Beauty: Birch, Mozart, and Human Nature

On an early spring morning this year, I was attending a dress rehearsal for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem mass, one of his most recognizable and beloved works, and a perennial favorite (Ironically, Mozart left it unfinished when he died at the young age of 35, and much of the music wasn’t actually written by him). There I was, sitting in a church pew and watching the fast-passing altostratus clouds through a window high overhead, when the orchestra and choir started the Lacrimosa movement. I was utterly blindsided. The sight of cottony clouds streaking across the blue set to the soundtrack of a true master was profoundly and inexplicably moving. It was the kind of moment that makes a person gasp, and its abrupt arrival magnified its effects on me at least threefold. It was an unexpected moment of beauty that would change the whole week to come.

That was a Saturday. By Monday I was in the woods of northern Minnesota, and the only music I could hear was whatever remnants of the Requiem were still bouncing around in my head. That afternoon I cut down two birch trees and went about splitting them to stack and dry for future firewood. I always like to smell the wood I split- each species has its own characteristic smells and most smell good to me. The middle of these logs smelled pure and clean, of the birch’s unique essence, and portended the flavor of its smoke. That Monday, as I pressed my nose and lips to the cold hard inside of the tree, I saw that olfactory moment of pause slightly differently: not just as pleasure, but as subtle beauty. 

As the week passed, other things that might have ordinarily gone unnoticed stole minutes at a time from my days. My son’s smile caught me as he sledded down the hill on a course he had been making; I was touched by such a pure smile born of a simple pleasure. Several times when I was standing still I heard the wind’s sighs as it pushed through the needles of the white pines; I pondered how often I’ve let that just be background noise. As a band of chickadees flitted playfully in the fir trees, I stopped to admire those cute little characters and their seemingly carefree existence. Near week’s end, as the sun sank and the blue shadows cast by the trees crept across the ivory surface of the lake I was fishing on, I was struck by how unique and temporary such sights can be. 

The next Sunday, I was singing Mozart once again. I’d had a week of Winter’s beauty and relative solitude, bookended by music performed for crowds that numbered in the hundreds. Spending time at a cabin in the winter woods and sharing the height of Western art and culture with the masses can seem distant from each other within the context of the human experience. But they are both examples of timeless pleasures that have been soothing souls for centuries. For as long as people have been listening to Mozart (and much longer), they have also been relishing the sound of the wind in the trees, watching birds, tasting snowflakes, and pondering the clouds. There is a universality in all these things. They speak to us in ways we don’t understand, and, I believe, offer proof that human nature really doesn’t change over the centuries despite geography, politics, technology, or anything else. 

While I wish I could live in those moments exclusively, a shallow, modern, commercial world is never far away; it seems we can’t escape it unless we forsake civilization and live in a cave. In the weeks that followed my week of pulchritudinous living, I was bombarded by images and messages trying to sell me “beauty.” From magazine ads for remodeling services that will supposedly make our houses beautiful, to television ads trumpeting diets, creams, injections, and surgical procedures that promise to make our bodies beautiful, there is no shortage of quackery out there trying to make us think we are living in a world lacking beautiful things. We are made to think beauty is ours to manufacture and buy. 

Skin sags, paint fades, styles fall out of favor. And money can remedy all these “problems” again and again. Ironically, the things that need no maintenace, are universally regarded as beautiful, and last forever are the things that typically cost nothing at all. They endure, they persist. I take comfort in knowing that if humanity fails to overcome its obsession with artificial beauty anytime soon, true beauty will still be there to welcome us when we are ready for it.




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