by Stephanie Bento
In this universal and extraordinary season of human struggle, we long to nourish our souls, to elevate our thoughts from an endless stream of worries, to find some patience in this pause, and to remember our truest selves beyond fear. We crave art.
And yet, never has beauty felt more faraway.
I cannot remember now the last time I visited a museum. It was some time ago, in the Before. What I do recall, however, are the senses of it: the reverent silence, the curious expectation at each turn of a corner into another room, the gentle footsteps upon creaking wood floors, the marble-cool air on my skin, the measured whispers of passerby commenting on one painting or object or another as though not to disturb the carefully calibrated calm of the room. Above all, the peace of being among beauty and truth.
But for now, in this moment where time stands still, memory alone must be enough.
Mary Oliver’s Upstream, a collection of essays celebrating nature, literature, and the role of the artist in this world, is rooted in remembrance.
In the beginning of the collection, Oliver recalls her childhood spent both in wonder of nature and in the words of poets like Walt Whitman – both as an escape from the hardship of reality and as an invitation to understanding the world and her place in it. It is along these parallel paths that Oliver discovers “that most joyful of circumstances—a passion for work,” unearthing her own purpose as a poet.
Form – the taking of shape in nature and in creative work – is a leitmotif throughout the collection. “Form is certainty. All nature knows this, and we have no greater adviser… Each form sets a tone, enables a destiny, strikes a note in the universe unlike any others. How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?” In Oliver’s view, the aim of creative work is to both notice form and to see beyond it all at once. “Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formless that is beyond the edge.” In other words, the purpose of creative work is to find its way into being, and then transcend it.
It is through the reconciliation of these opposites – of shape and the shapeless – that Oliver gives her readers a view “beyond the edge.” The concerns of the collection alternate between the worldly and the divine, ranging from acute descriptions of the artifacts of the physical world – the precise anatomy of a fish, an inventory of birds, and detail-rich descriptions of landscapes – to meditations on the intellectual and spiritual legacies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, and William Wordsworth, who not only lived in this world, but overcame it.
Life is body, and life is soul.
The collection plays spectacularly with opposites and all of life’s apparent contradictions: “On one side is radiance; on another is the abyss,” Oliver reminds us. It is grotesque and sublime, common and extraordinary, terrifying and awe-inspiring. And the place in the middle – where the earth touches sky, “at the edge of the mystery” – that place is the window to the divine.
Nature and art, Oliver suggests, both invite contemplation and remind us of life’s everlasting truths:
“For the universe is full of radiant suggestion. … Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.”
This “attention to eternity,” is the nourishing truth of creative work. And it is the very same truth that nature quietly insists upon, as we rest “in the grace of the world,” to quote poet and author Wendell Berry, and notice a tree rooted in the Earth, its branches outstretched to the heavens, awakening us to the memory of the infinite.
One late afternoon in June, I went online and took part in a 3D virtual tour of the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition, True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780-1870. Featuring more than 100 oil paintings by artists such as John Constable, André Giroux, and Georges Michel, the exhibit celebrates those who observed nature and sought to capture its essence: a slant of golden light, a bird’s-eye view of the countryside or mountains, the French and Italian seaside, the majesty of trees.
The tour is a surreal experience that only could have been imagined in our lifetimes – with just a computer and Internet connection a visitor can scroll through the exhibit, zooming in on the paintings for an up-close look, and with a click of a button, peruse the descriptions of the works and learn about the artists who created them.
What is missing, of course, is the physical experience of being in a museum and the ability to view the art in truly close proximity – to behold the individual brushstrokes and to stroll (not scroll) through the galleries at a leisurely pace. But interestingly, experiencing the exhibition from afar, we become artists of a digital landscape, weaving together a cohesive whole from pixelated fragments.
The artists of the 18thand 19thcenturies often worked from memory. They painted quickly, racing against the fading light of sunset or the changing weather, to capture what they had seen. And like all things in nature, these artists sought to paint what was simultaneously fleeting and eternal: the break of waves, the energy of a waterfall, a volcano erupting, the change of light in the stratosphere. And in the quiet of the painters’ imaginations, they brought these scenes to life again, perhaps even more vividly so.
As I toured the exhibit, zooming in and clicking my way through the rooms inch by inch, turning the virtual corridors, I thought about how much has changed since these works of art came into being more than 150 years ago. We live in the digital age – and yet, we still find comfort in nature, and we are still brought to our knees by it and events beyond our control. Though day-to-day life may feel uncertain in the year 2020, nature is unchanging: the cycle of seasons, the infinite sky, the fickleness of the weather, the golden light of summer.
At one virtual stop along the exhibition, there is a wall dedicated to depictions of “Skies and Atmospheric Effects,” including a quartet of cloud studies by Swiss artist Johann Jakob Frey. The paintings show the sky at various times of day from morning to dusk, and dressed in different moods – from placid to ominous. The clouds take on different forms. I recognize the familiar contours of cumulus and stratus. They are the same shapes that I see every day when I look outside the window.
And there is comfort in knowing that there are some things in this world that outlive time.
Stephanie Bento is a writer and cellist. In her creative work, she is interested in exploring the ephemeral and our connection to time and place. Stephanie’s work has appeared in New South, Ellipsis Zine, jmww, and Firefly Magazine, among others.