“most of the interesting things around us are above street level”
So writes Nige in “Nature Again.” “Above street level” covers a lot of ground, so to speak – windows, traffic signals, billboards, rooftops, treetops, birds, helicopters, clouds, the moon and celestial bodies. It’s a rather crowded place. Nige was rightly awestruck by a solar halo, as I was not long ago by a double rainbow – another sample of nature’s gift for redundancy when it comes to beauty. Both phenomena show up in John Shade’s “Pale Fire” in Nabokov’s Pale Fire:
“My picture book was at an early age
The painted parchment papering our cage:
Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun;
Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon
The iridule—when, beautiful and strange,
In a bright sky above a mountain range
One opal cloudlet in an oval form
Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm
Which in a distant valley has been staged--
For we are most artistically caged.”
Years ago my professor of English Romanticism asked us to imagine Shelley and Keats walking along a woodland path. The former makes grand gestures at the heavens, marveling at the vastness of the cosmos. Keats’ eyes are focused on the ground, noting mushrooms, the shape and color of flowers, the glistening web of an orb weaver. Temperamentally, I’m closer to Keats but as soon as I wrote that I recalled a glorious Shelleyan event I witnessed 10 years ago.
We had attended a performance of Handel’s Semele in Montreal with my wife’s aunt and uncle, who live 60 miles east of the city, near the Vermont border. It was late. My wife and her uncle had fallen asleep in the back seat. Her aunt was driving when the black sky exploded into sheets of gaudy color, an abrupt sensory shift not unlike an acid trip. In seconds I recognized the aurora borealis but I hadn’t expected it to look so big, to fluctuate so rapidly or to give an impression of three dimensions. The northern lights looked like a light show in a big room, simultaneously beautiful, frightening and vulgar – rather like life, it occurs to me now. Something else occurs to me too – a wonderful passage from Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations:
“By the very right of your senses you enjoy the World. Is not the beauty of the Hemisphere present to your eye? Doth not the glory of the Sun pay tribute to your sight? Is not the vision of the World an amiable thing?”
We woke Sunday to snow so fine it resembled dust, melting on pavement, clinging to grass. The kids rolled one-third of a snowman in the front yard – a grassy, leafy head. They were enjoying the World.