Orange paint like bad graffiti marks the thick trunk of tree that has grown for many years on public land outside my house. Soon the home-owners’-association landscapers will fill the day with the noise of saws and cut the tree down.
The tree commands the center of the view I have of our breakfast table. Its fading needles and graying bark mask some of the cars parked along the development’s main road. The large houses across the road seem farther away. I see other trees as I drink my morning coffee, but this one defines the space.
Though the tree was planted intentionally, only two acceptable explanations account for its role in shaping how I see the world each morning: its branching shape is either an act of God–evidence that, despite what I see on the front pages of the newspapers that are two big for the breakfast table, all is going according to divine plan–or that it is one more example of the unpredictable, indeterminable interaction of force and happenstance on a living thing that, by surviving, has attained a state of sublime beauty.
Thinking about such beauty saves me from the shrill voices and genuinely bad news I read and, for a few minutes before my wife leaves for work, see on television. Even the cheery network morning shows can’t help but report of ghastly weather, government venality, famous people misbehaving in public and the occasional academic study that tells us that eating this, or buying that will change everything, or help us avoid the danger of this, the risk of that, the inherent idea that we are little more than living things interacting with force and happenstance and have yet to achieve the steadfast dignity of the tree outside my window.
Are the brown needles (which are fewer than the green ones) and graying bark due to a painful, embarrassing, lifestyle-diminishing ailment that, like those mentioned in so many, many television commercials can be fought with a drug whose side effects–mentioned hurriedly we see people frolicking happily in places with views–may be worse than the cure? Or, as is the case with so many things we acquire, has it merely grown old and ugly in a place in which youth and beauty are a major selling point? I can only guess why the tree is marked for extinction.
The ancient Greeks explained beauty as a form of truth, a glimpse at proportion, balance, ratios of width to height. They discovered that ratios of three to two, are especially pleasing, and have an architectural function. The so-called “Golden Mean” of similar ratios was used in the construction of buildings. Renaissance landscape painters used the same ratios in arranging details in paintings that were so beautiful that they were used models by the first landscape architects, especially in Britain, where country house owners, fresh from the Grand Tour, would point to a painting of the Italian countryside with skinny trees and artfully positioned grottoes and clumps of ruined buildings, and insist that the sight of such a thing should greet them from their bedroom window.
How often what appears to be natural to us, is the opposite. You can see this in Japanese bonsai, where little plants are tortured meticulously until they resemble miniature trees. You also find it in attempts to preserve “view sheds,” that is, protect by law what people in a certain place may see at certain times. In addition to cutting down the tree (and, most likely, replacing it with a younger one), my home-owners’-association also enforces the appearance of every house in the development. Those Williamsburg, VA colors of beige, brown, gray and dark green are supposed to maintain the values of our property and the overall appeal of our homestead. What they really do is freeze the developer’s original vision, as if it were an historical event on par with the founding of our nation.
Go to George Washington’s Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and you’ll understand how two of our Founding Fathers were careful to plan how their great houses should be seen. Mount Vernon appears usually modest as you approach it. The interior rooms are small and the sleeping areas are unadorned. Then, you go out on to the back porch and feel like the king of the world as you take in a spectacular view of the Potomac River.
Monticello, like Hadrian’s Villa, is a temple to a man’s idea of himself, with numerous areas to look down on the landscape, with one special place for the telescope that Jefferson used to monitor the construction of the University of Virginia. This view has now been obscured by trees.
Both houses have underground passages that hide the movement of slaves. The places where slaves lived are also hidden from the views of the main houses, and it is to the credit of those who maintain these great landmarks that this fact is pointed out to visitors.
Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia home no longer exists. The place in which it stood is marked by a full-size steel outline. What has a densely crowded street on a bluff above Philadelphia’s harbor is now an open plaza. Whatever view Franklin may have had is unknown. What is known is that he was fascinated with nature, as a scientist, inventor, philosopher and politician.
The whole idea of “nature” as a mystical presence distinct from ourselves, but necessary for health and happiness, is a fantasy that we indulge in an effort not to think about death, decay, ignoble rot, incurable disease, terrible storms and the bad stuff that our newspapers tell us keeps happening and won’t go away.
Every morning, after making breakfast and feeding the dog, I sit with my wife and my eyes go from the newspaper, to the tree, and back. Having written for several newspapers, I can imagine the reporters and editors working so very hard on these few inches of text, believing with utmost certainty of the importance of providing me with information that is, by definition, “new.” They know they live in a world of short attention spans, so they must struggle to “hook” the reader with the headline, photo, and the who-what-when-how-where-why of the classic newspaper lede.
And yet, on just about every morning, my eyes grow tired of the anger, urgency, violence, injustice and violation that is so unnaturally new. I look, instead, on this view, and the old tree in its center, and the morning light streaming down on a scene that is also new. The sky, the tree, the parked cars behind it, the school buses and the kids who ride them, reveal changes subtle and dramatic.
I’ll miss that tree when its gone.