Column: Startled by a sudden and profound beauty

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 12/12/2020 10:20:16 PM
Modified: 12/12/2020 10:25:13 PM

Shortly before 7 on an early November morning, I stood up from my desk and witnessed a startling sight. High over my desk a picture window faces north-northwest, and my view when I take time to look is trees, hundreds of them. From spring to fall, foliage transforms this forest into a wall; but by mid-October a third dimension appears, and my view runs for a hundred yards or so before it swallows itself.

On this particular morning my timing allowed me to see beyond the forest to a distant hill where the first rays of sun painted the ridgeline a flaming gold. This vision lasted just a few seconds. The sun rose a degree or two more, the forest reappeared, the brilliance on the distant hill fused into soft back-lighting, and I was back to “normal.”

For the past decade I have been spending early mornings at my desk, and at some point each morning, depending on the time of year, a gradual leak of sunlight enters my peripheral vision. Never have I seen anything like this, although over the years I imagine this ridgeline has been lit up a dozen times while my eyes were fixed on my keyboard. I know that the Maya — who were better at mathematics and astronomy than I am, better too than their Spanish conquerors — sited their Yucatan temples to catch light spectacularly just twice a year, at the equinoxes. My local phenomenon was pure accident, and I doubt I will ever see it again.

To make sense of the towering joy I felt that morning, I turn to the words the poet John Keats chose to end his Ode on a Grecian Urn:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Truth and beauty are in scarce supply these days between the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and a president’s refusal to accept the fact that he’s been voted from office. Grotesque news and public mendacity are everywhere. Our culture seems to thrive on them, and if there isn’t enough to report on a given day, news anchors speculate on what’s lurking just around the corner.

To set the context for a startling event I nearly missed, I’ve veered into sourness; what I really mean to say is that sudden and profound beauty will make you think.

I’m struck by the idea that human experience can be shaped by wild-card moments like this. My wife and I, for example, met long ago at a college bonfire on a football weekend. We didn’t fall in love right away — we were both there with other people — but if she hadn’t emerged in the flickering light of that evening and spoken to me, our lives would have been completely different and our children unrelated. We believe that we make our lives, that we forge the selves we become. We document coherence in our lives with letters and photographs and stories like the one I’m telling, but in retrospect how wonderfully accidental so much of it actually is.

Too much thinking in this vein can turn to sentimentality, or despair. I prefer a safer and more reliable point somewhere between these poles, a state you might call wonder. Recently I listened to a radio program in which a scientist was asked if dinosaurs would be still be here today if that putative asteroid or comet had not collided with Earth in the glory of the Jurassic period. Her answer was complicated, but the question made me think about the moment just before the collision when a triceratops might have been grazing blissfully on a palm, completely unaware of the impending disaster. What would be the abiding truth of that moment, the pleasure a dinosaur was feeling in its stomach or the imminent die-off we now accept as paleontological fact?

The glib truism “context is everything” tells us that there are often levels to what we call truth. Keats died of consumption when he was just 26, and in his short and brilliant life as a poet he was also a prolific letter-writer. His Ode on a Grecian Urn is an upbeat exploration of the concept of immortality, but at exactly the same time he was writing despairing letters to his family about the disease he knew would end his life. Context is helpful, but for every question it can answer, 10 new ones spring up. For instance, would Keats have ever written Ode on a Grecian Urn if he expected to live as long as Wordsworth or Coleridge?

Now I’m back to wondering what my sunrise vision means to me. The left side of my brain says it’s all about physics and has nothing to do with me; when the conditions are just right, the November sun will ignite the distant ridgeline whether I’m here to see it or not. At this stage of my life I’m comfortable with the humbleness this idea demands from me. The right side of my brain says that more important than physics is the fact that I was standing at my window on that particular morning.

Witnessing a moment of beauty means everything, and because I did, my life has veered just a little from its previous course.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.

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