Tag Archives: John Ruskin

The parcel goes to Georgia.

Chattahoochee River Walk

It was a long day’s journey that took me to Georgia for my grandson’s wedding. Though journey doesn’t seem like the right word for it. When I was packed into the middle seat of an airliner I remembered John Ruskin’s words, “Modern traveling is not traveling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.” Ruskin died in 1900 – what could he possibly have experienced that would compare with what Economy ticket holders a hundred years later suffer?

I had even bought extra legroom, to help me cope with the middle seat stress, but the two men on either side of me had broad shoulders and muscular arms, and made me wish for extra elbow room. Still, I didn’t have much to complain about. I was not uncomfortable, my traveling companions did not smell bad, and I always love having all that time to read my book.

Before we had left the ground, the 20-something man by the window finished eating a hamburger, put away his wrapper and was asleep within a minute. I know he was out because he was jerking in his sleep and bumping my arm. I was amazed.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. At seven that morning I’d taken the airport bus from my town, so that I could leave my car at home and thereby prevent a good bit of stress. On that first part of my trip I did not read my book, because I had a surprisingly agreeable seatmate. Ideally, I would have chosen to sit alone with my novel, but it appeared sharing was necessary, so I moved over and the gentle woman sat down.

She didn’t talk loudly or fast or constantly, but we had quite a bit of conversation over the next two hours — about how she travels with Habitat for Humanity building houses, what tomatoes we grow in our gardens, about beekeeping and raising worms. I learned many things from her, and she was a calming presence.

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”   ~Cesare Pavese

What makes me plan a trip these days is always the desire to be with family or friends. But in cases like this, in the process of getting to my people I have to spend many hours surrounded by and dependent on strangers. The people themselves I haven’t found to be brutal or untrustworthy; of course, many of them are employed specifically to be helpful to the traveler. But the system, the schedules, the invasions of privacy that are supposed to keep us safe — they are brutal for sure. This trip, I wore jeans so that I wouldn’t have to be patted down, but at the Atlanta airport I was thoroughly frisked anyway. Yes, there is a lot that feels dehumanizing. But can our humanity really be reduced so easily?

 

That’s the drone up in the sky.

 

I won’t put off any longer telling you more about the wedding of “Roger and Izzy.” It was lovely, so simple and unfussy, you would have thought it was a 60’s wedding, if not for the many cameras and cell phones and even a drone! (But no professional photographer) In some ways it was an unusual and fun wedding, but the traditional service was performed solemnly in the name of the Holy Trinity by a white-haired preacher who might have come out of a storybook, the picture of a Southern Country Gentleman.

We were a small but joyful and festive group, and quite charmed by the setting, a family chapel in the middle of a vast green field. It was perfect for this event even though it has no electricity or plumbing!

 

A New Southern style restaurant dinner was our post-wedding celebration, and the food was excellent. Instead of cake the couple had decided to serve a southern favorite that I had never heard of: Fried Pies. They were bought elsewhere and the restaurant let us bring them in to eat for dessert.

It’s a rare dessert that I don’t finish eating, but I tried a peach pie, and the next day on my trip home a pecan pie, and I could not find one thing to enjoy about them. They were super sweet and bland, and the pastry was like thin cardboard. I have to ask you Southerners, Do you suppose these are truly like your grandma used to make?

After the wedding the guests along with the newlyweds enjoyed hanging out by the Chattahoochee River (don’t you love to say that?) for a few hours total, in the afternoon and again at dusk. The young people played an impromptu game of “Ninja,” which required no props and brought on lots of laughter. I didn’t try to understand the rules.

The groom’s sister, my granddaughter Maggie, had brought her ukulele across the country to play the processional for the wedding, and down by the river in the evening she plinked out some more tunes, which two of her brothers sang along with. She and her new sister in their sleeveless dresses had gotten chilly by this time and were wearing her brothers’ sport coats.


They were singing “Here Comes the Sun,” though the ball of fire had left the sky for the night. I could only think of the marriage of Roger and Izzy being like a warm sun that had just risen, to brighten and energize their lives from now on.

Sunday dawned much later than I woke up, evidently totally whacked-out in my inner clock. It was another day of bus-airport-airplane-airport-airplane-airport-bus — then home! That does sound like the schedule for a parcel, doesn’t it? But I had a sweet encounter at the Atlanta airport, which probably shored me up against the frisking that came after.

I had quite a bit of time before my flight, so I didn’t go through security right away. Instead, I sat in a rotunda that was filled with various groupings of chairs, ottomans and such. It was fairly crowded, but there were free chairs in one area where the occupiers looked fairly encamped, either sleeping or just sitting there people-watching. I wondered if they were loiterers who weren’t traveling anywhere. Before I chose a seat I made eye contact with one woman who seemed to be watching me, and she returned my smile. Later as I was reading my book I heard her snoring a little behind me.

