Strange Beauty

By Dan Clendenin

What does the world look like when all of humanity is on lockdown at home? In many ways, the answer is depressingly obvious: daily death tolls, bitter politics, economic collapse, social disruptions, and empty streets in our biggest cities.

Looked at differently, though, a few people are finding some silver linings in our dark clouds.

As I tried to look beyond the horrible headlines, I got some much-needed encouragement from an unlikely source — the nightly news. On the PBS News Hour, Jeffrey Brown did a short piece called “what the world looks like when humanity stays at home” (April 21, 2020). My ears perked up when Brown started and finished his segment with a line of poetry that sounded familiar. Despite the horrors of the pandemic, some people are finding a “strange beauty” in our new normal. It’s what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “all things counter, original, spare, strange.”

After the PBS segment, I found the complete poem on our JWJ website. It’s called Pied Beauty.

GLORY be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Brown omitted Hopkins’s doxology, as was appropriate for his piece, but Pied Beauty calls believers to praise God for all the strange beauty in the world. Not just the obviously beautiful things, but beauty that is unconventional, rare, and even contrary — the shadowy, dappled, mottled, pied or variegated, fickle (changeable), fallow and at rest, things sour as well as sweet, things dim as well as dazzling, that which is slow and not just fast.

A deserted Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

In a normal year, Brown noted, Paris is the biggest tourist destination in the world, with 30 million visitors a year. But now its streets are empty, and the Louvre is closed. Nonetheless, some people are experiencing a “strange beauty” in all that urban quiet.

“Despite the horrible reasons that this is happening,” said one Parisian, “I think that there’s a lot of gifts to be had, to have the entire world stop at the same time.” Her comment reminded me of a woman in France who once complained to me that Paris was so routinely crowded that she could never take her grand daughter there to see the sites. Now she can.

In the sacred space of St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis was a solitary figure giving his Easter blessing. There were similar scenes, Brown observed, in Mecca, on the empty beaches of Rio de Janeiro, and on the canals of Venice without a gondola in sight.

In many of these newly empty places, the air and water have become cleaner. It’s like the planet has healed itself. Wuhan, Milan, and Los Angeles (the best air quality in 25 years) all report significant drops in pollution levels. Several scientific studies report renewed bird activity in some places because of cleaner air and less human noise.

Were it not for the lockdown of all humanity at home, said Brown, these are “sights and sounds rarely, if ever, experienced.” And so he closed his piece just as he began it, by commending the strange beauty that Hopkins says is a cause to praise God: “all things counter, original, spare, strange.”

Pope Francis gives an Easter blessing in an empty St. Peter’s Square.

About the same time as this PBS segment, at dinner one night my son mentioned a British study that I could barely believe until I looked it up myself. In a survey of 4,343 people that was commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts, alongside The Food Foundation, only 9% (!) of Britons reported that they wanted life to return to “normal” once the pandemic lockdown is over. That means over 90% are experiencing significant goodness and beauty amidst all the horror.

For many people the pandemic has been a wake up call to things that really matter: over half of the respondents (54%) reported that they hope to make changes in their lives, and that they hope the entire country will learn positive things from the hard times. Others said that they were experiencing more gratitude — 42% of participants said they value food and other essentials more since the pandemic.

More people are cooking (38%), spending less money (61%), and enjoying the experience of cleaner air (51%). About 40% of people reported a greater sense of community with family and friends. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, said that while it was right that the immediate emergency was the priority, “we must use this time to imagine a better future.”

Beijing air quality before and after the pandemic shutdown.

Professor Tom MacMillan from the Royal Agricultural University, and research head of the RSA’s commission, said: “This data shows there is a real appetite for change, and for the nation to learn from this crisis. People are trying new things and noticing differences, at home, in their work and in communities.” MacMillan said this was especially apparent when it comes to food, farming and the countryside.

Back in 2004 the economist Paul Romer suggested that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” That is, some of our worst experiences provide fertile ground for our best opportunities. There are opportunities now in the midst of the pandemic to re-shape our personal and collective selves in different and better ways. To see the strange beauty of the unconventional. To cultivate gratitude. To reconnect with family and friends. To commit ourselves to what matters most. The pandemic challenges us: what sort of people, community, nation, and world do we want to be when this nightmare is over?

Dan Clendenin:

Image credits: (1) Forbes; (2) The Guardian; and (3) Mirror.

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