I am not sure if it is simply a function of how I am wired, in my unique mixture of hormones and synapses and amount, or lack therof, of serotonin, or whether it is a function of life experience, my unique mixture of joys, sorrows, disappointments, but, though my memory is not very good at all, I have moments of great emotion burned into my mind, moments which can be relived with an intense rush of feeling with the smallest of triggers, the smell of pepsi at the zoo, a cloud in the shape of a mountain on the horizon, the sound of cicadas, the taste of Sweet Dreams tea. I suspect it is a combination of the two, a combination of the sort which makes people tend towards writing poetry (the quality of which is not guaranteed to be good) and melancholy and the Autumn.
Some of these experiences are tied to emotional or social factors. And many involve time spent with my mother on one of the excursions to St. Louis she managed to create for us even though her time and budgets were so tight in those days and it took almost an hour to get here. Some of those experiences, though, were more purely aesthetic experiences of beauty, similar to an experience Lewis describes early in his autobiography Surprised by Joy:
Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I knew. What the real garden had failed to do, the toy garden did. It made me aware of nature–not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. I do not think the impression was very important at the moment, but it soon became important in memory. As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.
Lewis put great stock in these experiences as roadposts of his journey to knowing God, arguing that they are longings which can never be fully fulfilled (even though nature is wondrously beautiful) in this world but only in heaven (and I suspect an exploration of Lewis generic usage of the word “heaven” would include the New Earth, or if it doesn’t, then it really should). Here is a good summary and analysis of Lewis’ thoughts in this area.
When I first saw this little tableau of some beavers’ stream in the museum at the Arch (yes, on an Arch trip with my family) I was transfixed, mostly because I was amazed by how the artist could use resin to create such a realistic looking stream, but also because viewing the tableau took me somewhere else, a place which may have been “other” than simply a real beaver’s steam. The stream, the twigs, the leaves strewn on the ground, and, yes, even the taxidermied beavers all worked together upon me. The lighting, too, perhaps especially the lighting, helped. It is not natural, but warm and dreamlike. The exhibits in this museuam are all dramatic, inviting little pockets of light in an otherwise very dimly lit space. All these factors worked upon me to elicit what perhaps can only we described as the the “ideal” of a beaver’s stream rather than even a stream in nature. Streams in nature, and almost every other thing, are far more complex and rich and well worth experiencing unfiltered through immersion, and, yet, I believe that even the most effective photos of nature simplify scenes in nature in the same way this tableau does (even the very act of taking a picture does this), by focusing our attention on parts which evoke the essence of a thing, perhaps leaving out many of the details which are present in the real world.
And, yet, as much as I love Lewis, and as much as I like to try to make pictures myself which capture the essence of a thing, I think we have to be careful with such idealization, which is very similar to a belief in Plato’s forms (though there seems to be some of that happening even with the heavenly and earthly tabernacle and temple in the book of Hebrews). We have to be careful principally if such idealization takes us unduly away from the real world, because it is that with which we have to do, within which we ourselves are creatures, which will be gloriously transformed and renewed at the end of time into the New Earth. I suppose, though, that we really only have to be careful if such thinking tends to make us aescetic, world-deniers. And I am confident that Lewis did not fall into this category, as he loved nature and also looked beyond nature to God and the New Earth, or “Paradise” as he describes it in the quote above.
And, so, last night, as I walked throught that wonderful little museum (the roundness of which is a wonder in itself, which greatly befuddled me as a child…”wait, wait, we’re back at the beginning, how did that happen?”), I was drawn immediately to the beavers’ stream. The emotion was not overwhelming (that sort only comes unbidden and unlooked for) but it was still there. Perhaps last night, though, it was a little more a function of consciously remembering my first visits there, when the riverfront was casino free and there was a riverboat McDonalds, when soda’s in the machines were a quarter, when my Uncle Jerry made funny noises in the tram to the top of the Arch each time it did its little lurches, and when my mother was someplace nearby.