by Becca Deysach
Gin is my father; it is my nightly kiss to his lips. Its taste and smell, mingling with those of Spanish olives and cocktail onions, have imprinted themselves on my chapped lips, on my soul. The taste of it on my tongue strikes a chord deep within me, the way that the smell of woodsmoke or Grandma’s perfume does for some. My father’s evening beverage—a martini glass filled nearly to the top with an assortment of pickled vegetables, a few jiggers of gin, and a splash of vermouth—he referred to, with a self-congratulatory chuckle, as a “vegetini.” His cocktail is now mine. I omit the onions, add olive juice, and call it, in a husky voice, a “dirty martini,” but the flavor is essentially the same. I drink it because nothing else tastes so good going down, especially on a summer night. I drink it for an excuse to eat garlic-stuffed olives. I drink it because its flavor is as familiar to me as Kool-Aid was when I was little. Mostly, though, I drink a dirty martini because it is as close as I will ever get to kissing my dad goodnight again.
With garlic and gin-stained breath, my father taught me about wild beauty. Tired and small, I often leaned against his huge hard belly on my mom’s side of their bed and traveled around the world to the cadence of his rich bass. His stories were usually about his Uncle Josh. Each one began with Josh’s arrival at my dad’s childhood Milwaukee home in his personal helicopter. Uncle Josh lived in Africa, was able to communicate with animals of all species, and was often in need of my father’s help on his heroic expeditions.
My dad colored my four-foot-high world with tales of their journeys—the time a honey monkey saved his life, the time he killed a wild boar with a stick, and about the tail of a whale that he and Uncle Josh ate when they were stranded on a wild coast. He showed me Uncle Josh’s picture at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, along with the taxidermied honey monkey and wild boar of his stories. With my nose pressed against thick glass, I met the celebrities of my childhood.
On my seventh Valentine’s Day, I received a letter from my great uncle. In it, he included photos of his animal companions—zebras, giraffes, ibex. I dreamed fervently of one day meeting him, of traveling in his helicopter over the ocean and landing in hot and mysterious Africa. Naturally, I treasured that letter and re-examined it obsessively. I remember noticing, as the paper grew thin and sticky from my fondling, that the pictures glued to the letter felt different than those in my mom’s photo album—thinner and more crinkly, like the pages of a magazine. When I asked my dad about it, he explained that African cameras and photo development techniques were different from ours. His answer satisfied me for a while, but when I realized that Josh’s handwriting was just like my father’s, I had a bold epiphany and confronted him, crushed. He chuckled, of course, as only men who closely resemble Santa Claus can, and took indignant me into his powerful arms. I was angry with his seven-year game of make-believe. I had loved my uncle. I had loved the idea of someday joining him on his adventures, of being in the middle of a vast nowhere with honey monkeys as my traveling companions. I had tasted the idea of a beauty utterly unlike anything my geometric suburban world could contain. It was the true loss of a hero, the first fissure in my little heart.
Why did my dad do that? Why did he let me believe that I was related to a man who had killed a tiger with his bare hands and that my dad’s solid gut was really the undigested remains of a whale’s tail? Was it the cruel manipulation of a child’s mind, gin-infused humor, or simply the unintended result of my readiness to believe thick tales? I remember a conversation with him years ago over chocolate malts in which he explained that he had created Uncle Josh just for me because he wanted me to fall in love with adventure and wild places. It seemed then a meager justification for manipulating my little brain and heart, yet an ache for wild beauty does command me. For that I am piercingly blessed
Indeed, it was the quest for grace and wild beauty that drove me West. The first home I made west of Lake Michigan was in central Arizona, tucked between low hills and covered in Ponderosa pine and sagebrush. I fell in love for the first time there. I fell in love with the sweet smell of the burning dry air; with the smooth red bark of the manzanita that always seemed to be turned inside out; and with the igneous evidence of the earth’s toiling and churning visible out my front window, under my feet, and below my fingertips.
I studied at a tiny experiential college in the central highlands, and my field-based classes took me through diverse ecosystems, down variegated canyons, and into the painful place of loving something that is sick. Into the painful place of being a member of the species that has the unique gift of intellect, and the blatant inability to use that gift to guide our actions with respect to the planet we all share.
During my college years, I walked inside the five-hundred-foot-high concrete wall that is Glen Canyon Dam, grimacing north at the red rock lake which exists at the expense of a canyon as striking as the Grand. I sat at a coffee shop perched on the edge of Jerome, Arizona, and focused my eyes on the layers of rock that define the Mogollon Rim, hoping to block out the glowing pools of mining tailings that punctuate the valley below. I ate Indian food in a strip mall surrounded by prickly pear cactus and watched movies at the three-story theater that squeezed out the independent downtown joint. I watched the topography that I had grown to love fiercely become leveled, watered, and consumed by sterile stuccoed cubes. I learned that what is beautiful in the land is not often echoed by the edifices of my people. My desert years brought me to the understanding that we, as Americans, have betrayed beauty.
