Beauty and Love
By John Palka — Posted November 24, 2019
Not long ago my wife, Yvonne, and I got up at 4:00 o’clock in the morning to drive out to the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge north of Minneapolis to observe the sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis, Family Gruidae). A staff person and a couple of volunteers took us out to ponds where these amazing birds regularly spend the night before flying off in the early morning to feed in the neighboring, recently harvested cornfields. Here is an example of what we saw just as the sun was rising.
Is there not a certain serenity in the view, a richness of colors, a grace to the bodies? Do we not delight in the reflections on the still water, whether of the cranes or of the autumn foliage? Is the sight not beautiful?
To me, it is beautiful indeed, and it also raises many questions. Why do I say that the scene is beautiful? What makes it so? And why do we pay such attention to beauty? Why do we have a sense of beauty in the first place? Are we the only ones, or are there other creatures on our Earth who also have a sense of beauty, just as we have come to believe that other creatures besides us humans can love and grieve? So much to ponder!
These are the words with which I started to write this quarter’s posting on Nature’s Depths. From questions about beauty itself, I wandered over to the understanding that how we experience something in our surroundings depends on us. Many philosophers have said, and everything we know from science also tells us, that we live in a world of our own creation. Our experiential world is related to the external world by our senses. This world of our experience must be reasonably faithful to reality else we would not survive, but it is neither complete nor completely faithful. It is what we make it—any change in our senses or our brains changes that experience.
I well remember the story told by a student in one of my classes many years ago. She had suffered the loss of a part of her visual cortex. After recovery, she could see the world as she always had except for the part represented in, mapped onto, the missing cortex. That was gone. There was nothing like a gray area in its place. Rather, in the world of her experience this area was simply non-existent. When a car driving by entered her area of blindness, there was no more car. There was nothing there at all. She became aware of the car only when it re-entered the world mapped onto intact cortex—cortex through whose activity she saw the other things in her visual world.
The pithy statement “We see the world not as it is, but as we are” is usually attributed to the writer Anais Nin. There is a lot of truth in this statement—the only world we know experientially is the one we have ourselves created.
This understanding manifests in many ways. Some are dramatic, such as the loss of part of the visual world when part of the visual system is lost. Others are more subtle, as in this next example.
Salt Creek State Park on the northern shore of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state is extremely popular with visitors. Camping sites can be reserved, and they generally go within days of the opening of the reservation period.
This photograph of a sunset at Salt Creek illustrates why this is. It seems self-explanatory—an unspoiled shoreline, a view out over the water, and a chance to see Nature’s colors at their best. Of course, people would treasure the experience!
But wait a moment. Why do we so value expansive views like this? We sometimes travel great distances to obtain them. We pay a premium for waterfront property. Houses and apartments with a lovely view command far higher prices than do those without a view. Those views elicit very powerful feelings, and we are prepared to sacrifice a lot to get them.
Here’s a related observation, stemming from a study done by colleagues at my old institution, the University of Washington. Like any other large organization, the UW has many offices with no windows, whether because they are below ground level or because they are in the interior of a large building. The investigators conducted a survey to see what pictures the occupants of these windowless offices had hung on their walls. They had many options, of course. They could have chosen city scenes, or sports scenes, or abstract patterns, or people. In fact, however, outdoor scenes dominated. There were many more pictures of Nature in these windowless offices than there were in offices where Nature could be seen directly through a window. Striking, is it not! What lay behind the choice?
The most compelling explanation for this human preference is called the Biophilia Hypothesis. First advanced in 1984 by the great Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, this hypothesis proposes that “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life” are the outcome of our evolutionary history. We evolved within Nature—it is our primordial home. This is why, the hypothesis suggests, we have affectionate feelings for it. If Nature is not directly available to us, we seek substitutes like the pictures on the walls of windowless offices. And perhaps we are especially drawn to expansive views because we evolved primarily on the African savannah where climbing a tree to gain a broad view of our surroundings would have given us protection from predators and revealed to us potential prey.
From considering Biophilia, I was all set to go on to the world of beauty—to explore why we have a sense of beauty and whether we are the only ones—or whether other creatures, like the peacocks (Pavo cristatus, Family Phasianidae) of the dry forest in the south of India that Yvonne and I encountered back in 1965, also experience each other as beautiful.
