What is Beauty?

John O’Donohue says that God is beauty, not the beauty you see splashed across the pages of a glamour magazine, but beauty “as a rounded substantial becoming, as an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.” Now that’s what I call appealing language. Unfortunately John passed away unexpectedly but his ideas are immortalized in one of his last interviews with Krista Tippett (linked below). He loved nature and emphasizes landscapes, he claims our physical world has an enormous influence on our inner selves, and he believes this is how we stay in rhythm with the universe. He said we could learn a lot if we walked outside and realized the environment is alive. 

Awareness of the lake is something I rarely overlook, when in residence, my first act is to make my way to the edge of the murky water, gazing over the surface as if a beloved face, I silently commune with this salient world. She is more alive to me then most people, her movements artful, swarming with life, displaying a range of emotion in her saturated, airless, depths. I stand there silently worshiping this quotidian beauty. So fully alive she captures me and I am unable to move for quite some time, my hands deep in the pockets of a worn sweatshirt, as she monopolizes my gaze. 

I notice when the ground is wet in the spring, the reeds grow thick along the shore, reminding me of my son Dante’s winter beard. The lake is shrouded with dead limbs, entwined in the pilings of the elevated docks that fringe the lake, along with an assortment of debris dragged in by the winter storms. The vegetation is thick, lush, bursting with the same watery smell. I breath deeply, as if walking into my mother’s home, assaulted by what I can only describe as an appealing odor, so intimately familiar, I immediately realize I am home.

The clouds seem to soak up the evening light as if a cloth soaking up a splash of wine on a fathomless surface. I thirst, drinking in this vision of endings, or beginnings, however one prefers to think. The water seems suspended, held securely by a circle of jagged mountains, separating my beloved from the very stars mirrored on her subdued surface. In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair writes Howard Thurman. 

Recently we have been invaded by a species so utterly magical, they’ve captured my imagination, forging a smile on my face as if an irresistible reflex. A squadron of giant white pelicans have taken up residence, right out of a fairy tale, dotting the lake with their mystical presence. Lake County is know for their winged population, we’re not only home to the majestic bald eagle, but osprey, swallow, owl, vulture, raven, bat, and western grebe to name a few. According to Brad Barnwell, local wildlife expert, approximately 700 graceful white pelicans have flown in and made Clearlake their winter home. This unique beauty, “a greater sense of grace and elegance and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life,” stirs something deep inside, forcing one to reflect on the collusion of landscape and life?   

Right in the midst of our living, they float as if cotton balls on the shallow, warm waters, basking in the sunshine. Hovering around the docks where the platforms rub up against the pilings, the massive birds ebb and flow in perfect pitch with the current, an endless mesmerizing rhythm. Feasting on the abundance of silverside minnows, baby hitch, juvenile bass, and other small baitfish, proof of their own significance.

Like us, the great white pelicans are highly sociable, and enjoy living in large flocks. Their short strong legs with webbed feet sort of propel them across the water but takeoffs can be awkward. In flight these are the most elegant birds to watch, they use their enormous wing span for a few short wingbeats, followed by a long glide, usually flying in formation. It absolutely absorbs ones attention.

And to lose the chance to see a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, or a myriad terns flashing in the bright light of midday as they hover in a shifting maze above the beach — why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time. Theodore Roosevelt

The interesting thing about these birds, despite their size, their bones are full of air, which prevents them from diving under water. Imagine. They depend on schools of small fish that live at the surface to stay alive, consuming up to five pounds per day, makes one almost sympathetic to the baitfish. 

Near the bottom of their bill they have a pouch that stretches out like my skinny jeans, they simply scoop up the fish with their bills, the water drains out, and they nibble on the stored sushi for hours. I love that the pelican community is cooperative in their quest for food, half of those assembled form a horseshoe, using their mighty wings to corral the small fish, while the other half consumes, then they switch. Genius.

Sadly they have a rather short lifespan of 16 to 20 years with the oldest on record living to 34 years of age. It is difficult to distinguish the males from the females, they both have bright orange bills, and simular body types, but the male develops a large growth on the upper part of his beak during mating season. I have no idea why, it must be attractive to the female, it’s amazing the things I do not know.

They nest near the Oregon border and the Salton Sea, usually laying two to three eggs. I appreciate the fact that both parents not only design and maintain the nest, but rear their child together. They only have one child at a time because despite laying several eggs this species practices siblingacide, where the stronger sibling survives by hoarding the food, or pecking the weaker baby to death as if Cain and Able, the blood cries out from the ground, and as a mother I am utterly horrified. Nature does not compromise, any inefficient products are recalled to the manufacturer says Amory Lovins. 

Pelicans are mostly silent but have a variety of low-pitched grunting and growling calls. The flight call is a deep, quiet croak, like Larry when I’m delaying our departure, and he’s ready to go. They are thriving at the lake with only the coyote as predator and for once man as admirer. 