When I got up to leave I glanced back at her and we smiled at each other again. I walked away and swung my backpack up on to my back — but it seemed to get hung up somehow on my sweater between my shoulder blades. I sat down somewhere else and tried to shift it this way and that but I couldn’t get it situated or unsnagged. When I tried to take it off I was afraid I was going to rip a hole in my sweater. Of course I couldn’t see what was going on back there.

Then I thought of the friendly woman in the rotunda, and I returned and approached her where she was slouched in her chair, and asked if she would help me straighten out my burden. I kneeled down with my back to her and she gladly fixed it. I still don’t understand what the problem was. When I took off my sweater later there was an odd stretched-out place but nothing was torn. The whole package of me was just fine.

“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”
― Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

 

work and happiness

Years ago Kate gave to one or both of us this rain gauge, which I have started using again in the new garden. In 24 hours we got more than an inch. Today it was raining steadily in thIMG_1577 1-12-16 24 hrse morning, and I wished I could stay home and read, but I needed to run some errands, so I went out in my boots with my collapsed umbrella sticking out of my purse.

I never used the umbrella. It was one of those “scattered thundershowers” kind of days, where it’s pouring for three or four minutes, then the clouds run off to the edges of the sky and the blue heavens open up briefly. When I got in the car to drive to the next store the rain would pitter-patter on my windshield, only until I turned off the engine in the parking lot. By this gift I was assured of breathing the cleanest and most invigorating air, and I was so glad that I hadn’t missed it all sitting indoors.

The reason for my errands was to buy ingredients to make a dinner meal that I later took to a semi-“shut-in” from church. When I delivered the food she welcomed me to stay and talk for a while, which I was eager to do because she is a widow, who just mentioned her late husband to me at church on Sunday; I wanted to hear her story. Though she’s been without him a lot longer than I have been missing mine, she still lives with the difficulty of acceptance, and part of her “can’t believe” that her other half gone, though she knows very well where he is buried. IMG_1568 1-12-16

Yesterday IMG_1571 1-12-16was a good day, too. Before it started to rain my neighbor brought his twin boys and a third boy down to help stack my new delivery of firewood. With five of us working, it took all of twenty joyful minutes to deal with half a cord of oak logs, including the cleanup. Finally, all of the extra wood, buckets, leftover base rock, scraps of this and that, are gone from the driveway, because the new gravel utility yard is done, where I intended all along to put back the last remaining stuff I want to keep.

After the boys finished up, I kept working for another hour or more, though the wind was coming up and the air was chilling, alerting me to the storm coming in. I spent some time furnishing and puttering in my new greenhouse. Here was another thing that is hard to fully believe: Me, owner of a greenhouse.greenhouse first putter 2015-01-12

I lugged eight cinder blocks from the driveway and made two stacks with them, and found a piece of plywood to put on top to make a potting bench. Then I tidied up. There was mud on the floor, and dead leaves from the plants that got frosted before I moved them inside. I found an old tub to keep under my potting bench to put organic matter in, when I am trimming things.

 

seed savers catalog

 

 

A few days ago when I was waiting for my oil to be changed I leafed through the latest Seed Savers’ Exchange catalog and my vagueness morphed into excitement about what I might plant in my new raised beds.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had the proper soil for carrots. I drooled over the beets, and imagined Painted Lady beans climbing my trellis. It won’t be long before I can start some of these things right in the rich soil in my beautiful boxes. Other more tender plants like tomatoes and squash I can start in the greenhouse if I want. Or, if I don’t want, I may putter less productively.

I do feel overcome, at least once a day, with all the things I need to do and want to do, the unfinished projects and the new projects that would sound inviting, if it weren’t for all the undone things weighing on me. I’m thankful that I have enough strength and energy to do one task at a time, and while I’m doing it I don’t think about the other work. Here is a good place to wrap up with a pertinent quote from John Ruskin, which seems to explain some of my happiness:

“In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.”

Thank you, Lord!

Mountain Air – I notice some things.

After reading of John Ruskin last summer, how he recommended that everyone learn to draw as a way of learning to attend to God’s creation, I felt it almost my Christian duty to at least make an effort. Normally I don’t want to take the time for a new challenge like that, so I had put it off until I knew I would have these uninterrupted hours at the cabin.

An ant visited my sketch pad.

Betty Edwards, in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, was my instructor. I enjoyed some of the exercises one day on the cabin deck, and the next I walked over to Gumdrop Dome and attempted to draw a very complicated scene.

