William Wordsworth wrote an important book that during his life time vied for the most popular work he ever published. Nowadays it is much less well known. It is called Guide to the Lakes, published first in 1810 and then later expanded in 1835, and in it he provides an elaborate description of the now famous Lake District in England so as to lead his reader into what he hoped would be proper aesthetic appreciation of the area’s qualities. More importantly, he hoped it might be preserved, maybe even as national property, a radical conception that influenced the creation of our own national parks in America and that would not become a political reality in his own country until more than a century later.
I have traveled to the Lake District only twice, so I am no expert on the area, but my experience has been sufficient to understand why its beauty inspired such marvelous poetry, artistry, and devotion from one man. But I have traveled enough in the world to understand that there are a great many places in the world of staggering beauty. Moreover, most places when looked at with the eyes of love, especially with the kind of driving passion of a Wordsworth, a Monet, a Pissarro, or a Derek Walcott, can be transformed into a place of exceptional and an indispensable beauty. There are a great many places in the world that we revere precisely because someone revered them first, someone like John Constable who loved the Stour River Valley in England with such passion that he was willing to risk rejection by the critics of his day because he chose to paint the ordinary scenes of his home rather than the more heroic and fantastical landscapes of mythology and history. Or someone like Wallace Stegner who brought much needed attention to the aesthetic qualities of the less iconic but nevertheless important beauties of the American West. What becomes obvious at closer inspection is that, although undeniably beautiful, these are places that are not so exceptionally beautiful that one could not find adequate or superior substitutes elsewhere. Walden Pond comes to mind.
Places are like human faces, maybe even especially children’s faces. Look long enough and with enough devotion and they all become beautiful, exceptionally so because, like the great English poet John Clare declared of his own beloved country heath, “every trifle makes it dear.” Of course, then we run the risk of failing to see beauty elsewhere, or wanting always to prove that our love triumphs over all others, such as when Wordsworth’s uxorious devotion to his home led him to foolishly declare his lakes and his mountains superior to Scotland’s. I myself am sometimes guilty of declaring Utah Valley mountains more beautiful than Salt Lake’s, but that’s really just an argument against my northern neighbors for their aesthetic and sometimes cultural chauvinism.
It isn’t hard to see that the Lake District is beautiful, but I doubt this is because it meets some universally accepted standards of beauty. It is because someone loved it enough to devote their greatest gifts of expression on its behalf. And we were ultimately convinced by the power of his words. So while I recommend a trip to the Lake District, I think a more fulfilling and meaningful trip would be out your back yard and into the world around you—be it a city skyline or a mountainside. Bring a pencil and paper. Open your eyes and ears. See what fortune has given you.