My last two years in Brooklyn I felt fortunate to have the view I did. My windows faced east, and, although the blank wall of another building loomed large directly in front, to the right grew a luscious tree and above was an unobstructed view of sky. I often woke at dawn and would stand on the fire escape and soak in the morning, while it still felt clear and clean.
Over the five years I lived in “the city” I learned to train my eyes away from a lot of what was around me: trash exploded from vandalized garbage bags; the grey on brown on dingy grey of sidewalk, street, and dirty buildings; tawdry advertisements; glaring lights. Instead I’d glue my gaze on any scrap of nature available: a leaf splattered on the curb; weeds flourishing in an empty lot; wheeling pigeons, making the sky sparkle with their sunlit wings. By the end of my five years in NYC I felt I struggled endlessly to find enough beauty that I might endure the ugly. “This is absurd,” I thought. “Clearly the city is the wrong environment for me.”
In January of this year I had the opportunity to move out and, with great relief, I did.
Now I live in the woods. There are no other houses in sight. I am on 40 acres, embraced in a bear hug of state land. When I look out my window, I see only beauty: layers of hemlock, bright clusters of beech leaves, spindly maples with slender branches that shatter the sky.
Whether it’s a sun-soaked day that impels me to shut my computer and go out for a walk (or at least to do something useful, like fill the wood box) or an overcast one with a moody sky and pinches of sleet, I see that there is always a perfect harmony in the colors and textures around me. In the woods I am humbled — in that way that’s also elating — with the reminder of all the living and dying and churning forth of ephemeral beauty that is happening around me all the time, whether I am paying attention or not.
Living in such an environment induces a certain shrinking down to size, and a correlating peace with one’s place in this world. Red squirrels and red maples do not seem to fret over the “good enough-ness” of their lives, and it starts to feel a bit out of line to do so myself. I see their perfection — the kind that is inherent rather than measurable — and find it easier to see that same quality in myself as well, ongoing toils notwithstanding.
But of course, I could have felt this in the city. Strictly speaking, the city is no less a natural environment than the one up here. It too evolved from the tumble of cause and effect of living things trying to survive. It is certainly no less vibrant an ecosystem. True, in an urban landscape the parameters of opportunity and constraint are mostly man-made, but they yield an abundance of variety equivalent to that in a woodland environment. There’s differentiation, specialization, and the endless burgeoning of micro-complexity within the larger landscape.
Indeed, there was a time when the city inspired in me similar feelings as the woods do now. I moved there at a time in my life of greedy growth, too hungry for the tidy flower box of a town I lived in. New York City had the appeal of wilderness — an expanse of unknown, potential, and gritty reality.
To love the city is to feel a great compassion for the swarms of other people around you. All those lives, all that urgent self preservation, the palpable vulnerability and ferocity. The beauty of it can break your heart.
“A man never discloses his own character so clearly as when he describes that of another,” an insightful person is said to have said. This observation is true. And it also applies to our descriptions of the world around us. What we see in the landscape outside the window is, truly, a window onto the landscape inside.
New York City lost its beauty not because it changed (if anything it has become thrillingly greener in the years since I moved there, what with the urban agriculture movement, the roof top farms, and so on) but because I lost my ability to see it. My dissatisfaction with the city increased in direct correlation with my dissatisfaction with my life and dissatisfaction with myself for failing to improve that life. The fewer hopes and ambitions I managed to fulfill, the fewer opportunities the city seemed to provide for peace, contentment, and happiness. I condemned it as a place of harsh judgment and didn’t notice that I was the harshest judge.
I moved to the woods to gain a reprieve from the city, but what I really gained is a reprieve from myself. Of course, the change of view outside my window is very real, and one I appreciate intensely, but I know the significant change is actually in my point of view. Bickering at the corner deli used to make me groan, but squabbles of the same order at the birdfeeder make me giggle. I wince at lurid colors in plastic, but delight in the same hues when discovered in lichen. Although I’m a bit of an oddity in the small town I now call home, I feel thoroughly comfortable, as I never managed to feel when in the midst of thousands of peers.
I know there have been times in my life when I could not have appreciated this environment as I do now. And who knows, perhaps I’ll be ill content again someday. But I hope I do not forget that beauty is not a quality to seek, only to see.
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