Pied Beauty

If you find yourself on Lake Lonely near Saratoga, you see two distinct shorelines, different in many ways. To the south lie the manicured lawns and square-cornered docks of lakefront properties, each separated neatly from the next, cultivated and carved into a perfect waterfront dream house like you see in magazines. Some aren’t yet complete, and from the lake you can hear the snuffle and chort of mini-backhoes moving earth to more perfect locations, the hungry buzz of chainsaws cutting trees to more perfect lengths, and the clipped discussions of men concerned with how best to execute the plan. This one has a t-shaped dock and grass to the water’s hem; that one sports a small boathouse and rocks demarking land from lake. A driveway switchbacks up the steep slope to a house with several bay windows through which one might regard the full ascent of his magnificence.

The other shore bleeds into the lake, and the lake into the shore: some branches and limbs droop half-submerged or thrust upward from the bottom into the air, white-flowering lilies float greenly in the shallows. As you approach that shore, water plants hiss at the kayak’s bottom. Twinned dragonflies hover near or on the boat and paddle, thickly verdant maple and birch trees silver in the breeze. Small birds call sweetly back and forth.

There’s no question which shore has more to teach. What one learns of course depends.

But the hand of man and the hand of God both can whisper to you. After five years aboard the Beagle and twenty years of sedulous study, during which he studied both shores, Charles Darwin pronounced with confidence that living things evolved by means of natural selection, essentially arguing that things were set in motion, not created by a Godly hand. His contemporary, Gerard Manley Hopkins, also a keen observer of nature, came up with something different.

The most basic, and therefore the definitional, capability of humans is the ability to draw different conclusions from the same set of facts. I can look at these two shores and argue that this is the case, and you can advocate for that, and we might shake hands or declare war or make love over, despite, or because of the difference.

Listen to the music of Hopkins sprung rhythm in “Pied Beauty,” in which he catalogs the glories of both of my metaphorical shores (there’s a professor reading it here):

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; 5

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 10

Praise him.

Why is it that he praises sheepfolds and cultivated fields and man’s contraptions in the same stanza as a trout’s freckles and clouds spread against blue skies (i.e. both shores)? I’ve heard it defended this way: GMH would say that whatever man made god made because god made man so these folds and fields are still from Him. Or: GMH’s trying to stress the beautiful and symmetrical juxtaposition of opposites and a man-made garden next to a wild field is a good example of such a pairing. But it still troubles the Romantic in me, this line that bows in fealty to private property and the division of what once was unified. Especially because of line 10, a direct challenge to Darwin, a wild claim, the claim of a poet or a picture taker, that no mere materialistic law governs this scene, that only divinity presides here.

In five years (“with the length of five long winters…”), perhaps I’ll see both shores of Lake Lonely unified again, the entire lakefront devoured and divided, seemingly whole, undappled, twice as many houses, less than half as much to learn, and little left to teach. Arguing then whether laws or gods ever ruled would quaintly sound like birds someone old tells you used to sing.