BUT THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED
I have been seeing a replica of the UW study on windowless offices every day for the past several weeks. In the family waiting room of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, seven pictures hang on the wall, every one of them a portrayal of Nature. They are part of the space in which family members take a break from sitting with their loved ones undergoing intensive care. I have been there every day because Yvonne—the same Yvonne I married in India when we were fresh out of college, the same Yvonne who saw peacocks with me so many years ago and sandhill cranes a month ago, the same Yvonne with whom I had recently hiked on trails along the North Shore of Lake Superior and with whom I was about to see a performance of Indian classical dance—is in intensive care.
While crossing the street at an intersection on the evening we were to see that dance performance, we were both struck by a car whose driver made a left turn without seeing us. I was knocked to the ground but sustained only minor injuries. Yvonne, however, has been on life support ever since. Without assistance she still cannot even breathe well enough to survive.
IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN
Yvonne’s brain is damaged, so she may never again experience the world as she did before, a world that was beautiful, that she loved and painted, whose music gave her great joy, and in which the people of her life moved and laughed and loved. Will she ever even talk to us again? Will she ever recognize beauty such as she painted in her Autumn Glow just a couple of months ago?
We don’t know. What we do know is that Yvonne continues to need constant care. She has become a huge part of my life in a way that neither of us ever anticipated. For this reason, I am taking a break from Nature’s Depths. I am hoping that I will be able to resume writing after a while, but for now nothing can take me away from a focus on Yvonne. When we were married in the Quaker International Centre in Delhi, India, fifty-nine years ago, we exchanged traditional Quaker vows. I said these simple words to Yvonne:
In the presence of God and these, our Friends, I take thee, Yvonne, to be my wife, promising, with Divine assistance, to be unto thee a loving and faithful husband so long as we both shall live.
Yvonne said the same words to me, taking me to be her husband. Now, these vows mean more than ever. Yvonne continues to be my beauty to whom I am devoted and whom I will serve as best I can. I will continue to find emotional and spiritual sustenance in the natural world as well as in the world of human love, but I can’t promise to produce posts on a regular schedule. Please don’t leave Nature’s Depths, just be patient with me as I adjust to my new reality.
Your writings have touched me – know that you and Yvonne have what positive energy I can convey for you both.
My dear man! I grieve for Yvonne’s injury and for your heartache over it. There is the greatest beauty in the fidelity of you love for her “in sickness and in health.” Peace that passes understanding sustain you in this trial.
A powerful and moving tribute dad- you are priceless to mom and to all of us – thank you for a lifetime of beauty inside and out!
Oh no! I will keep you both in our prayers. You both reveal live to us all.
Deeply and movingly sad. Of such comprehensiveness, it is beautiful. As is patience. I”ll wait.
Oh, Johnny. This is so hard to read. I just had a close call with Ron, but he will recover. Although we already knew this, life can be completely changed in a flash. Thinking of you.
Oh my beloved Johnny, I am saddened all over again to read about Yvonne and how terribly injured she is. Bless your faithful heart and mind as you wait with her for whatever comes. You are in my prayers. Much love to you both and to your family.
Oh, Johnny, your writing is as exquisite and honest as ever. I continue to track you and Yvonne on Caring Bridge. This entry here and each of those on Caring Bridge brings me to tears. There is no intellectual understanding for why these things happen—only love can be brought to bear, as you so beautifully illustrate here.
Johnny – so sorry to read about Yvonne! Life just does change in an instant, in ways we cannot control. Your words on Beauty and Love are so spot-on. Hang in there…
Dear John; Please accept my kindest regards. I will hold Yvonne and the love you two shared in my thoughts. I am a botanist who teaches at a small university in southern BC and I have been reading your blog for several years now as I have greatly enjoyed seeing the natural world reflected through your eyes. May you find the comfort you can in this difficult time.
Sending you both my very deepest love.
all BEST BEST to Yvonne
Johnny, I am so sorry to hear the news about Yvonne. Thanks so much for sharing with us. My thoughts and prayers are with you, Yvonne and the rest of your family.
Thank you Johnny, I am so very sorry. You both have touched so many lives in such positive ways and everyone is holding you and Yvonne in their thoughts, love, Candace
You are both loved and cherished. I was acquaintances with Yvonne at Antioch. She is such a true and gentle spirit. You are both in my prayers. May other senses deepen and provide a lovely balance.
So beautiful Johnny. Of course we will be patient. Sending you, Yvonne and your family love and support.
John and Yvonne, you are both in my thoughts and prayers.
So beautiful Johnny. Thank you.
So much love to you and all of yours, Johnny. I’ve been thinking of you and Yvonne every day. Thank you for sharing this look at your world with us.
Sorry to hear this terrible news.
