The Experience of Beauty

From time to time during the day and mainly after dinner each night, I go for a walk along the canal near my home. You can do that every night of the year on the island where I live now. How great is that!

The canal brings water down from the mountains that bisect this island and where it rains a good part of each day. This makes it possible for people to survive here and nourish an abundant tropical life.

Saunter would be a better way to describe how I proceed on these evening strolls. Perhaps meander would even be more accurate. And I simply let my mind wander, never sure what thought will arrive next. Sometimes I get my best ideas, such as they are, during these times.

But there is something else about these promenades that brings me back to the canal time and time again. It is the outrigger canoes, each one with six paddlers that glide up and down the waterway first on their way out to sea and then on their return to the point where they embarked.

There is a beauty in these canoes that I find irresistible. When I see them approaching, I stop to gaze at them until they pass by. Sometimes there is one canoe, sometimes a group of them racing down and back along the canal.

I am struck by how quiet they are. In fact, they glide through the water in total silence. Occasionally you’ll hear the “rudder man” in the back give a command, but otherwise they move smoothly, swiftly and quietly by. No noisy engines, broken mufflers, loud horns or motorcycle roars.

After the sun sets, night falls fast here in these islands as close as they are to the equator. As I walk along the canal then, the outriggers sometimes come upon me rather suddenly, as it is too dark to see or hear them approaching from a far.

They have always reflected in the very truest way the spirit of this place and the native people who live here. They are a perfect fit, an adaptation to the conditions that prevail on this remote island, a form of transport that doesn’t muck up the environment or deplete its precious resources.

It has been said, “The experience of "beauty" often involves the interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well being.” Yes, there is a harmony about the outrigger canoes—a harmony between man, motion, and water, a perfect blending of form and function.

Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “Beauty must include three qualities: integrity, or completeness--since things that lack something are thereby ugly; right proportion or harmony; and brightness—we call things bright in colour beautiful.”

I find it interesting that a prayer is occasionally spoken before the canoe is launched no matter how long or short the voyage. The prayer needn't be long or distinctively Hawaiian, nor does it have to be religious in nature. A prayer helps focus the crew mentally and spiritually and expresses a note of gratitude to nature for the gift of the tree from which the canoe used to be made (modern hulls are commonly made now from reinforced plastic) and the water through which it travels.

I think of the poems of W.S. Merwin, the current U.S Poet Laureate, who lives in relative seclusion on a former pineapple plantation built on the distant slopes of Haleakala on the nearby island of Maui. When asked how someone living on the edge of the United States in a far corner of Maui could reach such literary heights, Merwin replied, "You live your life."

In his poem, The Shadow of Sirius, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, Merwin wrote,

Where the roaring torrent
raced at one time
to carve farther down
those high walls in the stone
for the silence that I hear now
day and night on its way to the sea.


Gillian said...

It's good to see the eye of Thomas Aquinas looking onto your tropical island canal scene.

This is the essence of a living tradition -- it lives only if we embody it. I remember that some traditions (like the Lords Prayer) have been carried in every generation, while others have been lost for centuries (Greek philosophy in Western Europe) and then rediscovered and woven again through the generations.

Stefanie said...

Lovely post Richard. Your canoes make me think of bicycles and how they are so useful and functional but also very beautiful. They are incredibly quiet, I can hear the birds singing and people talking when I ride. They are community centered--complete strangers say hello or wave to me when I bike. And there is something incredibly empowering in being able to move from A to B so quickly, easily, simply and pleasantly. Oh, and there are little prayers that happen before launching out on my bike too, like "please don't let me get run over by a car today."

Richard Katzev said...

Not possible to take an outrigger to work.

Do you have a bike sharing program in Minnesota? I think I heard of one when I was researching it. They are very big in Europe among other places.

Stefanie said...

Yes, we have all kinds of bike programs in Minneapolis. There is a new one that just started earlier this year where you can "rent" a bike from any number of kiosks throughout the city. If you only use the bike for 30 minutes or less you get your money back ($5). The bike can be returned to any of the kiosks and there are maps at all of them. In theory you could ride all over town for free all day as long as every 30 minutes you stop at a kiosk. And people are using the bikes too, especially downtown. It's a great thing to see.

Richard Katzev said...

That is good to know. The bike sharing program is not unlike the car sharing programs that are become increasingly more common in this country, following the lead of Europe.
Do you know I was one of the co-founders of the first car sharing program in the US? We established it in Portland and it was known as CarSharing Portland.


Stefanie said...

What an awesome project to be involved with! I'm very impressed that you were involved with its start up. We have a car sharing program here called Hour Car. We only have one car (hybrid) at my house and wold love to do away with having a car at all but the husband needs a car to get to work. Even though he works only a 15 minute drive away, taking the bus would be an hour and a half prospect.

Richard Katzev said...

It was a fascinating experience. CarSharing Portland was bought out by another carsharing organization that was, in turn, bought out by Zipcar which is a huge operation now, with divisions in most of the major cites of this country and recently one in England. Of course, I am a member. But Zipcar does not operate on islands in the middle of the ocean, so it is tricky here getting around.