At a time when the ugliness of the world feels omnipresent, finding beauty is not so much a luxury as a necessary antidote to modern life.
When never-ending domestic tasks tether us to mundanity, always-on communications frazzle our brains and the depressingly grim nature of world events brings us down, the beauty of the natural world can shock us into wonder at life again.
These days are hard. It’s like the pandemic altered some fine internal balance many of us had, flicking the switch from glass half-full to glass half-empty. Recalibrating that change in our equilibrium will take time and effort. Combating the endless stream of bad news by seeking out things that make us feel good will also take effort.
The day when I feel the weight of the world most is Monday, with the tasks of the week stretching ahead endlessly. I think of the tightrope walking I’ll have to do while juggling plates to make it all work. Horrendous news events and climate change disasters hitting our planet like juggernauts are enough to send me under the duvet again.
Harried and hassled, I took myself off to the beach on Monday morning, mainly to walk the dog, but perhaps unconsciously to seek some solace from the beauty of the Atlantic. I walked head-long into the wind following the dog as he bounded across the expanse of Kinnagoe Bay in north Donegal, not far from my home. Ours were the only prints on the beach and I noted this as I made my own marks in the sand.
As I watched the waves break, something began to unspool. An ease began to creep in. My muscles began to unclench. I looked up instead of down. The ferocity of the waves was throwing a light spray into the air, giving the beach an otherworldly, almost mystical appearance.
I turned my face in the direction of the sun, closing my eyes to absorb every last ray. I had started my walk with my thoughts bearing down on me like a heavy load. The very act of putting one foot in front of the other while observing the colour of the sea, the patterns of the birds flying across the beach and the ceaseless movement of the ocean felt like the load was lifted.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed modern technological life had alienated us from the “dark maternal, earthy ground of our being”. Putting our walking shoes on and lifting our faces to the day might allow us to dig into the earthiness of ourselves again.
This beauty all around us is also a balm for world-weary souls. It’s like a natural remedy to overcoming painful feelings, overriding an internal narrative that tells us the world is an unsafe place and getting worse.
According to Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, when we walk in nature we are intrinsically rewarded. “We know from a wide variety of studies that people who walk in their local park have lower levels of stress hormones than people who don’t get out regularly,” he says.
Professor O’Mara, who has written a book – In Praise of Walking – points to new research around a recent phenomenon called “the awe walk”. This is where we consciously watch for small wonders in the world around us as we walk. It has the effect of amplifying the mental health benefits of our stroll.
He says we’re all capable of experiencing these feelings that leave us with the sensation of being centred in the world. By looking up and out at the world as you walk, rather than keeping your head down and trudging on, you’re leaving yourself more open to this kind of awe walk experience.
Taking time out surrounded by nature might sound like a Pollyanna approach to big problems, but psychotherapist Stella O’Malley is adamant we don’t dismiss the importance of the beauty of nature. She says not only does it remind us there’s more than the domestic humdrum going on in our lives, it provides us with a bigger perspective.
It’s difficult to stand on a beach with the waves lashing the shore and not be awed by the power of nature and to feel that sense of a bigger picture. Looking out at the expanse of the ocean has the effect of making you feel small, not in a belittling way, but in a way that puts in perspective the magnitude of the world and your place in it.
Award-winning nature writer Barry Lopez wrote that each place is itself only and nowhere repeated. “Miss it and it’s gone,” he said. By stepping outside and paying attention, we can find those small moments of wonder that bring so much to our lives.
As I walked along Kinnagoe Bay, looking out toward the islands of Jura and Islay, I strained my eyes to see what looked like black dots moving at speed just above the horizon. As I watched, I could make out a flock of birds flying in formation. Another large flock flew closely behind.
The Brent geese were coming back to their wintering grounds here in Inishowen, and I had witnessed their arrival. Had I blinked, I would have missed them. I want to keep paying attention to these small wonders in the everyday. This kind of beauty is necessary.