I love things that are beautiful in their utility.
Distill a living thing to its most basic need — to survive, to pass on genes — and physical beauty becomes a second thought. It’s there, but it’s not the main event; it does not exist for beauty’s sake.
It exists for utility of the species.
I look for this pairing and am drawn to it: the repeated shape of honeycomb that furthers food production; the channeled curves of the human ear to capture sound; the sloping agility of a cat’s tail and its balance. Novelist Annie Dillard often wondered how, in the face of all this chaos and purpose, that there could be beauty at all. But these are beautiful things, aren’t they?
Don’t get me wrong: it’s uniquely human — and thus almost sublime — to create beauty just for beauty’s sake. We all have versions of this ideal form — art, music, literature, film. What we hold as “beauty” is not the same for any two people.
And perhaps as an artist, that is what I SHOULD see. The color, shape, delicacy. But there is something about the life process, that brings a beauty of it’s own, similar to Junichiro Tanizaki’s belief that “The quality we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life.” Perhaps that functionality is the reality.
“I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken the view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree, I think. And he says ‘you see, as an artist I can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.’ And I think he’s kind of nutty.”
Feynman’s interpretation of the dialogue is that the artist is limited by the aesthetic of the flower. But I think he’s got the artist wrong. There is so much more that an artistic spirit would notice about a flower.
Like its craft. As humans, we take our talents and gift for crafting and make things for the sake of beauty. In doing so, we elevate ourselves above all other species. In my opinion, this is what it means to be human: to achieve this level of beauty, either in creation or appreciation or connection across the art.
Humans create beautiful things because we can. We know we’re doing it — we aspire to do it — but we don’t have to do it. That we do create is what contributes to the richness of our lives and an increased awareness of that which surrounds us.
Nature is different: its beauty is a by-product of utility.
I am drawn to this. I collect nature specimens — stones, rocks, seeds, pods, cones, sticks, shells, sand – anything that fits in my suitcase and that capture my imagination and brings a personal memory of a place I’ve seen. I keep them organized in small jars in my office. Available to pick up, roll around, touch, hold. My husband calls it my stockpile; to me it’s the most inchoate naturalist’s collection.
I also collect living specimens, namely dirt and the flowers. When we moved into our London flat, I immediately set about planting flowers on every possible outdoor, horizontal space I could find. (And there is not much of it and it’s disconnected by a series of doors, floors and balconies). Now, a year and about a dozen trips to the garden center later, I reap the rewards.
Nothing in nature marries utility with beauty more adeptly, more consistently, than flowers. Flowers offer bright colors, intelligent shapes, evolved delicacy, and sweet, sweet perfume. To consummate English gardener Gertrude Jekyll, when grown and tended carefully, they could even create art.
Flowers are beautiful for their construction, their structure, their – origami.
Or rather, their reverse origami — a flower starts folded in a perfect shape, a bud, neatly tucked away, and not yet ready to open. And then it unfolds to reveal its inner beauty.
It’s how they unfold that fascinates me. From a tightly closed chrysalis — contained, demure, strong — to a flower — open, attractive, and vulnerable.
To get the full effect, imagine doing it yourself. Think of unfolding this beautiful, open, expansive, vulnerable thing from a bud. The most precise Swiss watch makers couldn’t do it. Only weather, water, sun and a flower’s genetic disposition can perform this (reverse) origami.
And the most extraordinary thing, the thing that affects me every time, is that they do all this just for utility.
Let me show you what I mean.
These are not the most skilled origamists, nor the most impressive ones. But they are the ones I see unfolding every day because they are in my garden, in my collection. Same flowers, taken before and after bloom.
More than beautiful, something else . . . We need a word for this process. We have to give it a name. (Another things humans do: we name things).
This amazing thing that happens by the grace of their genetic material: the unfolding, the opening up and making beautiful. And yet, its vulnerability.
It is a great deficiency of the English language that we fail to capture it appropriately. “Bloom” is horrid. The word itself doesn’t open up; it just sits there. Bloom. Just a sharp, final sound, hardly does justice to the process.
It needs to have onomatopoeia. The word itself should sound like what the flower does. It unfolds, it opens… it becomes beautiful.
I submit: origami.
It’s perfect, beautiful. The word opens up just like the flowers themselves. The origami of flowers.
I thought of it, and here I share it with you.
Because that is what we humans do: bring beauty to each other.
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Read more about the flowers I mentioned:
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