In a cabin on a lovely little lake (one of ten thousand) just outsidethe Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, it’s only appropriate that I would be reading the reflections of Sigurd Olson, who according to Wikipedia, was “an American author, an environmentalist, and advocate for the protection of wilderness. For more than thirty years, he served as a wilderness guide in the lakes and forests of the Quetico-Superior country of northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario. He was known honorifically as the Bourgeois — a term the voyageurs of old used of their trusted leaders.” He was also known as the Bard of the North Country. His Reflections from the North Country, Olson’s last book published during his life, is a remarkably powerful muse on the power of nature and its effect on the human soul. Here’s what Olson had to say about nature and beauty:
Early one morning, I looked on the waters of our lake just at sunrise as its surface sat still as the proverbial glass. So many times I’ve wanted to step onto such stillness in my handmade kayak, but was reluctant either out of respect, or from a greater desire for coffee. This particular morning, with a bit of urging from my wife, I tiptoed onto the water in my boat and was soon surrounded by a raft of common loons. When one finally figured out that I was not where I was supposed to be at that early hour, he quickly let his cousins know and soon the loony tuned cacophony was enough to wake the entire lake. The beauty had been disturbed.
Beauty is composed of many things and never stands alone. It is part of horizons, blue in the distance, great primeval silences, knowledge of all things of the earth. It embodies the hopes and dreams of those who have gone before, including the spirit world; it is so fragile it can be destroyed by a sound or thought. It may be infinitesimally small or encompass the universe itself. It comes in a swift conception wherever nature has not been disturbed.
But not before I enjoyed Olson’s observation. There was in that quiet moment before being discovered, as I moved as still as the water itself in its own encounter with these wonderful birds, a beauty that elicited a simple gladness. It humbled me and made me realize how if I more often sought beauty in all things I encounter, and was willing to see it, then this simple gladness could be more often mine.
Olson concluded with this question (and answer):
But why the joy and inspiration of beauty at all? Why should it have the impact it does? This I cannot answer, but I do know ugliness brings revulsion, aggression, hate and even anger, while beauty always gives joy and a sense of fulfillment.
It’s as if to inquire of beauty only disturbs it too. It is something that you can only relish. As the Psalmist once sang, “One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the presence of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on his beauty” (27:4).