We need beauty as much as we need food, water and air, whether it’s visual or auditory. Ignoring that fundamental need parches us.
In a time when so many people spend their lives staring at a screen, encountering beauty in real life — a flower, a bird, a sky filled with stars, a painting or piece of music — can be transformative.
We’re lucky to live in a small town — pop. 10,000 — 25 miles north of Manhattan, named one of the nation’s 10 prettiest by Forbes magazine. If you’ve seen the films Mona Lisa Smile, The Preacher’s Wife or The Good Shepherd, (one of my favorites), you’ve glimpsed our handsome main street in each of these, filled with Victorian-era shops and homes.
Our apartment has great views of the Hudson River, tree-tops, acres of sky and clouds. We savor spectacular sunsets and birdsong, butterflies and fireflies in the cool, green dusk.
In New York city, we have access to museums and art galleries and parks, grateful for every bit of it.
Here are some of the things I find beautiful, that nurture and calm me…
Beautiful architecture — this is Union Station in D.C.
Color, design, elegant neo-classical murals — part of the Library of Congress, in D.C.
Every patch of earth, if you kneel down and really look closely, is a tapestry of color, texture, growth and decay
More neo-classical fabulousness — this, a corner of Bryant Park, midtown Manhattan
I’m crazy about textiles — the purple floral is now curtains in our sitting room
Pattern is everywhere! This is in Soho, Manhattan — glass inserts to allow light into a basement of an early building there
Nothing unusual — lawn furniture in autumn — but I love the symmetry of it from above; this at Hovey Manor, Quebec
I love this painted tin wall, one of the shops on our main street in Tarrytown, NY
I love this view — Bucks County, Pennsylvania — out the window of a 1905 farmhouse a friend used to rent
Every year I wait with bated breath for this lilac tree near us to bloom. Swoon!
Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti — but its wooden houses are amazingly colored and cared for
Where in your daily life does beauty manifest itself?
Are you — fellow Northern Hemisphere folk — feeling as cabin feverish as I am?
In mid-winter, it’s either gray or rainy or windy or bitterly cold or the streets are too icy.
Today was a blessed 57 unseasonally warm degrees and out I went to enjoy the walk along the reservoir.
One of the things I love most about living somewhere for a long time is getting to know a landscape intimately, like the face of a dear friend or the hands of your sweetie.
I’ve walked the reservoir path, a paved mile in each direction, shaded the whole way by tall trees, for the past 27 years now, in all four seasons, alone and with my husband and, a long time ago, with my lovely little terrier, Petra, who died in June 1996.
Here’s some of what I saw, heard, smelled and savored today:
The stream is starting to rush again as the snow and ice melt
Trees are showing the tiniest bit of bud
Winter-weathered leaves rustle gently in the breeze, the soft creamy beige of a very good camel hair overcoat
The white flash of a swan’s bum as it digs into the lakebed
The tang of woodsmoke from someone’s chimney
Soft emerald moss, tossed like a velvet duvet
Strengthening sun gilding the edges of the forest
Vines clinging to weathered granite
The soothing lapping sound of water on rock at the lake’s edge
Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.
Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.
Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:
I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.
If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.
Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:
Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.
Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.
I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.
I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.
What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?
To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions
To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.
To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.
To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.
To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.
To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.
I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.
I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.
I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.
What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?
I’ve lived — which stuns me — for 25 years on the same street, a steeply hilly winding road that has raccoons, deer, coyotes, raspberry bushes and still has a clear view, however unlikely, of the gleaming towers of Manhattan 25 miles due south.
When I moved here, the corporate headquarters for Hitachi on our street, a vast expanse of orchards and green lawns, was ringed by split-rail wooden fences. Those fences are gone now and I miss their rural charm.
Across the street from Hitachi, all this time, has been a thick, impenetrable woods, deep, dark, leafy and green, a lush and powerful natural sight and sound barrier dividing our quiet street from a busy four-lane highway running east-west a block away across our suburban county.
I’ve always marveled at how rustic and quiet it’s kept our street — it has never felt suburban to me because of this — and been grateful for that.
Here are some images of the sudden changes that began this month. Changes that have now forever altered the bucolic character of our street. Now, in an unwelcome change, we can see not only the office buildings on the north side of that road, but clear through to the south side.
The world is intruding.
It’s inevitable. Undeveloped land often holds potential commercial value. Land offers developers profit and the town added tax revenues.
But landscapes unaltered retain their own beauty, silence, natural life and history.
I often wonder what our suburban New York landscape was like before the Europeans arrived — as it is, we still have New York State’s second-oldest church a mere 10 minutes north of our home.
Who remembers what lay there before?
And there I was recently, in a shiny, new-ish TD Bank in Elmsford, NY, one of the least lovely towns in Westchester, NY, a sadly industrial mish-mash of office complexes, car washes, big box grocery stores. You wouldn’t think, seeing it today, there would have been much very attractive to miss.
And there was a photo mural — here’s a poster they’ve printed and keep in a stack for us to take — of what was there before.
