October 14, 2009

Beauty Deficit Disorder


Last Friday evening I was on my way up to Red Feather Lakes (above 7500 feet) and I noticed that the leaves were mostly still green. By Saturday morning it was 15 degrees at my house in Fort Collins which raised havoc with our fall foliage. The leaves on the ash trees fell to the ground still green. Leaves on the catalpa trees turned a frozen see-through green then hung on the trees like limp black rags. You might say that these trees are not native to Colorado anyway, but even the good old Cottonwood, the lord of prairie trees, turned from green straight to brown. Only the oaks which turn very late in the season hold much hope of sporting their fall colors.

At my house fall is a celebration, and each year I gather the most beautiful leaves (like a third-grader) bring them home, and arrange them on our dining room table.  The beauty in nature sustains me, I require beauty and inspiration on a daily basis, like food.

Perhaps this is because the place where I grew up was altogether un-beautiful. Growing up in a dingy, blue collar suburb of Boston, I learned to look for trees, or birds, or any sign of nature. While our town tore down Victorian mansions and their stately trees, and built high-rises in their place, I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and peered into the little bit of woods that I could find in search of Elves. I liked the image of the immortal Elves of Lothlorien turning their grief at the changing of the world into song under the gold, unfading leaves of memory. Meanwhile my real life was more like a scene from Good Will Hunting, a particular flavor of bleak and brutal unique to Boston.  

The modern world seems to favor efficiency and convenience over the purely beautiful and the natural, the results of which are injurious to the human spirit.

Human beings need to be connected with nature. It sustains us on many levels. Everyday I see people out walking on trails at High Plains Environmental Center, or in various natural areas in Fort Collins. I imagine that these people (like me) are getting their exercise, as well as preventing Beauty Deficit Disorder. 

James Hillman, a noted psychologist, wrote about beauty deficit disorder, when he said “The arts, whose task once was considered to be that of manifesting the beautiful, will discuss the idea only to dismiss it, regarding beauty only as the pretty, the simple, the pleasing, the mindless, and the easy. Because beauty is conceived too naively, it appears merely naive, and can be tolerated only if complicated by discord, shock, violence, and harsh terrestrial realities. I therefore feel justified in speaking of the repression of beauty.”  

Young people in particular seem to be able to draw solace and sustenance from nature, perhaps it’s just a place where they can be alone and think their own thoughts. I found this poem written on a tree by the river where  I walk.   

 What a day when there’s nowhere w/out other voices getting in the way. I’m not yet strong enough to stay. Not weak enough to whine, so I am stuck like a kite in a tree who was released & blew out of siteHana 2008

I hope things worked out for Hana. Anyone cool enough to write a poem on a tree has got a lot going for them.  

Perhaps I will do the same. Like Hana and the Elves I will make a song of sorrow for the loss of golden leaves, and it will echo in the sighing of the forest.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado. HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners, to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s unique native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. www.suburbitat.org

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