Great Lovers… of Places

Near Rydal Mount in the Lake District

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.

Stour River, near the home of John Constable

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.

Mount Timpanogos, near my home

What I really want to say is that places deserve lovers, most especially lovers who have the discipline, the drive, the skills, and the will to stick around long enough so that their songs of praise for their homes might be passed on to future generations and convince enough people to stay put and work to keep that place beautiful for future generations. I know tourism is rife with problems. I can’t answer exhaustively the question of how to love beauty sustainably, but we could start maybe by encouraging people to make visits to a place a little longer than a few hours. Can we invite people to see places on the power of their own legs and arms whenever possible and not always and only by mechanized transportation or recreation? Can we suggest that you learn to love home first, just a little bit, before flinging yourself across the world? Just a few thoughts. If we had a deeper culture of appreciation for home, right where we are, when we are there, maybe wanderlust would not be so intense. And maybe then we could build a culture, as Stegner once asked, worthy of our landscapes. I would rather deal with the problem of Wordsworthian chauvinism (i.e., my lakes are the best!!) than too many people seeing every place as equally indistinct and nondescript to their shallow eyes, to their wasted skills of language, unused gifts of visual representation, and flat and unresponsive senses of smell, taste, and hearing.

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.

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