Thursday, November 05, 2009

On the Importance of Beauty ...

I have caught myself using the adjective “beautiful” a bit too often lately. What constitutes beauty? How does one recognize what is beautiful? Is it important to surround oneself with natural beauty?

We have all heard the pat phrase beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Shakespeare formulated the idea but not until 1878 did Margaret Wolfe Hungerford get it down in print. They were both right, and yet it’s hard not to react to the extraordinary beauty of the Outer Cape. It feels like a tonic. Go to the edge of any of the ocean parking lots in town. Breathe in the beauty and be invigorated. Often cars and trucks park facing the ocean in the off-season. People come with lunch and chill out, mesmerized by the view. You’d have to be a zombie not to notice. I even find stark beauty in the dunes that line the backshore.

From Wikipedia:"Beauty is a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning, or satisfaction."

“Hey, Sven!” I call across the house since the bed & breakfast is empty until tomorrow, allowing me such excess. “How would you define beautiful?”

“Oh, my God! I can’t,” he shouts back. “I can only say that you know it when you see it.”

Well, that’s true. Yesterday we drove into Provincetown, taking the first exit, Snail Road. All of a sudden, before us, extended the calm surface of Provincetown Harbor, shimmering blue water and sky, interrupted only by a thin line, distant Truro and Wellfleet. The view was so incredibly spectacular that I jumped out of the moving car to capture it with my digital camera. I knew that what I was experiencing was beauty.

We stopped at Corn Hill, in Truro, on the way back. Modern buildings stick out from the famous hill like warts. Sven talked to a native out walking her dog. She said the hill was nicer when she was a child, before development.

I often tell guests they can’t go wrong in Wellfleet. The experience will bring pleasure no matter which body of water they choose to visit. Personally, I prefer the view from Chequessett Neck, tough to photograph from the road which winds around the harbor almost like the Corniche on the Riviera. Other parts of town are just as lovely. Wellfleet is not an island and yet its placement towards the tip of a peninsula means there’s water on both sides. Not to forget our thirteen kettle ponds, so perfect that it's hard to pick a favorite. (This photo was taken at Great Pond.)

Later, once back home, Sven and I get to talking about what happens to people who are no longer surrounded by beauty. He mentions the block-like buildings of Eastern Europe, which we saw on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg. Residents, deprived of beauty, become depressed and must feel downtrodden. “In Stockholm, for instance,” Sven says. “From the 1930s, up to the 1970s, the Social Democrats were in power. Several of them came from poor background and associated old buildings with TB, crowded quarters, etc. Their goal was to create a new society with light and air, which meant taking down the older buildings in many Swedish towns. Someone joked, ‘This place looks like the inner cities of Germany. We didn’t have a war. But our cities don’t look any different from reconstructed German cities.’ Ugly. People need beauty in their lives. Today, no one wants to live in these parts of Stockholm or Upsalla. The inner cities have lost their soul.”

Wellfleet hasn’t. We are fortunate 61% is National Seashore, beauty protected forever, thanks to President Kennedy. Picturesque cottages still exist. They have not been taken down. This Cape Codder is visible from the path around Cannon Hill. Were it to be sold, the real estate agent would advertise the water view. In my opinion, it’s best new residents not tear down old structures and build mansions that jar the synchronicity. To quote a 2007 masters project paper by AnneMarie Cataldo, "Coastal lying areas are patchworks of dunes and beaches, salt marshes and freshwater wetlands. These features have endowed the Cape with a beauty ... unrivaled on the east coast of the United States." As one of our former guests remarked, our little town is graced with the type of natural beauty that “knocks your socks off.”

Are you influenced by your surroundings? Do you seek out beauty while on vacation? If you have visited Wellfleet, what part do you find the most beautiful?