Thursday, June 21, 2012

`That Which Being Perceived, Pleases'

My wife stopped the lawn mower in the middle of the backyard and yelled, “I found a frog.” This seemed unlikely. Rain hadn’t fallen in five days (after a drought, we remember such things) and we have no standing water. It was a young toad, lumpy, gray-brown and smaller than my thumbnail, penny-sized. He was tiny enough to disappear in the jungle of just-sheared grass, and I pulled him out with index finger and thumb. He leaped from my palm and landed on his back on the concrete patio, and I assumed I had killed him, but after a moment he flipped over and hopped into the grass. This is the Texas toad, Anaxyrus speciosus, a creature made resilient by diminutive size and the simplicity of his needs. For that day at least, he eluded the fate of Richard Wilbur’s toad. One hundred-sixty years ago today, on June 21, 1852, Thoreau writes in his journal:

“Nature has looked uncommonly bare & dry to me for a day or two. With our senses applied to the surrounding world we are reading our own physical and corresponding moral revolutions. Nature was so shallow all at once I did not know what had attracted me all my life. I was therefore encouraged when going through a field this evening, I was unexpectedly struck with the beauty of an apple tree — The perception of beauty is a moral test.”

Most would agree an apple tree in blossom is beautiful. Fewer see beauty in a toad. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as a secondary definition “a type of anything hateful or loathsome,” and cites Milton: “To hate one another like a toad or poison.” But if we accept beauty as “that which being perceived, pleases,” the Texas toad is elegantly, admirably beautiful, an impression bolstered if we know the genus consumes prodigious quantities of mosquitoes and other insects. Beauty, it seems, is a package of qualities, not one in abstract isolation. As to Thoreau’s conclusion, “The perception of beauty is a moral test,” I’ve spent a lifetime trying to believe that, and failing.

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