The older I get, the less I understand the meaning of beauty, even though it is also true that I more desperately depend on it than ever. I think it used to mean that the world was friendly, that if I could capture a beautiful sunset or the angle of the sun illuminating the leaves of a tree, that somehow I had found meaning and grace because I was known by someone, somewhere. But as I have gotten older, beauty causes a heartbreaking alchemy of sadness and ecstasy, as if beauty always demands an acceptance that joy and woe are indistinguishable. Because beauty feels lonely to me, so stealthy that it scarcely seems probable. And yet there it is, standing with a kind of nakedness before all the world, and all you could catch was a glimpse, for a brief moment, before it departed quietly into the folds of existence. It does still feel like love but somehow never deserved and certainly more meaningful if it is not greedily sought or selfishly expected.
Last October I took a horseback riding trip into the Sawtooth Wilderness with two of my closest friends from my college days, Andy Sorenson and Keith Allred. We are all approaching the half century mark and we hadn’t all three been together for many, many years. So it was good to rekindle our friendship and to return to our more adolescent ways. Not surprisingly, neither task was hard to do. We had spent the better part of the morning hours packing Keith’s horses into the trailer and preparing all of the equipment, driving to the trailhead not far out of Stanley, and then climbing our way up to about 10,000 feet through some spectacular alpine wilderness after a brief cold front had swept through and left a dusting of snow among the fallen trees and on the boulder fields we passed. Our destiny was a high mountain lake where we hoped to fish with our float tubes that we packed on the back of the horses.
After several hours, we passed across a talus of large boulders sloping steeply downward below jagged cliffs. The horses crossed with great caution. My horse, new to high mountain trails, was especially nervous, and before I knew it, I felt him give way beneath me, losing his footing and dropping to his chest, over-correcting and taking his hind legs off the edge of the trail on the downhill side, and then finally correcting again by swinging me into the rocks on the upper side of the trail where he pinned me against the flat face of a rock. I felt that this was my chance to bail, so I slipped out of the saddle, just barely getting my last foot out of the stirrups as the horse found his footing again and stood up and bolted away. I could tell that if not for the smooth face of the rock, I would have broken my femur or perhaps my hip, and that if not for the horse’s escape from the slip downhill, it might have been worse. But I didn’t yet know how much damage the fall had done to me. My friend Andy is a doctor, so I was lucky to have him there immediately to check me for any signs of serious injury. Eventually I stood and could feel what later proved to be large bruises on my right hip and on the inside of my calf, the latter which later became a large hematoma. But I was okay. Shaken, and still in shock about what almost happened, I walked the horse for a while so that both of us could regain our confidence. It was literally back in the saddle again. I knew I had to get back on. I did, and after another hour of climbing, we finally arrived at the lake. I was so glad to be off of the horse, even though I still knew I had to get back on and ride several hours back out to our truck. We laughed about it and described to each other what we had seen and experienced in those few seconds of uncertainty. And as we opened our food, Keith offered to pray and bless the food. As he thanked God that I was okay, we all felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Later, when I finally got into my waders and found my way out into the middle of the beautiful lake where we found ourselves, I prayed again and the gratitude amplified. It wasn’t just my safety for which I felt grateful, which of course was no small thing, but something else came over me. The water was still and the lake was glass. It was a deep aqua blue, the sky was clear, and the jagged peaks surrounding us were whited by the recently fallen snow. The air was crisp, nippy, threatening in its temporary abeyance in the afternoon warmth before what surely would be a very cold night. I floated on the water, without any real interest in fishing, although I casted repeatedly into the water and moved around as if I were. I was in a state of stupefaction, feeling the uncanny possibility that I would be alive at all and that this stunning beauty could be observable by anyone. I thought that if I were to die and I had any kind of feeling for nostalgia for this earth, surely this would be a logical place to want to revisit. I imagined the thousands of people who had seen this lake over the many centuries of human occupation in this corner of the world. Would they not haunt these mountains just as much as they might haunt their former homes. Assuming most of those homes were long since destroyed for the vast majority, would this not be a preferred place to come to remember their brief and odd pilgrimage? Who could expect that heaven would offer anything more beautiful than this? Who would not miss this? And why was I, so contingent, so fragile, so insignificant in this vast universe, here in this moment seeing what I was seeing? Why was this particular set of geological and atmospheric circumstances so aligned through deep and shallow time alike, conspiring together to allow this particular expression of grace? Why should I assume that I might just as easily lose my life or lose the chance to see beauty as I am to live and to experience it? We are time bound, weather bound, standing in the shallows of time, while all around us deep processes continue, molding the shape of things, of mountains and clouds alike, and making both death and beauty equally possible. Wallace Stevens was right: death is the mother of beauty. So I can’t help feeling that to experience beauty is to die just a little bit. I don’t say this to sound morbid. Quite the opposite. Coming into contact with the mortality and temporality of all things strangely makes life taste all the sweeter.