It was a surprising pleasure, concentrating on all the lines and angles in front of me as I perched on a boulder, soaking up one of my favorite venues in a brand new way, noticing with my hand transferring what my eyes processed through my mind — for about an hour. Then suddenly I was done for, too brain weary/bored to finish my impossible drawing.

I picked up my tools and hiked a little farther around the dome where there was a simpler picture in view. This will be easier, I thought. So I sat on another rock and started in on this slope of the dome with a tree growing out of it, photo at right.

But no, granite domes and trees are just way too intricate for this beginner, and I gave that sketch up within a few minutes. It was soothing after my exertions to take out my camera and do instead some more familiar kind of focusing on these natural wonders.

tree bark

My primary goal in taking this little walk was unrelated to my drawing exercises anyway. When we’d hiked here with our friends earlier in the summer, while the other three were on top of the dome with the camera, I’d walked around the side and noticed the dearest little tree growing out of the rock and seeming to lay its “head” down on the stone, in a manner reminiscent of the way we children in First Grade used to lay our head on our desks every day after lunch for Rest Time.

This is how it had looked to me then:

I had tried very hard to concentrate my mental forces and memorize the way that tree looked, so that when I arrived back at the cabin I’d be able to sketch it. The results weren’t satisfying, though, and I’d contented myself with the thought that Next Time I would go locate it again, camera in hand. Here was my next time, a mere two months later.

As I walked around the tree I saw that it’s not resting on the rock at all. But the poor thing must have had its bones permanently bent by snow as a child. It will always be a hunchback, but with the honorable position of pointing to a beautiful granite dome, showing the climbers, “This way to the top!”

Here is another complex arrangement of nature that I didn’t even consider taking pencil and paper to, rock, trees, sky and clouds. This one seems to demand colored pencils:

At last, the picture I know you all have been dying to see, the result of my feeble exploration of the mountainside with the Right Side of My Brain:

The Theology of Beauty

I’m re-posting this part of book review from 2012 as a contribution to the discussion of The Hidden Art of Homemaking on the Ordo Amoris blog.

Possessing Beauty

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us the one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things  are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast, and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

      –John Ruskin, quoted in The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

John Ruskin

Ruskin is one of the “guides” the author takes as a teacher in his study of this art of travel; this particular guide yearns to give us his students the tools to understand and possess beauty. Ruskin believed that we can only understand beauty by paying close attention to it, and that attempting to describe nature through writing or drawing was the surest way to focus the mind sharply enough.

On the topic of drawing Ruskin published two books in the 1850’s and gave lectures in London, but the point of his instruction was never to produce students who could draw well. He wanted to teach people to notice, and to “direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.”

Right here is a good place to propose that we who believe in God the Creator also take as our teacher John Ruskin, rather than Mr. de Botton, because I doubt that we can learn much directly on the subject of beauty, especially on how to possess it, from a man who doesn’t understand that beauty, and in fact all that he possesses, are gifts from his Father God.

De Botton’s most recent book is Religion for Atheists, which he wrote from the conviction that a disbelief in God should not prevent atheists such as himself from making use of various aspects of the major world religions to better their lives. No doubt many professing Christians have a similar pragmatic outlook, and are missing out on the essence of the faith, Who is Christ Himself, the Bread of Life, the Glory of God the Father.

In musing about the beauty of God, I came upon a website with that title, featuring quotes from Jonathan Edwards. Many people have caught a bad impression of Edwards from those who speak of what they know not, but long ago I learned that the most frequent word in the preacher’s sermons was “sweet,” in reference to God and fellowship with Him. It’s not surprising that he had something to say about beauty as well. (The following paragraphs from Edwards were taken from his writings “The Mind” and “True Virtue” and bundled on the webpage with the added headings.)

God is Beautiful: “For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent; and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fulness of brightness and glory.”

Jonathan Edwards

Beauty is a kind of consent or harmony: “[Beauty is] a mutual consent and agreement of different things, in form, manner, quantity and visible end or design; called by the various names of regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, harmony, &c. . .”

“One alone, without any reference to any more, cannot be excellent; for in such case there can be no manner of relation no way, and therefore no such thing as Consent. Indeed what we call One, may be excellent because of a consent of parts, or some consent of those in that being, that are distinguished into a plurality in some way or other. But in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be Excellency, for there can be no such thing as consent or agreement.”

Love is the highest kind of beauty: “The reason, or at least one reason, why God has made this kind of mutual agreement of things beautiful and grateful to those intelligent beings that perceive it, probably is, that there is in it some image of the true, spiritual, original beauty, which has been spoken of; consisting in being’s consent to being, or the union of spiritual beings in a mutual propensity and affection of heart. . . . And so [God] has constituted the external world in analogy to the spiritual world in numberless instances. . . . [He] makes an agreement of different things, in their form, manner, measure, &c. to appear beautiful, because here is some image of an higher kind of agreement and consent of spiritual beings.”

