A red-winged blackbird posed upon its perch is like an emblem of early summer, writes Dana Wilde. Photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren / Wikimedia Commons

Natural beauty, it seems, comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes. What’s beautiful depends to some extent on how you look at your natural object. Not everyone finds jumping spiders or dung beetles cute – cuteness being a kind of beauty, let’s say. But some do.

What’s interesting, though, is that some occurrences of natural beauty are recognized as “beautiful” by practically everyone, everywhere. Rose-red-orange light on a western horizon strikes whole ranges of emotion into people everywhere, as far as I know, from joy to awe to piety to grief; “the tone of the highest manifestation (of Beauty) … is sadness,” Edgar Allan Poe observed. The emotions are conditions of the beauty, like colors in an atmosphere. Beauty is the substance of a sunset.

Some universal occurrences of beauty are striking, others more subtle. Distant, misty mountain peaks, the depth of space. Geese in chevron flight, the depth of time. A horse grazing in a field, the living form of nobility. I’m thinking of seeing these images in the woods of Maine and in paintings in China. Certain turns of phrase in Shakespeare. The rhythms of South Asian, South African, South American, Southwestern drums, the dancing universe. A burning star, like a lens in eternity. A row of cattails on the edge of a wetland, still, patient, abiding.

I keep seeing red-winged blackbirds on the edge of the bog. Deep black, all right. As the males come to rest at an angle on a reed, their shoulders flash red. If you look more patiently you see a slash of yellow under the “epaulet.” The pose upon the perch is like an emblem of early summer.

In natural reality the males start appearing here around March. The breeding grounds are northern New England and Canada. Along the coast and in Nova Scotia they might be seen year-round, though my only looks are summer long. The males squabble it out for territory in marshes and bogs.

Later in April the females, who are mainly brown-colored, move in. They inspect the staked-out territories and apparently select a partner according to judgments about the quality of the digs. Quality corresponds, in ornithological definition, to suitability of habitat for nesting and raising a family. I suppose some spots seem more beautiful than others to a female red-winged blackbird, I don’t know. Summer food is mainly bugs, so plenty of insect-housing vegetation is attractive to her. Nests are built low among cattails, shrubs or trees of the wetland. Sometimes two or three females will settle into the same male’s piece of the bog, and he’s got multiple families to take care of.

The red-winged blackbirds strike my heart, we say metaphorically. Serenity perched on a cattail, vitality flashed red in black.

What’s even stranger about the phenomena of beauty is that you want to reflect them back. Get as close to them as possible, know them by experience, and give a true account, to put another facet on Thoreau’s turn of phrase. Somewhere in the intersection of out there and in here, is the truth.

Awhile back, I confessed that a star struck fear in me. “Why fear?” a reader wanted to know. “Why not love?” The questions bewildered me.

The experience of beauty is not hypothetical. The star was frighteningly beautiful.

The red-winged blackbirds. Their clamor. Their serenity. Their fundamental beauty streaming in like summer starlight.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” will be available soon from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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