Reflecting The Half-Acre Habitat

Beauty and Decay

When I get back from my morning walk, I usually walk around the backyard to see what’s blooming.

This morning, it was my water lily.

I planted it in the “deep” end of my pond on the first day of June, and here we are 7 weeks later, and it is now blooming. It was a new plant for me, so I didn’t know what to expect. I think it’s lovely and took a picture to share with the people who have been following along on this wildlife pond journey of mine on social media.

Water lilies produce bunches of leaves – that is one reason we water gardeners plant them. The profusion of leaves covers the water surface, giving the wildlife places to hide, creating shade and thus cooling the water. When I planted this lily, it had five leaves. Seven weeks later, it has dozens.

The leaves don’t last forever; inevitably, some of them are dying, even as more spring up, hydra-like, to replace them. In the bottom right corner of the picture from this morning is a leaf on its way out.

I played around with the framing for a moment, looking for the best angle for the picture. I debated putting my phone down, getting my secateurs, and clipping off the offending leaf.

But in the end, I left it. It doesn’t make it a better picture, but it does make it a more honest one.

There are entire books, courses, and even schools of thought around the decision of what an artist should or should not include in their depictions of reality. If you photograph a beautiful woman with a pimple on the end of her nose, do you include the pimple? It depends on the artist and what message they are trying to convey to their viewers.

If you want to highlight the beauty of the subject, perhaps you edit it out. If you want to convey stark reality, perhaps you leave it in. If you are selling the photo to the woman herself, you definitely edit it out. If the woman is your enemy, you leave it alone. It’s all curation, in the end.

But these days, we are all artists. We take dozens of pictures a week – some of us, dozens of pictures a day. And it is easier than ever to get other people to see the things we make. And for many of us, the subject we are making the decision about how to edit and curate for consumption is our very lives.

So, we learn how to angle our hips to look more “photogenic.” We crop the broom leaning against the wall out of the picture. We clone stamp the floor in the photo of our living room, editing out the lamp cord. We pick up the floor around the cat before we take the “candid” shot of them being cute. We take selfies from about six inches above eye level to minimize our jowls.

Again, these are artistic decisions, not moral ones. I don’t think you are a horrible person if you like how you look better when your leg is slightly bent.

But there is a thing sociologists talk about called our “peer group.” It means the people we surround ourselves with. And a whole lot of our happiness depends on our peer group.

If you make $30,000 a year, and all your friends make $45,000 a year, you will, by and large, be less happy than you would be if all your friends also made $30,000. We compare ourselves to others in our peer group. It’s unavoidable.

When our peer group consisted of people we see in our daily lives, the facade was more apparent. We saw the beautiful family at church, but we also saw the argument in the parking lot. But these days, we only see the staged photo of the family walking into the sanctuary in their Easter finery that was posted on Instagram.

A result of this, over time, is that we experience a type of dysphoria where we are convinced that everyone has a better life than we do. They don’t have stretch marks or a spouse that forgets to take out the trash or weeds in their flower beds or underwear with stains or saggy elastic. They don’t have arguments with their partners, unpaid bills, overdrafted accounts, or ever have to make decisions on whether to buy the cheap mayonnaise in the grocery store. Nope. Just us, in our pathetic, small, miserable lives.

So I left the dying leaf in the picture. Because decay always accompanies beauty, even when we can’t see it.

But there is another reason I left the dead leaf in the picture. One that is actually even, I think, more important. Because while decay always accompanies beauty, the inverse is also true: Beauty always accompanies decay.

In an abandoned building filled with rot and ruin, you can find bird nests and intricate spider webs that glisten in the morning dew. In overgrown fields, the wildflowers bloom. In the prison camps, strangers gave away their last scraps of food to people in worse shape than even they were.

This, also, is a decision. To seek to include the beauty in our depictions of reality. Because it is assuredly there. It is the opposite of curation, a sort of anti-curation, an idea that is so rare that we don’t actually have a word for it in English.

It is more an orientation than anything else – a decision made in advance, based on the sure knowledge that beauty always accompanies decay. Beauty is as pervasive to reality as gravity. When you know it’s there, you can find it. In the midst of all the pain is a glimmer of hope, of life, of persistent goodness that underlies all of creation, and that is an essential part of its being, as critical to its existence as hydrogen is to water.

And all we have to do is decide to look for it.

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