On Possessing Beauty

By

On the second-to-the-last day of September, in the year of our Lord 2011, I came into possession of a hill in the English countryside.

I marked the event that evening with all due solemnity and appropriate honors. My husband and I had ostensibly walked out in the late afternoon to watch the sunset from a neighboring slope, but with a few quick modifications, and all the young joy of a first-time hill-owner, I adapted it into a celebration. I cut a few swinging strands of ivy that hung over the rutted path we took from our cottage, and as soon as we had spread our blanket on the grassy prospect, I sat down and began weaving them into a coronet. Philip grinned a little ruefully as I studded it with tiny thistles—the bane of any pasture-keeper’s existence; the amethysts and jasper of the woodland lapidary. But when I opened our tea caddy and produced, not the expected and well-traveled thermos and tin cups, but a bottle of champagne, his smile registered genuine surprise.

“This is a momentous occasion,” I said gravely, attempting to loosen the cork and then passing it to him in a sudden fear of flying consequences. “It’s not every day you come into property.”

I had wanted it the moment I had seen it: that green, sweeping hill, mounting in an undulation of gentle swales to a point dark among the hedges. The longing had leapt up in me with a thrill of pain and joy and I knew it had to be mine, right down to the least blade of grass. And not the hillside only, but the lane by which I had reached it, overarched by chestnuts and wizened holly trees, and the cottage it led from, buried in a steep fold of the Dorset hills. I wanted the orchard I came through and all its ripe burden of sun-warmed fruit. I wanted the sunlight itself, falling dapple-dazzling in pools of wealth upon the landscape and I wanted the blue bowl of sky arching cloud-swept above. I was inexorable in my demands: I even required the very lambs and ewes with which it was populated, grazing in ceaseless content upon its verdant slope.

The transaction had gone through without a hitch—and completely unbeknown to the thoroughly lovely and gracious couple that occupied the land. The husband, a gentleman farmer of the old school, even witnessed the proceedings from afar, hailing me from his tractor as he chugged off down into the hollow, and hadn’t the least suspicion what I was up to.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced such an overmastering and irresistible passion for ownership. In like manner, I had snatched up every last Canova in the Louvre, and the Alpen-crowned sapphire of Italy’s Lake Como. I had collected a red sandshore on Prince Edward Island and a time-forgotten homestead in the Shenandoah Valley and an entire jewel of an island off the coast of Georgia. I had even managed to purchase, in a happy circumstance of exceedingly good fortune, a certain majestic cedar tree, gleaming out from a dawn-lit mist and hung with diamonds of rarest dew. This last was a steal, and genuinely rare, for I found it in my own backyard.

The cork flew off the bottle with a festive pop and we watched it soar straight over our heads like a springing lark. I retrieved it from the grass at my side and dropped it into the tea caddy as a souvenir.

“I’m landed gentry,” I told Philip, lifting my glass to a level with the departing sun and watching the rose-tinted light flit and sparkle among the bubbles. “In good standing and by all the inviolable laws of fairyland.”

In his elegant collection of essays, The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton observes that this insatiable yearning for acquisition in the face of overwhelming beauty is common to the human condition. “A dominant impulse on encountering beauty,” he writes, “is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this, and it mattered to me.’”

I had never heard it expressed that way, but de Botton’s words were a wind upon the Aeolian harp of my deepest sensibilities, and I knew by the hints of that far-off song that he was on to something. Perhaps something bigger and truer than even he imagined.

He went on to recount how John Ruskin had considered this phenomenon and had concluded that there was an effective and thoroughly respectable means of satisfying such an insatiable craving: to look deeply enough into the beauty to gain an awareness of its specific elements and impressions, and to make the attempt to express it artistically.

In other words, to see, and to describe what you have seen.

This was Ruskin’s motivation, both in his teaching and his drawing manuals: to help others to see. To open their eyes and to loosen their fingers. To “direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.” He espoused two particular mediums for this endeavor, sketching and “word-painting.” (Photography was initially advocated, as well, until it became apparent to him that the general enthusiasm was leaning all-too-precariously towards the temptation to let the camera do all the seeing.) And in both cases, he was adamant on one point: natural aptitude and talent were secondary—even inferior—to open eyes. To teach a person to draw, with strokes of a pencil or with words, was to place a golden key in their hands—they would never look at the world around them the same way again. The old indifference which is the curse of familiarity would give way before the staggering particularity of nature and design. And in the effort to produce a creative response, howsoever imperfect, the beauty could be owned in a way that even physical possession could not guarantee.