I found this deeply moving and so unusual. A multinational bank caring about what its local customers might have remembered of that landscape, of their town’s history?
I’m at an age now where too many places I’ve known and loved are gone for good.
In Manhattan, the extraordinary profits to be made in real estate have closed many well-loved spots. One of the most recent was a pharmacy, Avignone, on the southwest corner of Sixth and Bleecker, which was one of the city’s oldest.
The lovely Cafe Angelique, barely a decade old at the corner of Grove and Bleecker, closed this year when the landlord suddenly demanded a monthly rent of $45,000. You just can’t sell that much coffee or that many cupcakes.
Here’s Neil’s, on the same corner of Lexington and 70th for 50 years.
If you, like me, are a fan of the TV show Project Runway, you might mourn the loss of this midtown New York City Building.
From The New York Times:
It is only 53 years old, but the cornerstone of a doomed building in Manhattan’s garment district reads like an impossibly hopeful sentiment from a distant time, from a world that can never be recovered.
“Dedicated to the ideal that, through better human relations, understanding and good will among peoples, the supreme dignity and indissoluble brotherhood of man can be achieved.”
This was once Brotherhood House.
At the end, the six-story building at 560 Seventh Avenue, at 40th Street, was barely remembered by that name, or as a crucible of social advocacy in the 1960s.
Now, it is vacant. The departure of the last tenant, the Garment Center Synagogue, has allowed asbestos abatement to begin. Demolition is to start this year, followed by the construction of a 29-story, 238-room Dream Hotel, opening in 2018.
In my hometown of Toronto, a beloved landmark, The Coffee Mill, closed this year after a 50-year run. I will miss their goulash and strudel, their cappuccino — and the memory of my childhood visits there when they first opened.
It’s one thing to mourn a lost restaurant or shop.
It’s another entirely when our natural landscape, as it is every day anyway, is forever changed — and possibly destroyed.
On the South Rim plateau, less than two miles from the park’s entrance, the gateway community of Tusayan, a town just a few blocks long, has approved plans to construct 2,200 homes and three million square feet of commercial space that will include shops and hotels, a spa and a dude ranch.
Among its many demands, the development requires water, and tapping new wells would deplete the aquifer that drives many of the springs deep inside the canyon — delicate oases with names like Elves Chasm and Mystic Spring. These pockets of life, tucked amid a searing expanse of bare rock, are among the park’s most exquisite gems…
Less than 25 miles to the northeast of Tusayan, Navajo leaders are working with developers from Scottsdale to construct a 1.4-mile tramway that would descend about 3,200 feet directly into the heart of the canyon. They call it Grand Canyon Escalade.
The cable system would take more than 4,000 visitors a day in eight-person gondolas to a spot on the floor of the canyon known as the Confluence, where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River merge with the emerald green current of the Colorado. The area, which is sacred to many in the Hopi and Zuni tribes, as well as Navajo people, would feature an elevated walkway, a restaurant and an amphitheater.
Maybe it’s the result of having spent my childhood summers at camp, canoeing through landscapes unchanged for centuries, possibly millennia — granite outcroppings, wind-whipped pines, dark, deep, cold lakes.
I am most moved, sometimes to tears, by places of timeless natural beauty: Corsica, Thailand, the Arizona and New Mexico desert, northern Ontario.
We’ll soon be renting a seaside cottage in one of the most rural parts of one of the most rural countries, Co. Donegal in Ireland. Can’t wait!
I love the paintings by The Group of Seven, Canada’s equivalent of the Impressionists, whose images of our land, from the Arctic to the crimson trees of autumn, always make me homesick.
Do you have a landscape you’re deeply attached to?
I assume many of you have already seen this amazing video of a seal climbing onto a surfboard in England?
If not, spare 2:04 minutes of your life for a lovely, charming reminder of something we often forget — we’re just another species.
I’m writing this on our top-floor balcony, listening to the wind in the trees and the buzzing of passing bumblebees. Birds twitter. One recent evening, at 2:40 a.m. we bolted awake to the howling of a pack of coyotes.
But we live 25 miles north of New York City, able to see the city’s skyscrapers from our street, not some Montana ranch!
Our planters are bursting with flowers and our woods are filled with deer, raccoon, squirrels, chipmunks.
I fear for our planet when so many children and teens are suffering from nature deficit disorder, because you can’t fight for legislation and other protective behaviors if “nature” remains something you’ve only seen or heard mediated through a glass screen.
You have to feel it, taste it, touch it, know it. We all need intimate, consistent, ongoing connections to the natural world, not just simulacra or a packaged bit of it in plastic at the grocery store.
I’m grateful for having spent my childhood and teen summers in the wild of northern Ontario at summer camp and on multi-day canoe trips. I love a loon call, the peel of a birch tree, the striations of granite.
We are still, as homo sapiens, only one of millions of other species in our world, some furry, some feathered, some scaled, some noisy and some mostly (to our ears anyway) silent.