What is beauty, anyway? My 1941 Webster’s describes it as “that quality or aggregate of qualities in a thing which gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” Given that pleasure is a word equally slick, I am having a hard time creating a formula for beauty. And it scares me to talk about it in any other way. I am scared to talk about beauty because I am afraid to be cheesy; I am afraid that I will be to words what disposable cameras are to landscapes; I am afraid that I will betray beauty. And yet how can I not talk about it? My nighttime journeys to the African bush gave me my earliest rush of an exalted spirit. They revealed the power of wild beauty that now commands me.
Anthropologists insist that the ability of our ancestors to express themselves through art marked a profound step forward in the development of our intellect. So profound, in fact, that our own species is distinguished from all of our extinct upright relatives by the ability to express ourselves through art. Over two-hundred caverns filled with paintings, sculptures, and engravings created during the last Ice Age have been discovered in Italy, France, Switzerland, and Spain. The oldest known works of art line the walls of a cave in the valley of the Ardeche River in France, dating back 32,000 years ago, about 170,000 years after anatomically modern humans first walked the African savannah. Those who have been privileged to visit our species’ earliest art gallery have reported that the pieces are accurate depictions of the creatures with whom we shared the Pleistocene landscape. Witnesses of this art say that it is spectacular and beautiful, comprised of clean sweeping lines and fine detail.
What prompted our predecessors to portray the world around them on cave walls? The highly developed brains that gave us the ability to use tools, create language, and form complex communities also gave us a shocking recognition of ourselves as a part of a vast and mysterious universe. Art, then, became a way to make sense out of the complex world that our intelligence forced us to see. We re-created hunts on the walls of our dwelling spaces, and painted pictures of our totem animals and spiritual leaders. We brought the beauty of the natural world into our homes in hope of understanding it.
Not only did we decorate our walls with images from the wild world, we created our early sacred buildings to resemble it. By doing so, art historian Vincent Scully suggests, we hoped to draw upon the powers of the environment. Teotihuacán, a ceremonial site of pre-Columbian America in central Mexico, provides a perfect example of this environmental architecture. Scully describes the Temple of the Moon, behind which rises the mountain called Our Lady of the Stone.
“That mountain, running with springs, is basically pyramidal and shaped and notched in the center. And the temple imitates the mountain’s shape, intensifies it, clarifies it, geometricizes it, and therefore makes it more potent, as if to draw water down from the mountain to the fields below.”
The architects of that temple were struck by the aesthetic vigor of the natural world, and sought to honor it in their building. Their work, along with that of our Ice Age ancestors, suggests that our humanness is as embedded in a veneration of wild beauty as it is in the ability to use tools. Can the attentiveness to beauty which makes us human, keep us human?
If cave art and environmental architecture were the expression of the exalted minds and spirits of our predecessors, what, exactly, lifts the human mind or spirit now? While what inspires mine may not move another’s, most would agree on the beauty inherent in an ancient forest, a raw mountain range, or architecture that echoes the integrity of both. The ache I feel for these things is exactly what makes me glad to be alive, grateful for my sentience. And the ache I feel for these things is made more profound by the knowledge that they are being destroyed by the communities we create. Somewhere along the line, our humanness has become defined more by our ability to create imposing structures with speed than it has by our ability to celebrate the beauty of life, which has taken four billion slow years to evolve.
The Gallatin Valley of southwest Montana, my home of the last three years, is a long and wide basin with vistas that scream “big sky country!” and enough flat land to have sustained early settlers with huge acreages of cattle ranches and farms. As in much of the West, these generations-old family businesses are being sold without thought to developers. Over the three short years I lived in Bozeman, I watched two sprawling mall complexes rise out of once expansive fields, and more new housing developments than I could count infest the open valley with which I had fallen deeply in love. It is difficult for me to believe that anybody finds beauty in these cul de sac-ridden, cookie-cutter communities exploding across the landscape.
Beauty, however, is not the question for architects of strip malls and housing developments. It is not a priority for the corporate developers of the country’s last open spaces. Speed and financial efficiency are the investors’ primary concerns. They can move on, while those of us who live in places of wild beauty are forced to gaze through acres of chain stores and identical houses to find it. We shop at those shiny stores and live in matching houses because our profit-driven culture leaves us few other options. What has this infrastructural abandonment of beauty done to the minds and hearts of the people who are a part of that culture—to all of us?
A brief glance at the events of this spinning world gives some clues. Take away that which exalts the mind or spirit, and in return we are a bunch of flat souls who have become numb to tragedies that would otherwise break our hearts. Take away a cultural responsibility to beauty, and we have no reason not to rip down entire forests. We have no cause to hesitate at destroying landscapes or societies sitting on the oil we need to fuel the vehicles that, in our commercial dreams, will bring us to a place of wild beauty. Take away a commitment to beauty, and we soon will find that even our biggest SUVs can’t get us there.
