Nature is terrifying. Aesthetic distance from dread of it increases only in proportion to our mastery over it. Shelter from it frees us to make art of our aesthetic promptings, so easily confused with a spiritual consciousness.
It is snowing as I type this. Icicles two and three feet long hang from the gutters. A struggling andromeda outside the front door is bent in two by the weight of ice. My long curving, uphill driveway, treacherous in bad weather, is impassable. No oil truck could make a delivery if my tanks were low; no EMS, if needed, could get to the door. I am snowbound. Still, I am blessed with a stocked refrigerator and a working generator to keep heat on and lamps lit if a tree limb falls on a power line.
Watching it fall, I am reminded how much the beauty of snow— my perception of it—owes to central heating. Put another way, it is the saving fact of my lovely boiler, the electricity that keeps it going, and the indwelling charm of steam radiators that permits me to look out my double-paned window and take aesthetic pleasure in what Longfellow called the “poem of the air.”
The arts of the engineer partake as fully in the creative intelligence as any other.
Those misled by romantic poetry or far gone in devotion to pathetic fallacies—Mother Nature, the bosom of Mother Earth, our weeping planet—dote on what they insist is the intrinsic beauty of nature. A kind of demonology arises around sceptical demurral from that faith in inherency. Dissidents suffer the predictable brickbats: Materialist! Utilitarian! Shallow pragmatist! There is just no arguing with cultists. The most you can do is wish on them a sustained, possibly curative, power outage in freezing weather.
Burst pipes, numb fingers and toes, and the threat of hypothermia have a way of depressing the altitude of lyric flights. Remove the interior reverie of a well-housed, sherpa-lined and Gore-Texed admirer from the view, and what we see is a relentless, lethal threat to life.
A few winters back, two frail, elderly townspeople here froze to death outside their own doors on a snowy day like this. One lived alone. She had ducked outside briefly for a quick chore—to scatter crackers to birds? take out garbage?—without bothering with boots or coat. Whatever the reason, it was supposed to have taken only taken a few seconds. But, without thinking, she locked herself out. She could not get back in; neither could she get herself through the snow to a neighboring house with anyone home. It was a week day. Neighbors were at work. No one nearby was around to hear her calls for help.
The second woman was the sole caretaker of her older, bedridden sister. She had stepped out the back door, slipped on icy stairs, and fell into snowdrifts. She could not get up. The sister, asleep in a room on the other side of the house, never heard any cries.
The snow fell as indifferently on both doomed women as it does on the Alaskan cedars and Douglas firs outside my window. To anyone watching unawares, it looked lovely coming down. To the two women trapped under it—metabolic heat draining out of them— each crystal flake was a cinder from a frigid hell. Far from the warming light of the Good.
We have art, Nietzsche wrote, so that we will not be destroyed by the truth. But his aphorism, too, was a piece of art. We are better served by taking note of how art itself can destroy the truth of things.