Off the Beaten Path: On Beauty

Well, it’s been a long time since I wrote my last column. It seems like forever. Not that time has ceased for one moment its terrifying aspect of accelerating year after year. But, with all the strange things that we’ve been forced to endure over the past several months, it does seem to me sometimes like life has become a never-ending parade of days, its strange and confusing floats passing by in noiseless pantomime fashion, while I stand idly by on the sidelines with my hands in my pockets, wondering why I even bothered to show up. When this paper resumed publication, however, I was asked to write a new article. Suddenly, my brain had to start working again. After months of stifling boredom, I was left wondering what source I could draw my inspiration from. So, what did I do? Why, I fired up the old beater and hit the road of course! I always seem to do my best thinking while driving, so I headed out…

The road stretched out behind me in the rear-view mirror, a thin gray line rolling over the low purple hills, like bloom on a cluster of ripe grapes sweating in the summer heat. Driving north into the fading light, I was lost in thought, drawn toward a point in the distance where the road merged into an aubergine sky. A scene of surpassing bucolic beauty lay all around me. Huge rolls of hay dotted the pastureland to the east as far as the eye could see, eventually blurring into the misty distance. In the west, the lowering sun sat vigil over the land, its ruddy face raining rivulets of molten bronze into the valley below, turning fields into seas of burnished gold. Torrid red clouds coalesced and transformed above the horizon, forming flocculent phantasms of the fancy, and supplying ample food upon which to feast my reveries.

I realized then that this is what I most relish in life – witnessing beautiful scenes of nature such as this. I thank God that he has given me the opportunity and means to see so much. Whenever I start to question the decisions I’ve made in my life, there is always some scene I can bring forth in my mind that justifies them all and lets me know that I had no choice, really. Whether it’s evening fog hanging low over an infinite sea of grass in Manitoba, or clouds crashing like icebergs into the mighty peaks along the fjords of British Columbia, or watching the sun set over that lonely stretch of road in the New Mexico desert, a million miles from anywhere, I couldn’t do without any of them. They are my friends, like the moon and the stars. Had I chosen any other way I doubt our paths would have crossed, and that would be a tragedy too great to ponder.

So, my thought, as I drove along that day, was that perhaps I could bring beauty to my readers. After all, what could provide a better balm to nerves frayed by lockdowns and social unrest?  Beauty raises one’s gaze from the everyday to the transcendent. Ponder its mysteries and you begin to see traceries of the structure that underlies it all and connects you and me and everything else into one delicate web of existence. It gives one a glimpse into the eternal and the infinite. It is here that we can all garner intimations of immortality, and maybe even of God himself. Emerson said flowers are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world. I agree with that sentiment, but it also speaks to the danger that sometimes lies in wait, ready to ensnare those enraptured by beauty. After all, the mythical mariners of ancient Greece were drawn to a watery grave by the irresistible beauty of the sirens’ song. Engaging in too great a quest for beauty ushers in the prospect that you could actually FORGET all the utilities of the world, becoming lost in the wilderness, as it were, by going too far OFF THE BEATEN PATH.

I promise that I will do my best not to lead you too far off the straight and narrow, but who knows where we will go in the coming months? My main goal will be to give you ideas as to relatively short driving treks you can take into the countryside surrounding Greenbrier County, following routes you may not otherwise have known about or considered. I’ve found that on virtually every trip I ever take I find something beautiful or interesting. You just have to be paying attention. It’s that type of thing I hope to share with you. Of course, beauty comes in all guises and forms and is not restricted to scenery alone, so maybe we’ll explore those other realms as well. Bear in mind that beauty is often of a fleeting nature. This is inherent in the mutable character of the world, and there is nothing to be done about it. What I see in my travels may not be there when you get there. C’est la vie. All I can do is point the way to your own discovery.

Until we meet again in next month’s column, I urge you to be on the lookout for all things beautiful. You can find it in the subtle as well as the sublime. This will surely aid in lifting your spirits and will help get you through these trying times. I will end this month’s column by recommending you take a look at one beautiful sight that you may very well not have a chance to see again in your lifetime. Go outside right after sunset on a clear night and look to the northwestern sky. See if you can identify the big dipper and then scan the area right below the actual dipper part. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of comet NEOWISE, which won’t be putting on another show for almost 7,000 years! There was no way I was going to miss it! All I needed was some good weather and a site with a clear, unobstructed view of the western horizon. So, on July 19th, I traveled out to a farm on Route 60 just west of Lewisburg, getting there right after the sun went down. At first, I couldn’t see anything. The big dipper itself was just barely visible, lost in the afterglow of a beautiful orange-red sunset.  My companions and I settled in and I kept looking, using my peripheral vision, until I finally thought I saw something. Using my binoculars, it was easy to locate. What an amazing sight! A huge, fuzzy ball with its tail streaking off across the sky. The tail was MUCH longer than I had envisioned it would be. Wow. Unbelievable. It’s something that will be with me the rest of my life. I’d have to say it’s the second greatest astronomical experience I’ve ever had, ranking right after the total solar eclipse of 2017 (I doubt that one will ever be beaten!). Trust me folks, this is something you don’t want to miss. You might want to grab a few drinks and some friends and have yourself a big ol’ comet party!

Comet photo above by Brian Hirt.

Here are some things to keep in mind while you’re observing NEOWISE:

1. The head of the comet is about 3 miles across, which is big enough that, if it hit the Earth, it would probably wipe out almost all life on the planet! BUT IT’S NOT GOING TO HIT THE EARTH! SEE NUMBER 2!

2. It’s about 65 million miles away. (SHEW!)

3. It’s traveling at about 150,000 miles per hour, which is like going from Lewisburg to Los Angeles in 1 minute!

4. The tail is several million miles long. And here’s a little tidbit that you’ll probably find most interesting – after a comet swings around the sun and is heading back away from it, which NEOWISE has already done, its tail actually LEADS the comet. In other words, the head is actually traveling TOWARDS the tail! That’s pretty much the opposite of what you’d think! Ponder that for a while. Wow, space is amazing.

There hasn’t been a comet this easily visible to the naked eye since 1997, when comet Hale-Bopp blazed a trail across the skies. No one knows how long it will be till another one shows up. So, as you can see, if you want to experience a comet, it’s of paramount importance that you go look now! Unfortunately, by the time you read this article, you may need a pair of binoculars to see it at all. It will be growing ever fainter after late July, and indeed it may fizzle out completely at any time. Ah, there’s that fleeting nature of beauty again. All I can say is, catch it while you can folks.

Until next time, watch where you tread, and maybe, just maybe, you might sometimes want to go OFF THE BEATEN PATH.

– Barry Pyne. Hashtag Lewisburg City Paper #125. August 2020. Photos of Greenbrier County by Barry Pyne.

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