Johnny, as I read this, a gaping hole appeared in the pit of my stomach, and tears came. We have, of course been following this whole awful story through Barbara’s mailings and Caring Bridge. I haven’t written anything directly to you simply because I knew you and Yvonne were being so well held by so many of our Island community and well beyond. But let me just take this little slot of time to tell you how deeply saddened I have been by and about this. Your words above take on a very special poignancy in light of what you had earlier written. I am so, so sorry. Sharon and I are holding you regularly in the Light as we settle in here at Kendal. We shall, of course, stay in touch. With love, L.
Steve and I are so very sorry. You and Yvonne have always been an inspiration to us – back in the days some 50 years ago and after that in our memories and through your writings. Your light makes the world better. Please know that we are thinking of you and Yvonne with deep appreciation and love.
I am so sorry to hear about Yvonne. Best wishes for her (and you) in traveling the path forward.
I am holding you and Yvonne in love and light. When I met you last October at the retreat at Prairie Oaks, I was struggling with the direction to take with my marriage. Your love for Yvonne, and the counsel you both offered, helped me to see how to honor my highest self, my highest calling. I’m grateful for sharing that time with both of you, and my whole heart is with you now.
This is truly a beautiful reflection of your essential loving, wise and dharmic mind and soul. You are a gift to not only Yvonne but to everyone coming into contact with you. My thoughts and prayers are with you daily.
Your relationship with Yvonne – just like your ruminations on nature – are a thing of beauty. I enjoy your writing. And I will wait happily for them to return. Love to you both.
Dear John –
Thank you for sharing this piece with us, with its contrasting themes of beauty and loss..
Nothing I say can make up for the loss, but I do wish you patience, and surcease of sorrow.
All blessings, from all sources,
you will continue to open my eyes…nature and I can wait..hugs
I appreciate the depth of exploration of what is beautiful. I have often wondered if there is not something fractal in nature that leads us to the cognition of beauty. Also, I found your description of the relationship and commitment to Yvonne especially beautiful! Is love and devotion inherently beautiful?
We are so sorry, and are hoping for the best.
Sending you prayers during this critical and emotional time in your life. You are surrounded by Divine light. Thank you for your beautiful and poignant blog. Will miss you and know that your love for your wife, Yvonne, is all you can focus on. Thank you for all your posts.
This is personal and very moving. We all miss Yvonne. Many blessings to both of you.
Thanks as always for sharing your wisdom and perspectives on life, Johnny. My heart goes out to you and Yvonne in this difficult time.
I was very sorry to read about Yvonne and can only hope like you that her brain can recover some of its past splendour.
I am still working in the zoology department in Cambridge across the corridor from where I was when you were here.
i hope you will both continue to experience this beautiful world together.
Malcolm and Christine Burrows
Johnny, we are sending you and Yvonne so much love and care and tenderness. You both have always been teachers for us and now even more so.
Thank you for sharing this new walk with all of us.
We love you dearly!
Victoria Castle and Tim Morley
My heart goes out to you on your immeasurable loss. I am still praying for Yvonne, and you, will of course will continue to do so. Your blog brought tears to my eyes. Much love to you, and your family, Bonnie
John, so sorry to hear about Yvonne I have followed you for quite awhile now and missed your monthly sharing, but soon get used to looking for you quarterly. I was so excited when your email popped up in my box and as I read I became very sad. I can’t possibly imagine how it must feel to face such an unknown future, and I send my thoughts and prayers for Yvonne’s healing and for your courage and strength. Your lives have been so rich and full and I hope that sustains your in the difficult and lonely hours of waiting beside Yvonne in Intensive care, and hopefully as she recovers. Tap into the beauty, life and resilience you have learned from nature, and may you be sustained by the way in which it has molded your whole being, Peace and wholeness dwell in both of your spirits. Christine
thank you for sharing. I am so very sorry. what an awful tragedy. hoping for some comfort and wishing you the best as you adjust to this new reality.
Sending our love, support, Johnny and Yvonne, and the abiding presence of friends afar
Oh Johnny this blog brought tears to my eyes! The love you and Yvonne share is so beautiful and palpable! Thank you for sharing so deeply and profoundly and for opening us to the contemplation about beauty and how we create our reality. You write so exquisitely and poignantly with such a beautiful and open heart. Thank you for sharing of yourself so openly and full of love. I love Yvonne’s painting Autumn Glow – she saw so much beauty in the world! All my love to you and Yvonne what a treasure you both are in my life!! Hugs!!
Thank you for such a thoughtful post.