Leaning over the rail I catch a glimpse of myself reflected in the lake, wavy, distorted, muted. Looking towards the beauty of the floating pelicans I am compelled to question the value of my presence on this landscape. Do I enhance the places I occupy, am I of service to others, or do I hide my talents under a bushel, reaching out a greedy hand to snatch that which I can grasp? If beauty is a rounded substantial becoming maybe we have to ask ourselves for the courage or permission to unfold?

A flow of damp air assaults my nostrils and I’m reminded to breath, the puzzle is not done, essential pieces are still missing from the ever evolving terrain, and I only see a small portion of the fragmented landscape of this life. Be patient, be patient, be patient, “for the enriched memory of your unfolding will come.” Time is life, when we experience time as scarce, we experience life as short and poor says Charles Eisenstein. I say linger as long as possible, absorb the view, and the bestowal of natures blessings.

I am obliged to add that the mother pelican is deeply symbolic, known for maternal sacrifice, and charity to her young. The legend claims during a famine, the mother pelican will wound herself, striking her breast with the beak to feed her young with her own blood, not unlike our understanding of a messiah or savior. So on some level the presence of the Pelican is a sacred, ritualistic, gift to the lake. I’m hopeful that they’ll return year after year, like me, to the musty warm scent of the lake, and know they are home. 

Nature’s prime favorites were the Pelicans; High-fed, long-lived, and sociable and free. James Montgomery

Link to full interview:
On Being with John O’Donohue and Krista Tippett 

I’m Living in the Gap, drop by anytime, we’ll count the pelicans.


Leave a Comment

  1. Thank you for this wonderful description of the tapestry of life at the lake. The feeling engendered while reading this was eerily similar to the relaxing bliss I experience while gazing down at our pond after a hard day in the garden. Peaceful, serene and beautiful. The photo helped fill out the imagery of the Pelicans. Clearly your happy place. The metaphor of Dante’s beard/ reeds along the shore begs the question, are they well organized, neatly trimmed reeds, or the bushy chaotic Santa Claus beard type reeds?I agree with John O’Donohue that God is in the beauty of nature (though I have nothing against beautiful photos in magazines.) I felt God while watching the dance of a large Gobbler courting a hen this morning. I experienced the beauty of God while on the Milford track. The presence of God can be most profound while watching the immense, beautiful vastness of the stars. (A glass of wine helps with the vision.) I rarely feel it with something created by humans, but once in a while something is so stunningly perfect, that it leaves no doubt (Beethoven’s 9th comes to mind.) I have to admit that I was most intrigued by your paragraph where you question the value of your presence on the landscape. I can read many layers into this question. Would the kaleidoscope of nature be prettier without humans? Sadly, I think so. But what a lonely place. What would be the point? The next layer of depth would be physical beauty. You’ll have to ask Larry for the answer to that one. The next layer would be the soul. I can tell by your written words you have that one covered. And lastly, what use is a beautiful soul if it is not applied to the world. Inner beauty means so much more if it is used to make the world a better place. No worries there either. In fact, I think it runs in your family, as both you and Nancy seem to have that quality in spades. This line of thinking leads me to ponder my epitaph. What have I done of real worth? Is the world better because of my life? Sort of a Dickensian Christmas Carol kind of question. If the answer is no, then maybe it’s time for a cool change.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bKwRW0l-QkLastly, I really enjoy reading when I learn a new word or two. Well…Quotidian. You got me there!Thanks again.


  2. Good morning Mike, waking up at the lake this morning, pouring a large cup of joe, and then finding your comment! Total bliss. My sweet pelican visitors have gone? I suppose in the spring they migrate back to their breeding ground and prepare their nests. I miss them. The other day I walked in the house from work and my dog was not there to greet me? I looked around for clues, did Larry come home and take him for a walk, did Larry take him to the groomers, it was an oddly lonely homecoming. Then I found him out in the yard, sleeping in the sun, total fail as a guard dog, but my heart leaped when I saw him and it made me realize how much I enjoy his presence in our lives, like the pelicans, something is missing now, hope they come back next year. I enjoyed your tribute to God in the various aspects of nature. I agree with all you said but it also makes me question the presence of God in the mundane, even the awful, like pelican siblingacide? Nature can be brutal, man can be brutal, when is the sacred in this? See this is what I think about in my spare time. I might be slightly naturally warped? Dante's beard is not groomed, it's wild, overgrown, and as his mother I am mystified by this trend. He loves it, smiles when I scold him, all worth it. Love that boy. The paragraph on the value of our presence was not as layered as you think, although I love what you did with that stream of consciousness. I was simply standing there thinking about the impact we have not only on our environment (we're improving but have miles to go) but how we influence each other. Like the people I work with who make me smile every day, they are kind and supportive, and much like my dog, I look forward to seeing them at work every week. I was so tickled by the pelicans it made me hope I have the same sort of impact on the people I encounter? It's a worthy consideration.Love the song by Little River Band, so perfect!


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