“When we spake of Excellence in Bodies, we were obliged to borrow the word Consent, from Spiritual things; but Excellence in and among Spirits is, in its prime and proper sense, Being’s consent to Being. There is no other proper consent but that of Minds, even of their Will; which, when it is of Minds towards Minds, it is Love, and when of Minds towards other things, it is Choice. Wherefore all the Primary and Original beauty or excellence, that is among Minds, is Love.”

God is beautiful because He is a Trinity: “As to God’s Excellence, it is evident it consists in the Love of himself; for he was as excellent before he created the Universe, as he is now. But if the Excellence of Spirits consists in their disposition and action, God could be excellent no other way at that time; for all the exertions of himself were towards himself. But he exerts himself towards himself, no other way, than in infinitely loving and delighting in himself; in the mutual love of the Father and the Son. This makes the Third, the Personal Holy Spirit, or the Holiness of God, which is his infinite Beauty; and this is God’s Infinite Consent to Being in general. And his love to the creature is his excellence, or the communication of himself, his complacency in them, according as they partake of more or less of Excellence and beauty, that is, of holiness (which consists in love); that is, according as he communicates more or less of his Holy Spirit.”

Jonathan Edwards did not have a perfect understanding of Trinitarian doctrine, but I am still very blessed by his giving glory to the Holy Trinity for Beauty, which of course can have its source and perfect demonstration no where else. For readings on the Holy Trinity I commend to you these pages.

Above a storefront in Carmel, California

Now, back to the subject of travel…I suppose no one wonders what all this beauty-talk has to do with our goings, because don’t we all like to look at beautiful things when we travel? And when we have to move on, we also like to keep something to take home with us. How to not lose everything of the experience of a new place?

De Botton suggests three ways that we often try: 1) Taking pictures with a camera, 2) imprinting ourselves physically, as in carving our names in a tree trunk and thereby leaving a bit of ourselves behind, 3) buying something, “to be reminded of what we have lost.” And none of these actions can have as much effect on the whole person as drawing.

In explaining his love of drawing (it was rare for him to travel anywhere without sketching something), Ruskin once remarked that it arose from a desire, “not for reputation, nor for the good of others, nor for my own advantage, but from a sort of instinct like that of eating or drinking.” What unites the three activities is that they all involve assimilations by the self of desirable elements from the world, a transfer of goodness from without to within. As a child, Ruskin had so loved the look of grass that he had frequently wanted to eat it, he said, but he had gradually discovered that it would be better to try to draw it: “I used to lie down on it and draw the blades as they grew — until every square foot of meadow, or mossy bank, became a possession to me.”

De Botton chronicles his own efforts to follow Ruskin’s advice, and when he attempts to draw a window frame in his hotel he finds that he had never actually looked at one before, in all its complexity of construction.

Many passages in the book also paint exemplary word-pictures, such as a paragraph on olive trees, of which the author at first “dismissed one example as a squat bush-like thing.” On closer consideration, with the help of Van Gogh’s art as well as Ruskin’s tools, he sees the trees in all their magnificence, telling us that “the taut silvery leaves give an impression of alertness and contained energy.”

There is another way that this description by de Botton follows Ruskin: in his anthropomorphizing of natural objects, attributing to them qualities that only humans or at least animals would actually have, and feeling that “they embody a value or mood of importance to us.”

In the Alps, he described pine trees and rocks in similarly psychological terms: “I can never stay long without awe under an Alpine cliff, looking up to its pines, as they stand on the inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it — upright, fixed, not knowing each other. You cannot reach them, cannot cry to them; — those trees never heard human voice; they are far above all sound but of the winds.”

My two-year-old grandson Scout is already a traveler following in Ruskin’s (and his mother’s) footsteps. He loves to hike and to stop and look at everything. On a recent outing he said, as he wandered off, “I’m going to climb up here, Mama, and the rocks will take care of me…”

That’s what I call the spirit of good old-fashioned traveling. Not the sort that Ruskin himself decried, in the 19th century: “Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.” 

When I am loaded on to a jet plane, I confess to feeling a bit like a parcel squeezed into a big crate of parcels. But Ruskin, and yes, even de Botton are helping me to be a more joyful and observant traveler, even if it’s only on a trip down the neighborhood footpath.

Before I had read just the small number of Ruskin’s words that are in The Art of Travel, I didn’t have the nerve to try my patience with drawing anything. But the man who wanted to teach me to notice has given me a vision of myself drawing a flower or a rock or a building. On my last car trip, I was even so bold as to pack into my bag a box of colored pencils.

(This post is part of a series on the book The Art of Travel.)