The beauty of nature you write about here Johnny, is also reflected in the love and care you share with and for Yvonne. Prayers continue for you both and all those assisting in this journey, family, friends, health care professionals. Together, with the help of God, May there be healing and peace. Thank you for sharing. Love and hugs, Shelly Halverson
I’m so sorry to hear about this. Your wisdom has had a definite impact on me in the very short time we worked together and I know that wisdom was shaped so much by Yvonne and by your life together. Holding you in prayer.
Johnny, you so eloquently expressed truths that I have experienced but could not have put into words so well. You and Yvonne, and your loving relationship, are an inspiration to all of us who aspire to embrace this brief human experience and live it fully. I will continue to hold Yvonne in light and love in meditation and pray for her recovery. She, and you, are needed in this world.
I remember the recent Tuesday afternoon at Edina Art Center, Yvonne told me about your early a.m. visit to see the cranes at Sherburne NWC. My husband, Frank, and I went there last year, it was afternoon, so the cranes were in the farmers’ fields, but it was beautiful driving through the refuge at 5 mph, admiring the beauty, and feeling the serenity.
Your photo of the cranes and Salt Creek in WA are beautiful.
I love Yvonne’s painting, too.
Am thinking of Yvonne.
This writing is so fabulous and introspective. I have created my life to be a photographer of natural beauty or, rather, it’s seductive mystery has taken hold of me. Either way, I want to share that after receiving a brain injury from an accident my experience of beauty in the world has expanded tremendously, as have my creativity and seeing humor in things. I trust Beauty and Nature like I do Grace. I have faith that Yvonne will still experience these no matter her condition.
Beauty and Love so mysterious! Sending you much love as you and Yvonne navigate these next moments in a life time of love.
Nov. 27, 2019 at 4:45 pm
I send anxious greetings with appreciation for the love you and Yvonne share, and with prayers that Yvonne continues to pull forward in her critical fight for freedom and life with you– hoping she will regain her abundant health and strength for her artistic talent that she expresses so well. Please know that I too send deep prayers wishing for an upward swing in her health and good luck through this frightening trauma! Most sincerely,
from Estella Leopold.
I do not know you or your wife, but it is obvious beauty runs deep within you both. Your photography, Yvonne’s art, and the words you share encourage me to embrace the moment. Thank you.
The universe continues to test each of us. So often in ways we never anticipated, regardless of our view of the world. Our entire world, individually or as a whole, is in a constant state of flux. We truly hurt for the circumstances into which you have been thrust. As each day passes, we try to understand the pain you must feel. But you are wise. You understand better than most that life goes on and is subject to change. We wanted to invite you over for Thanksgiving dinner at our home today, just three doors away. But we knew, full well, that you would be spending the day with Yvonne. May the blessings and prayers and thoughts of all who care for you and know you be with you and Yvonne today.
Johnny, Yvonne spoke about the cranes while we painted at the Edina Art Center a couple weeks before the drastic change in your lives. I could almost see the paintings she imagined as she told us what she’d experienced. Her ‘Golden Light’ painting captures so much of Yvonne’s thoughtful, ever-learning, kind, bright nature. Glad she is surrounded and held with such devotion in these days of healing, though it be uncertain. Thinking often of Yvonne’s glad heart.
“Then everything changed” and “Things will never be the same again” foretold just heart breaking and unbearable news. A while back, when you posted about a phenomenon in nature of a particular decline that had comparability to a stroke in humans, I had just been dealing with a stroke in my family. While your post did not lessen my despair, it Added to a needed context. Though grievous situations are not comparable, grief is not escapable. As caregiver you must take care of yourself as well. All my best thoughts are with Yvonne and you,
I am so sorry. Though I initially met you in 1996 at the Institute for Deep Ecology on Whidbey Island, I didn’t meet Yvonne until the winter when a group of us from the Institute began meeting in your and Yvonne’s house in the Montlake neighborhood for our winter monthly ongoing study sessions. I also have fond memories of the several times our group came out to Whidbey Is. farm house and Yvonnev told us about her conservation/education efforts in behalf of teh shoreline.
Last fall I purchased a 1978 book for Yvonne because of George Tsutakawa’s sumi drawing of a Dungeness crab on the cover. I put it aside w/a post-it note “email Yvonne for their Minnesota address”. It is THE NORTHWEST KITCHEN: A Seasonal Cookbook, illustrated throughout by sumi drawings. When I read Yvonne’s obituary in the Seattle Times, I saw that Yvonne would no longer be able enjoy the sumi drawings or prepare the recipes. Perhaps you and your daughters’ families will instead. My condolence and love to you.