A few years ago, a red-tailed hawk landed on our 6th floor balcony railing, which is only 12 feet wide. He stared at me silently, and I felt like prey. Having written about raptors, I know they can see for many miles. I wondered what he saw when he gazed into my eyes.
We don’t have any pets, so any encounter with a (non-threatening!) animal or bird is a real joy for me — especially horses and dogs; I’m the person who always stops to say hello and pat other people’s dogs (with permission.)
My young friend Molly recently fell off an elephant into the Mekong River.
I don’t envy the fall, or her ruined camera and lens, but elephants are my favorite animals of all. I rode on one myself in Thailand, sitting on his neck, and dreamed of a second career as a mahout.
Someone’s footsteps (what sort of shoes are they wearing? Are they young or old? Thin or heavy?)
The distant echoing whistle of a passing train.
The hum of the refrigerator.
Your dog’s whimper as he naps.
Your children, laughing (or crying!)
Blessed with sight, we often forget how much we hear, or could hear, in any given moment if we stopped to pay closer attention. If you live in a noisy, crowded city — car horns, engine sounds, cellphones, sirens, the beeping of a truck backing up, bus brakes sighing — it seems counter-intuitive as we we’re always trying to block it out.
But stand somewhere quieter, eyes closed, and you’ll be amazed how many sounds you’ll pick up.
Some of my favorites include:
Street singers, walking and clapping their hands, in Andalusia
The clanging of metal halyards against metal sailboat masts
A bird in Kenya whose call sounded just like a beeping alarm clock
The muezzin’s chant from a tower in Istanbul
The chatter of coins dropped onto a small china dish, change returned in Paris
The click of my husband’s key in the front door as he returns from work
Wind soughing through tall, fragrant pines
The gurgle of a canoe paddle pushing water
The specific thwack of a well-hit golf ball
The specific clang of a well-hit softball off of a metal bat
A coyote howling beneath our (suburban New York!?) windows
A baby’s giggle
The crunching of car tires on gravel
Tea being poured into a bone china teacup
Jet engines revving — a trip about to start!
That odd sing-song-y noise before the subway doors close in Paris
But you do not need to be an acoustic engineer armed with a stun gun and sophisticated measuring tools to be awed by the singing sands of the Kelso Dunes in the Californian Mojave Desert (caused by an avalanche of very dry sand down a steep slope) or by the cascading roar of the sea inside Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, which inspired Mendelssohn to compose his “Hebrides” overture…
Mr. Cox also plays with, and explains, the acoustics of whispering galleries like that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the one by the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, in which sound is guided along the tiled archway.
(I added the bold/italics as I think this is so cool!)
Two pioneering composers are turning forest plants and animals of Thetford Forest into virtual conductors this summer, creating ‘Living Symphonies’ where visitors will be able to hear the sounds of the forest in musical form from 24-30 May.
The artists, James Bulley and Daniel Jones, have been working with Forestry Commission ecologists to map the true extent of woodland wildlife and plantlife in one of the East’s most beautiful forests, reacting to all that is alive within a forest. The composers have then created a musical motif for each organism living in the forest, then, with speakers hidden amongst the trees, digital technology generates the full symphony in real time – when an animal moves, so does their music.
If a flock of birds moves across the canopy the visitor may hear a cluster of clarinets move with them. When rain causes some animals to emerge while others hide away; it will also trigger moisture sensors causing their musical counterparts to do the same. The animals and plants become the conductors.
Together they hope to create a remarkable new way for audiences to explore forests with their ears as well as their eyes. As the visitor explores the music they will also become aware of just how complex an eco-system a forest is.
Coming home after the concert to a midnight supper of soup and sandwiches
Treating myself to a beautiful DVF skirt on sale
The fresh-earth smell of spring
Forsythia in every vase in every room
Re-finding a very good pair of earrings I’d thought I’d lost years ago
The magnolia tree that blossoms — so briefly! — and smells so delicious on our building’s property
Listening to Yann Tiersen’s haunting, lovely music for La Valse des Monstres
After a long, cold, bitter, icy winter, finally walking along the reservoir with warm sunshine on my shoulders
Pretty new curtains — shower curtains re-purposed! — for a grand total of $50
Finding a very good new-to-me Manhattan restaurant whose desserts are $6 — not the usual $10-12
Receiving an email this week — three years after the publication of my last book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” — which began with the words: “It was a great book. I was captivated from the start, interested in your fellow employees and appreciated the research and insight you provided.” It’s so satisfying to keep finding appreciative readers.
My husband’s surprise gift to me — deep purple suede loafers with bright orange soles
An out-of-the-blue email apologizing for a decades-old shattered friendship from someone I miss
A hand-written thank-you note from a client
Two offers of paid work in one day, both arriving unsolicited
This amazing goat cheese, super-creamy.
The medicinal smell, translucent brown and lush lather of Pears soap, a brand founded in 1807
A stack of unread library books: (I watch GOT on HBO and follow fellow Canadian and very cool astronaut Chris Hadfield on Twitter)