My contract on the hill was drawn up in the form of a poem. Candidly, I don’t know the first thing about writing poetry; it would be generous to call all previous attempts awkward. But when I saw that hill, when I knew I must have it, I knew with equal conviction that the payment had to be made in verse. It was so far beyond my powers that the added humility of ineptitude seemed appropriate. For three hours I sat there in the sun, a blue English sky above and the beloved, satiny English grass beneath, and waited upon that work. I was aware of every flick of a bird’s wing in the hedges behind me, and the deep, concentrated indigo of the bloom-frosted sloes tangled thick within the branches. A cockerel saluted the world from some unseen farmyard far below and the uniquely pastoral, slightly ovine scent of the countryside rose up to greet me like a friend. I watched the shadow of a tree travel over the velvet surface of a mounded hill to the south and saw the wood doves fling themselves skyward with a bustle of feathers and matronly complaint. And when, at length, I collected my things and started back down towards our cottage and my tea, I could almost hear my own heart pounding in my chest, I felt so alive.

I had come to inquire and I was leaving in possession.

But ownership is not all, of course, even in this imaginative sense—there is a much deeper magic at play for the child of God. For the true apprehension of beauty, like faith itself, is an exercise in laying claim to what is already ours. There is a low door in the garden wall, and it opens on an inheritance: this is my Father’s world, and He has given it to me. All of the beauty in this astonishing universe of ours has already been lavished by a self-giving Creator. Wakefulness and effort give forth upon our birthright; seeing becomes receiving. Of this sublimity the Restoration-era minister Thomas Traherne waxes exuberant in his masterpiece of meditation, Centuries: “Your enjoyment of the world is never right,” he says, “till you so esteem it, that everything in it is more your treasure than a King’s exchequer full of Gold and Silver…till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

In short, if we find ourselves wandering through this beautiful world of ours with ink-stained fingers and dreamy eyes and a slightly lopsided ivy crown, gazing about like we own the place, it’s because we do.

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


38 Comments

  1. Thomas McKenzie

    I love this, Lanier. LOVE IT!

    As far as what you are saying (beyond how well you are saying it) I have often felt this way, too. The idea first came to me way back in English class in my public school in Texas. We read Thoreau, and I loved this bit:

    “I found thus that I had been a rich man without any damage to my poverty. But I retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow. With respect to landscapes, ‘I am monarch of all I survey, My right there is none to dispute.’ ”

    I, too, own land all over the world. Some of it I visit frequently, most of it I am content to just possess.

    Beautiful writing. Truly.

    Thomas+

  2. Patrick J. Moore

    Thank you for this inspiring post. I am often aware of beauty, and find myself lost in it from time to time, but not often enough do I take a moment to even photograph that tree, sunset, hill, sky, But to write or draw it, and capture… no, reclaim ownership of my Father’s world. Wow. Not sure where my desire to own the beauty has been sleeping, but it is waking after this read. What grand empowering thoughts. Thank you.

  3. Jon Slone

    This was wonderful. Inspiring and much much more. Love the pictures it painted for me. It even swept me away for a while….suddenly my cold and sick Mom and my egg-roll lunch and my Lego-playing kid were all gone and I was on a verdant hill staring at dreams that were already mine. Yummy post. [

  4. Natasha Beljin

    A beautiful post; one of many that help us hold up and imagine the fence surrounding us, the boundary lines that fall in pleasant places. Truly we have a delightful inheritance, one we could neither buy nor earn. Thank you for your reminder.

  5. Patrick J. Moore

    Douglas, I had a thought like yours as well. Lanier presents herself very humbly, and in that presentation may make those of us who are not yet to her ability feel very inadequate. But if we recognize the excellence of her writing (despite her claims otherwise) then perhaps she can be a master we can study under. She gives a great lesson here to begin with. So rather than be discouraged, I agree with Ua, and choose to be inspired to more instead.

  6. David

    The curious twist in this to me are those things so lovely that I think I cannot own them, I dare not; they are too beautiful and resonant to be bound by brittle hands…

  7. SD Smith

    Wonderful. Amazing.

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Lanier.

    This is the sort of meditation I need to read every day. If not read, then believe, and operate in life like an owner.

    The “this world is not my home” mantra is only true in a sense. In a deep sense, it is not only home, in Christ it is all ours.

    I love how this post helps me anticipate the right-side-up world.

    Cheers!

  8. Marsha Panola

    Thank you, Lanier. This is so lovely. And it was so perfect to find it here after having rejoiced today over new mulberry leaves with the sunlight glowing through them, a cypress tree so crazy green against the almost purple-blue sky, those little fireball huisache flowers meeting that same sky with an explosion of sweet fragrance, the awesome scent of citrus blossoms hanging in the still air, and the taste of raindrops on a rose, all in my back yard!

    Do you feel sometimes like God is pulling you along by the hand, saying, “Come look at this!”? Then I want to run and show somebody else! And I love it when my kids see those things and share them with me. Then we’re sort of co-owners, I guess. God does really richly give us all things.

    Thanks again for inspiring; this does make me want to hurry out and create and pass on the beauty, like you did!

  9. Becca

    Carey! Welcome to the Rabbit Room. You are going to love it here, my friend. Prepare yourself to become seven again and full of every true, best fairy tale.

