“For those of us that grew up going out into the wilds of the world…we got into our souls a sense of beauty.”
Last weekend I attended, with many hundreds of others, the memorial service for the great conservationist Douglas Tompkins, a man I was privileged to know and admire. The vast hall at Fort Mason in San Francisco where the event took place was filled with enormous posters of the many spectacular places in Patagonia that Doug was instrumental in protecting. It struck me as unusual to attend what felt like a Bay Area progressive gathering adorned so prominently with so many beautiful pictures.
In addition to many personal stories and tributes, a number of the speakers in the two-hour service mentioned Doug’s deep appreciation for the importance of beauty. One speaker, Jerry Mander, even described how Doug advocated for having beauty be a protected resource just as vital as clean air and water.
It was very stirring for me, as a painter of Nature, to sit surrounded by that extraordinary collection of Bay Area environmentalists and activists and hear so much talk of beauty, inspired by a luminary like Douglas Tomkins. I thought about my mentor Ciel Bergman who wrote in her exquisite 2004 catalogue essay titled “Blood, Milk and Water”:
“As a painter I submit that the taboo against beauty is one of the major signifiers at the root of many of the problems and fractures in our modern societies, and that the abandonment of what we call beauty has allowed us on an unconscious level to disregard and destroy for everyone that which existed in such abundant, dazzling display in the natural world of our progenitors. Until we integrate deep beauty into our lives we will be unable to accord to each other – individually or as nations, to the other species with whom we share this earth or to the precious patches of remaining wilderness – the required respectful reverence necessary for our survival…Today, having created a menacing imbalance, we live in an inherited model of Nature and Culture being almost opposites. This model is toxic, dysfunctional and delusional, and we are now witnessing its dark effects…Beauty is not, as we thought, a superficial subject; its very presence, and the implications of its presence, run deep into our very continued existence…oxygen is to body as beauty is to soul.”
Over the last twenty years, as a painter of nature surrounded by activists, I have often wondered how beauty fit into the activist agenda in the 21st century. I see a lot of great political art in Bay Area activist circles that aims at consciousness-raising, influencing opinions or supporting causes. In the political set, one always encounters a vibrant subculture of cartoons, satire and comedy as well and powerful dramas and documentaries, and hard hitting poetry and prose. This is, of course, all good. But what about pure and simple beauty? Do we still remember and honor beauty?
Doug Tompkins was a pilot and adventurer and traversed some of the grandest landscapes on the planet. The beauty in these places is epic, cinematic, unsurpassed. But only local people and the privileged few can see those vistas. For most of us, beauty is a quiet matter, a local affair, and yet it is always nearby, as if waiting for us.
I believe we are all able to recognize beauty if given the chance. It is our birthright. Any child will marvel at a flower, even if it is a dandelion growing up through concrete or the intricate powdered miracle of a green beatle scurrying across a vacant lot. Beauty only asks for our attention, and then when we sit at her feet, we are given the gift of a pause. We are ushered into stillness and we reflect. We naturally become relaxed and introspective. Beauty leads us to our conscience and reminds us of everything we most need to remember. It affirms our full participation even as it humbles and tempers us.
Doug Tompkins, Ciel Bergman and other great souls see how integral our sense of beauty is to our sense of our place in the great web of life. And if we lose this sense, and can no longer appreciate beauty, we will not survive for much longer. I also believe this is true.
We have a long journey back to a time when beauty was valued as much as the air and water. It’s an uphill climb, but we need to start walking now.