“[A] feature of many communities both in the postindustrial West and in many poorer parts of the world is ugliness. True, some communities manage to sustain levels of art and music, often rooted in folk culture, which bring a richness to even the most poverty-stricken areas. But the shoulder-shrugging functionalism of post-war architecture, coupled with the passivity born of decades of television, has meant that for many people the world offers little but bleak urban landscapes, on the one hand, and taw-dry entertainment, on the other. And when people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope.” –N.T. Wright
I recall with vividness the first time I witnessed Glacier National Park. The sun lifted itself above the peaks, sculpted from centuries of snowfall, and light flooded the valleys like the waterfalls rushing from the cirques. Suspended in a strange and wonderful sense of disbelief, I examined the contrast of pine-filled valleys juxtaposed against grayish moraines. I nearly wept out of amazement.
We rolled into the parking lot at the trailhead and yanked our packs from the back of the car, cinching down the straps over our hips and shoulders. My dad snapped the obligatory pre-adventure shot of my brother and I, and we were off. With each step deeper into the valley we discovered something of grandeur. After miles of stream crossings and trekking through a canopy of green, we eyed the shores of a small glacial lake which would host us and our tiny two-man tent for the night. As we drew closer to the water, we noticed the color–a shade of greenish-blue more vivid than anything I had ever laid eyes on. The sediment that had drained into the lake flecked the surface like silver glitter.
With the tent pitched, I found myself perched on a small rocky plateau overlooking the lake. I watched undistracted as the surface danced in the beams of light. The vast and commanding display of beauty captured me. The next morning I sipped my coffee beneath the shadow of the chossy peaks, wishing I could remain there indefinitely. I reluctantly laced my boots to hike out, determined to never loose the sense of wonder I had gained in those few days. My memories from that trip, a few years behind me now, will not soon be forgotten. That place left an impression on me that can never be erased.
Something about the wild beauty of the natural world resonates with us in a way we cannot ignore. It draws us into a singular moment and demands that we recognize its display. It calls us out of our concrete bubbles, surrounded by bright computer screens and vibrating cell phones, and into something far more grand than television could ever hope to produce. Overcome by profundity, we recognize something that cannot be expressed in mere words.
Beauty, in its most wild and natural form, is something that every human longs for and delights in. Indeed, we were not created to simply produce; we are not robots. Ingrained in us is the desire to enjoy, to pursue something for the sake of pleasure alone. To forget that is to forget one of our most basic needs. The grandeur of the natural world shrinks us back into our human bodies, humbled with gratitude. Our longing for beauty is a longing for hope. More than anything, we fear the mundane, the gray blur of an office cubicle blending into a concrete cityscape. We fear a lack of passion and purpose, and in our search for meaning we are instinctually drawn to wild places. At times we sprint there, running from monotony. Other moments we are dragged, clawing at the carpet of our comfortable homes. Yet each time we venture out, we return with something gained–whether it be a profound spiritual experience or a simple reminder that beauty still exists.
These places of natural wonder simultaneously challenge and encourage us. They test our character and question our willpower. They remind us that a greater good exists and that we are not the end-all-be-all. They fuel our passions and transform perspectives. They cause us to look at the world not as a decaying product of a corrupt culture, but as a spectacle of hope that goodness will overcome. Beauty is not a luxury afforded only to the wealthy few. Quite the opposite: it is found in its most raw form amongst the dirt from which we were created. We cannot deny the value of beautiful places; to do so would be to accept a world devoid of hope.
We must take that hope and seek out every sunrise and sunset with fervor. To stop and watch a small alpine lake glitter in the setting sun is not a waste of time: it is to be human; it is to hope.