  10. Carey

    I confess, Becca, the first time you introduced me here, it was poetry and my head snapped away viscously thinking myself unable to handle it. This post, however, draws me unerringly, particularly in light of the discussion we’ve been having lately.

  11. Amy D

    Truly amazing. For a moment, I was transported to a solitary stroll I took through Kew Gardens many years ago. I felt such feelings, thought such thoughts, and wrote a poem in response, but I have never been able to to tell the story of the moment so eloquently. Thank you Lanier!

  12. Sir Jonathan C. Andrews

    For me this will take me to my lands in Spain. There is a cobblestone alley there and an arched bridge I once walked on. I have not claimed ownership of these in many years.

  13. Don Chaffer

    Reminds me of one of my fave Dylan lyrics from “Shelter From The Storm”: “Now I’m living in another country/ But I’m bound to cross the line./ Beauty walks a razor’s edge/ Some day I’ll make it mine.”

  14. Kami

    Lovely! Beautiful! Your piece specifically recalls to mind images of my attempts at poetry for this very reason upon encountering an exquisite Chesapeake Bay sunset years ago and upon trying to “own” Brazil/Argentina’s Iguazu Falls by taking a picture of it.

  15. Brenda@Coffeeteabooksandme

    I was having an extended quiet time this morning as my eyes drifted to some of the lovely things in my living room. From within (that area of my soul where He speaks), I received an instinct… a knowing… that all I longed for here finds a completion in Heaven.

    How, I don’t really know living with this finite brain but somehow I just KNEW. 🙂

    By the way, I fell in love with Virginia when we were there in September. I don’t know what it was about this time (perhaps the magic… Narnia magic… of Colonial Williamsburg?) because I’ve been to Virginia many times.

    But I found myself on the way back home just drinking in all the beautiful scenery, wherever there were gentle rolling hills and mountains. Remembering them when I see nothing but snow laden corn fields.

  16. Caleb

    Such a wonderful piece. I was listening to Paul Cardall’s ‘Redeemer’ as I read, which made it an even more powerful experience. (The photo reminds me of a scene from the movie Shadowlands, where Lewis and Joy were taking a car ride in the country.)

    This type of writing should fill the newspapers of our world. I would actually read them were that the case, and the world would be a much better place for all.

  17. Donna S

    Well Lanier, your fairy-dust has landed upon this hoary head and brought recognition of a lifelong habit never truly understood until this moment. I once shared a sunset with my husband that was so spectacular, so lingering, so soul-meltingly resplendent, that it made us both weep. I just realized that it lives in my possession for eternity. I hold the deed and God smiles.

  18. James Witmer

    The last time I felt this desire was, perhaps oddly, upon finishing The Fiddler’s Green. But I tried a poem, and I tried a song, and could finish neither adequately, so Pete’s ownership of his story is secure. =)

    Perhaps a re-reading would do it…

  19. Loren

    Thank you for this beauty and reminder, Lanier.

    I admit that when I started to read it I was hit with a bolt of jealousy: “She bought a piece of English countryside? How? Why can’t I ever do something so cool–and write so beautifully about it?”

    But no fear, I read on, and as a result I was rewarded with the wonderful discovery that I have great wealth of my own 🙂 .

  20. Lanier

    I’m late with my thanks, but I wanted to let everyone know how much I appreciated your thoughtful comments and shared experiences. Communication is pure joy when it meets with such warmth and identification.

    I just love the conversations that happen in this place, and the hearts of the people behind them.

  21. Wife, Mother, Gardener

    Beautiful! It love this child-like love for all of our world.

    I would add that one of the great tragedies of life happens when we fail to really own what is already allotted to us… hiring other people to make our food, garden our gardens, decorate our houses and care for our children. It is not that it is always wrong to gives these task away, but what are we losing in the giving? We are robbing ourselves.

  22. Mary Elizabeth Cantrell

    This beautiful discovery brought to my remembrance clearly the sensations I experienced the first time I read The Little White Horse. We had recently moved to Bisbee, Arizona where my father was rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church (1959-1966). Bisbee was at that time home to the largest open pit copper mine in the world and at el. 5280 ft. a wonderland set as a jewel in an otherwise desert flat land. There was a cool crispness in the morning air that I could picture vividly as I read this masterpiece. Even though there was no sea on the other side of the mountains I could see the waves breaking on a shore in my mind’s fertile longing. I was a precocious second grader, well read far beyond my years, slightly rebellious (oldest of six) and always looking for adventure. I loved to spend time time with people of at least grandparent age AND I could cook! The world of Mari Merriweather was instantly a true place to me. And it is a place I have revisited scores of times…almost annually..just as I did the secret garden and the land of Narnia.. Thank you for sharing your acqisition…I have been thinkin through my collection. Each time we moved, I looked forward to the new home and its particular spirit and personality. Its new meaning of home and expression of God’s creation.

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