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Monday, March 29, 2010

Hedgehog Elegance

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery is a book about beauty. It uses the beauty of language to help its readers discover what is beauty and what is beautiful. The author directs us to think of a hedgehog who appears ugly with its cruel quills covering its body. It is hard to see beyond the quills to the gentle beautiful hedgehog hidden beneath.
 Wonderfully translated from French, the novel describes the encounters of a beautiful child who only sees life's ugliness.  In response she plans to end her own life from a world and family that is not worthy of her. She then meets the apartment concierge who is, herself, plain, and does everything to to be sure that no one sees beauty in her.  Each of these characters is more brilliant than her surroundings both in the power of her mind and in her perception of the world. Paloma, the child, sees beauty in a moment of time as a rose drops from its stem forever changing the space of time during which it dropped.  Renee, the concierge recognizes that beauty is universal, seen in both a still life of Vermeer and the kindness of a friend.
A third character, Msr. Ozu is introduced late in the novel.  It is  Ozu who transcends age, class and culture leading both females to discover their own beauty; the death of one awakening the desire to live in the other.
In nature we see this trait of beauty.  Often, when looked at from clouded eyes we see the ugliness of nature; erosion brought about by human interference. A perfect sugar maple is struck by lightening and left to rot amid fallen leaves and a stream forms from spring rains cutting a gash through mossy ground leaving an open wound as moss and earth slowly tumble toward the river. A well driller dozes through the forest leaving mud holes and discarded tools in his wake.
But ugliness might only mask beauty not destroy it. I saw a vermillion fungis exploding from under the decaying maple. Its edges, outlined in creamy white, had small pieces bitten off, but by whom?
 The damp earth has caused me to stop in my tracks as I pondered crossing a new chasm without covering my shoes with mud.  I paused as a piece of orange plastic caught my eye, out of place against the green moss. But wait, the plastic is not plastic at all, but a bright orange newt almost translucent in the shaded woods.
The opposite side of the hill is still littered with metal junk left from a past landowner who was not a land steward. I've avoided this spot in the past in an effort to spare my eyes from the ugy scattering of metal car parts and plastic, broken in some long-grown child's past.

But my avoidance has been a disservice to beauty.  I might argue that beauty does not exist until it has been witnessed and recognized - like the proverbial tree falling in the forest.  I tend to believe, though, that the beauty of the newt and the red fungus were there whether I saw them or not but my sight - my perception - brought about something else. Through my witness beauty became a space in time not possible except through the connectivness of creation.  
Only an hour before I had been driven to refuse a nap and visit the woods on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The rain had driven a horde of mountain chorus frogs to an orgy in an alge-rich mud hole where their deafening  "reek-rake" calls drew me in an vain effort to photograph a frog.  The mud, along with a fallen tree, forced my path into a ravine where erosion runnoff has cut through a mossy bog, driving a bright orange newt with its perfect circular spots out from under a rock to find an orange fungus from which it makes a meal. All this happens as I stumble onto the scene; a scene I would have missed had I not been stopped by the stream in my effort to get back on a proven path.
My arrival caused the newt to freeze in the hope that I would not notice it. But how could I help but notice its beauty, seemingly incongruous with its surroundings? I had become part of a moment, a beautiful space in time.  I became beautiful for my part in it.
As I contemplated my "lucky" find I saw a tiny plant emerging from the boggy ground. 
Bloodroot!
Never had I seen bloodroot growing in the wild! I have a few specimens garnered from two of my sister's gardens. They are nice, but could never match this scene. More than a dozen tiny plants with white spots hovering above like angle-white raindrops were scattered around my muddy feet. I gasped when I saw them for they truly took my breath away. I almost missed them, and would have had not the frogs croaked, the well men not drilled, the rains not poured, the tree not fallen, the newt not eaten and I had not paused to be aware of them all. 
I saw the newt and the newt saw me.  God bless the newt and God bless me.
(with apologies to mother goose)

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