In 1956 a terrible thing happened that most of us take for granted today. The Federal Aid Highway Act was passed and construction on our 47,856 miles of interstate began. Today nearly a quarter of all traffic occurs on the Interstate. (All this is true if Wikipedia can be trusted.) Now, instead of rumbling through one little insignificant town after another, instead of seeing the countryside and farmers, instead of the curls and bends of minor roads, we can just hop on the freeway and motor along, mindlessly carefree.
Well, maybe the Interstate isn’t any more terrible than say telephones or microwaves or a photography blog. And I would guess that more than twenty-five percent of all the miles on my truck are from the Interstate – hypocrisy becomes me. But like the development of nearly all technologies, the construction of the Interstate brushed aside adventure for leisure. On a recent swing through North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, I pulled off the Interstate and slogged through some of these forgotten towns and otherwise unseen sights.
What could be more beautiful than a turtle plodding along a gravel road or a rain-blanketed Market Street? Or the county courthouse in the middle of town square where nearly one hundred years ago the Scopes Monkey Trial took place? It was a farce then: a substitute high school teacher, who had no recollection of actually teaching evolution, was put on trial to intentionally draw national attention to the little Tennessee town of Dayton. A statue of the presidentially ambitious William Jennings Bryan stands on the courthouse lawn today, reminding us that political theater predates the Reality-TV-Star "President" Donald Trump, cable news, and even the television itself.
Up the road I find Bobby and Betty Richardson working with gourds. (My next blog will be devoted to their work.) My ride goes down Walden’s Ridge, through the Sequatchie Valley, and back up again to the Prentice Cooper State Forest, where the Tennessee River gorges at path between mountains. In Georgia, I find a small artisan town just past the Oconee National Forest. Greensboro, Georgia is several hours away from Lee State Park in South Carolina, where hummingbirds swoop and dart in such hoops and arcs that the relativity of time is proven.
The beautiful, the truly beautiful is assumed and overlooked. Beauty isn’t the maudlin glory of youthfulness or artificially sculpted. It isn’t the banality of the sentimental or pithy. And we so easily confuse what is simply pretty for what is actually beautiful, obliging holidays and seasons for enchanting, the distracting and entertaining for delightful. True beauty makes no investment in profit, ambitions no personal gain, and craves more than the titillation of the sensual appetites. Beauty is experienced as disinterested pleasure – meaning something like art for art sake, beauty for the sake of beauty: transcending utility and need until it scavenges backwards in the collective human soul breaching that initial, internal spark that animates us all.
How many brilliant young minds at universities and colleges are divested of beauty because Mom or Dad back home want to know “What is the good of a Fine Arts degree?” The piles of books gone unread because the reader too quickly says, “I’m not amused.” The visual artist despised because, “It doesn’t look like anything real.” The singer/songwriter whose voice and style dies from inattention because she’s too subtle. The beautifully exegeted and well-thought-out sermon chastised for being sluggish, boring, even pointless because it doesn’t stockpile sound bites or judgement or the cadence of civil religion.
I pledge allegiance to the disfigured states of consumerism and entertainment, and the unloving for which it stands, with closed eyes, and shut ears, and scorn for all who try to be otherwise – that’s our creed. It isn’t just that our society has turned from scientific truth, intellectual truth, and religious truth, the latter of which I take to be the essence or articulation of the beautiful. The irony, the sad, pitiable irony is we have perverted beauty with bread and circus so much so that we can no longer tell the difference between love and pornography, conviction and charisma, conspiracy and genuineness. We have drunk the tonic of delusion, and we like it.
Beauty can reclaim sanity. It can ground us in the good world created by God. Beauty can end war and hunger, political pettiness, loneliness.
To be beautiful is to be human, or, rather, to be human is to be beautiful. And to look for beauty outside of the self is the best sort of internal investigation, to be reminded that we are beautifully reflected in the fading and wilting. Beauty cannot last, sparking in and out of this world, constantly returning to the regenerative Divinity that pulls us in and out of this world as well. Beauty is stumbled upon as necessary serendipity, dispensed as a gracious condescension from that great somewhere else that comes to us in the immediate, within reach, the nearly tangible – the middle of the night dream that explains more than our thoughts can hold; that sudden recollection of a forgotten childhood experience, contagious laughter. And this, God’s gratitude for our having eyes to see and ears to hear the world’s beauty, this is merely the poverty of a Beauty that still lies beyond comprehension.
Beauty cannot be found on billboards, or in the Circle K, and it will go unnoticed by zipping quickly from start to finish on life’s interstate. It is beautiful because it is forgotten, omitted, disregarded, passed by, and, then, suddenly remembered and rediscovered.
Pulling off the Interstate, then, is more than putting on your turn signal. It is metaphorical. A life better lived. A world encountered. Relationships made. It is the hummingbird that dances and wobbles with such speed and grace we can only wonder about the emanating mind and biological process that creates. The common summer garden flowers that flints the just right tint of light. The even smaller spider web wisp, mapping the smallest currents of air like contrails and kites. The stranger’s dog that comes nosing up to your face ready for friendship. The purr of the cat. The somnolent breathing of a partner. The reprieve of depression. An early morning walk. Friendship. Vocation.