Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to truly appreciate beauty when other people you know are present. When you’re in a group staring at a beautiful view, person, piece of art, for example, you’re often conditioned to vocalise it out loud and invariably end up saying things like “Wow! She/he/it’s beautiful, stunning …[insert appropriate adjective here]”.
This weekend I spent a weekend tramping with friends (in between intense periods of drinking and eating) down in New Zealand’s south island. The sheer scale of some of the scenery there is on a level of grandeur we don’t seem to get in Ireland. Even while I was staring at it however, I felt oddly detached. I found myself looking at it much in the way I’d look at a television screen or a computer monitor. It was beautiful but oddly two dimensional. It did not touch me.
For me, the beauty of the landscape back in Ireland tends to be smaller, more contained and easier to digest. Cutting through the Healy Pass or heading out of Glengarrif for Beara, I can have an equally dramatic physical terrain stretched out before me but when I pull the car over and step out to look at it I can genuinely appreciate it. I’m pretty sure this is because I have a familiarity (a connection) with this landscape. I know how Irish landscape ‘works’. I know its contours, I know the dynamics of the sea, the cliffs, the fields. Down in West Cork, I also know the stories associated with the land, stories of my own family working it or living on it. I’ve lived and grown up on it and that gives the land an emotional resonance that makes it particularly accessible.
Personally, I think to truly appreciate beauty (in terms of landscape at least) you need to have an aesthetic AND an emotional/cultural connection. Up in New Zealand’s high country, I knew – theoretically – know how things worked. I watched the people on the stations (a bit like American ranches) operate the land. My friends explained how the rivers and the mountain slopes interlinked, how the climate affected (or restricted) the use and transport across the land. But the problem, of course, was that I’ve never personally walked it before or known those who had. I’m also unfamiliar with the physical dynamics (which is why so many Irish tourists can get into trouble over here) and I have no cultural or emotional connection. I can genuinely appreciate it – and I do – on an intellectual and aesthetic basis but my connection is purely visual. I love coming here but if I want beauty I can break down and warm the soul then I know I’ll always need to go home.