Pom Trees

Should any of you have been driving down Deep Canyon and 111 yesterday at 5:50 in the morning, I apologize for my erratic behaviour behind the wheel. I was distracted, you see, and if you had only glanced in your rear-view mirror as I did, you would have understood why. The sunrise was astonishing. It swept across the sky and cheered the tired, facing mountains, the one reprieve for those dry and dour rocks.

I was looking, too, at the effect of the sunrise on the palm trees all around (for those, like Chaeli, who did not realize there are palm trees here, be assured: there are many). One of my mom's students in a recently assigned story referred to them as 'pom' trees. It is a right word for their undignified sprouting, suddenly made dignified by the elaborate light, the flamboyance of the dawn. The play of dark on light - the dancing lines - ribbing the colours of the sky with unsuspected variance.

Staring as I did at the trees, lanky and delicate as giraffes, I was reminded of Elaine Scarry's conversion to palm tree-love as detailed in her book On Beauty and Being Just. She talks first of how little she loved palm trees ('Palms are not beautiful; possibly they are not even trees') and then lengthily of her new observation of the beauty of individual palms, from actual frondy trees rising above her during a walk to the constant repetition of the palm in Matisse's paintings.

Allow me, if you will, to quote her at length:

The signature of a palm is its striped light. Palm leaves stripe the light. The dyadic alterations of leaf and air make the frond shimmer and move, even when it stays still, and if there is an actual breeze, then the stripings whip around without ever losing their perfect alignment across the full sequence. ...

(Yes! This is precisely how the palms were beautiful yesterday morning! She continues on beauty in general:)

Matisse believed that we everywhere see in the leaf-light of his pictures, the pliancy and palmy reach of the capacious mind. Even when the claim on behalf of immortality is gone, many of the same qualities - plentitude, inclusion - are the outcome.
It sometimes seems that a special problem arises for beauty once the realm of the sacred is no longer believed in or aspired to. If a beautiful girl (like Nausicaa), or a small bird, or a glass vase, or a poem, or a tree has the metaphysical behind it, that realm verifies the weight and attention we confer on the girl, bird, vase, poem, tree. But if the metaphysical realm has vanished, one may feel bereft not only because of the giant deficit left by that vacant realm but because the girl, the bird, the vase, the book now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty. If each calls out for attention that has no destination beyond itself, each seems self-centered, too fragile to support the gravity of our immense regard.
But beautiful things, as Matisse shows, always carry greetings from other worlds with them. In surrendering to his leaf-light, one is carried to other shorelines as inevitably as Odysseus is carried back to Delos. What happens when there is no immortal realm behind the beautiful person or thing is just what happens when there
is an immortal realm behind the beautiful person or thing: the perceiver is led to a more capacious regard for the world. The requirement for plenitude is built-in. The palm will always be found (whether one accidentally walks out onto a balcony, or follows at daybreak the flight path of an owl, or finds oneself washed up in front of Nausicaa or a redbud or Seated Woman with a Book) because the palm is itself the method of finding. The material world constrains us, often with great beneficence, to see each person and thing in its time and place, its historical context. But mental life doesn't so constrain us. It is porous, open to air and light, swings forward while swaying back, scatters its stripes in all directions, and delights to find itself beached beside an altar from three millennia ago.
This very plasticity, this elasticity, also makes beauty associate with error, for it brings one face-to-face with one's own errors: momentarily stunned by beauty, the mind before long begins to create or to recall and, in doing so, soon discovers the limits of its own starting place, if there are limits to be found, or may instead - as is more often the case - uncover the limitlessness of the beautiful thing it beholds.


  1. I am Sooo looking forward to the pom trees.

    Theys bees on mine blogger, I's that anxiouses.


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