Put beauty back into the human-altered landscape, and we may become a world of raw and sensitive people bowled over by the mysteries of the universe, of the earth. We may find that those mysteries thrill us with all of their elegant beauty, and fill us with gratitude for the chance to experience them. And we might find that they pain us, remind us of how small we really are. Our hearts might ache as we behold the intricacies of the natural world, knowing that we can never fully contain their beauty, knowing that it is ultimately fleeting. Put beauty back into the contours of our hearts, and we may find that pain is as essential to our experience of life as exaltation, for with being in beauty, as with being in love, we risk getting hurt. Put beauty back into the stories we live by, and we may find that the very pain it causes is what urges us to maintain it.
Shortly after September 11, 2001, I spoke to my brother from a payphone in Cooke City, Montana. I was working on a trail crew in Yellowstone National Park when the planes crashed, and days passed before we were able to get into town for a paper and news. When we finally did, I felt as challenged to grasp the horror of what had happened to all those people in New York as I do seeing any tragic news about anybody far away. That dissociation felt bad enough. But seeing President Bush drawl out the words, “terrorism” and “evil” and “infinite justice” on the television screen above the shellacked bar made my teeth itch. I felt confused and powerless against the landslide of nationalism and violence that was suffocating our nation and drowning our sorrow.
I talked to my brother that night about the anger that permeates this world; the ease with which the machinery of death is deployed by our leaders; the degree of arrogance which governs our species and our country; and my desire, yet complete inability, to change any of that. And he spoke to me of beauty. Of his life goal to fill the world with beautiful things, with clean lines and the texture of wood.
My brother is a furniture maker. Sculpture is his training; wood is his passion. I spent two months in Chicago last summer where my sister, my mother, and he still live. I passed many evenings at the apartment he shares with my sister, escaping the wet heat, drinking dirty martinis, playing cards, and being beckoned into his basement studio.
I ran the first time he said this, certain that he’d left a limb in the table saw. But it was quiet down there, still. He gestured me over to the far end of his studio. Leaning against the wall were several two-by-eights, ragged looking, boring. “Aren’t these beautiful?” he asked.
I laughed for a second, and almost teased him about stealing me away from my game to see them. But I caught myself. He was serious. I had never seen him look at something that way, get excited enough about the physical beauty of anything to grab me from twenty feet away, needless to say a whole flight of stairs. Those unfinished boards were of curly maple, and the shaggy parts were exactly what made the sanded, finished wood look iridescently in motion. He then showed me all of the boards leaning against the cement wall. Oak. Cherry. Walnut. He showed me his veneers, his inheritance from our father. Zebra. Birdseye. Paduk. He talked about quarter-sawn boards vs. plane-cut. I tried to listen. But it was hard because I was in awe of his excitement, his grade-school “show-and-tell” energy. And it was hard because this little voice in my head kept asking, “And what endangered cloud forest did these boards come from, and how did they get here?” And what made it even noisier in my head was the third voice admonishing the second, “Can’t you see he is glowing, can’t you see how vibrant this wood, this moment is?”
The same father who taught me about wild beauty impressed upon my brother the aesthetic inherent in the process of creation, in the texture of the grain of woods, in the joy of sharing these things with others. The irony of my brother’s 'beauty mission' depending on the felling of ancient trees does not elude me. Yet shining through my confusion is hope. In his camouflage utility kilt and stained t-shirt, he is glowing as he runs his fingers down the smooth surface of a sanded board of curly maple. The same urgent joy I witnessed is infused into each cut of wood, each joint, and each final caress he gives a piece before delivering it to his client. He saturates the concrete maze of Chicago with the qualities that make his work beautiful. So that aching beauty may, for a moment, be less fleeting.
Driving along the contours of the Lamar River just before dawn, I follow Orion. It is bold and beautiful, and I cannot draw away my eyes. Jupiter hangs below and the earth falls from them both. Elk, only visible because of their bright white butts, bound away from my truck. I feel guilty for being this naked, little Homo sapiens in a big heavy vehicle on a stretch of pavement that disrupts their ancestral travel routes. And I feel grateful to my father who taught me to think about what it means to be a human on this wild earth, who showed me how good it feels to be in the middle of a vast nowhere with elk my traveling companions.
Greg Brown grumbles out of my radio as I park next to the river to wait for sunrise. I can’t see the sun, but its light makes black cut-outs of the mountains. River and snow and fog mingle. Awareness heightened in the predawn darkness, my stomach clenches as I mistake boulders for grizzlies. Well fed by now, they are sprawled out in their dens, gestating and snoring. I envy them, but not enough to regret waking up at four this morning to a moonless sky, to Pleiades, Cassiopeia, the Great Bear, Orion. No, I don’t regret witnessing this 7:30 sunrise and thinly spread cirrus clouds growing redder by the second. I want to catch the moment the clouds turn from pink to white, when morning becomes day and the mysteries of this landscape are revealed. For maybe in that instant, as fine as the boundary between my breath and the winter air, I will ache from the pain of being in beauty. I will be human.
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