.
    •    Diverse greenery.
    •    A path, road, riverbank or shoreline that extends into the distance. 

Well, how about that? The landscape that I’m laboring to restore (with the water, open spaces, small groups of trees, animals to watch, even the driveway winding up a farther hillside) has all the elements of the ideal savanna landscape, which, Dutton believes, “…is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.”

It’s a place where our mammalian ancestors could monitor the approach of predators, and find food, water, and shelter. And there was a clear way out, an invitation to explore.

I haven’t finished this project. A green curtain still obscures part of the pond, and I can’t see the driveway yet. (To restore our mountain view would require chainsaw proficiency that I do not possess.)

But I’ll continue to hack away, taking strength from Professor Dutton’s theory that my quest for beauty such as this has deeper roots than any mountain laurel or oak that comes between me and the ideal savanna landscape.

And, in truth, I owe a debt of gratitude to my mountain-view-obscuring neighbors for turning my attention to the beauty I have right here in my own backyard.

Janis Jaquith lives in Free Union, and is the author of the Kindle eBook Birdseed Cookies: A Fractured Memoir, a collection of radio commentaries she has broadcast on NPR stations.

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Way to go Janis. Teach us dumb as rocks hillbillies how to do it right with your philosopher explanations. But what will the jogger think who has become accustomed to the view you neglected for so many years? ‘How dare you change it?’ If you left it for so many years, it became different form of natural beauty. But you wanted to see that pond, right? (Cheshire cat with BIG grin forms here.) Turns out you’re no different that the guy who planted the trees. You want what you want – you’re just willing to go to extremes to rationalize it. Did you convince yourself you’re right, yet? (Cat disappeared - just big ole Cheshire cat grin left.)

But she can still gaze lovingly at her navel through all that foliage!

@Today: There are no joggers back in these woods, and nobody sees the trees, or the view, but us. (No cats, either!)

@ Janis...aren't you the one who wrote about your neighbor planting evergreens obstructing your "jogging down the road mountain view?"
I think you missed "Todays" point.

@WhoaNelly: Yes, I'm the one who wrote that. But Today's point was that I was altering a view that a neighbor or passerby might have enjoyed. The fact is that the pond view I opened up is not one accessible to neighbors or passersby.

I love your writing and sense of humor. But you were writing about a fundamental issue - using YOUR property in a way that you see fit, that benefits and pleases you and fulfills a need in you. It was good writing. But taken in the context of your prior article - I suspect that your neighbor on Wesley Chapel road was doing the same thing - doing something on HIS property for a reason that benefited and pleased him and perhaps gave him a feeling of protection and seclusion. I think the comments above point out that the application of your values is inconsistent. Nobody gets it right all the time but we can all learn about others when we look at our own motivations. PS - I always enjoy your columns! You're bound to get some heat at times - that just means that people are reading and thinking. It's just a shame that people are so god-awful snarky when they disagree.

girlygirl: The irony is not lost on me. (See the last sentence of the essay.) If I were obscuring someone's mountain view, you can bet I'd think twice before planting a row of sentinel trees along the street. I'm not averse to balancing my own desires with the greater good. As it happens, our property is set back, and doesn't affect anyone's view but ours. (And thank you for your kind words! They are much appreciated.)

A great article. We live a beautiful part of the world. Great to appreciate that.

Actually, who cares? The population of "greater Cville" is roughly 200,000 (roughly), and this literary equivalent of Scrapple gets five comments. This is why NPR has to be subsidized by taxpayer dollars...few listen.

But, alas, I love to hear myself!

"literary equivalent of Scrapple"