Thursday, August 08, 2013


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/6/2013)


Dr. Thomas Johnson, meine Űberfraus optometrist, discovered her trying to memorize the eye chart before her eye examination.  “Trying to cheat on the eye examination?” he asked.  “Oh, how embarrassing,” she replied, “it’s just that I’ve always felt that being near-sighted was a moral failure.  It means that there’s something wrong with you, like you can’t manage yourself.  Besides, I always get the ‘O’ and ‘D’ confused.”


          Gretchen should have trouble with the eye chart.  She’s had six major surgeries on her eyes in the last 15 months, but, never mind, she’s being tested, and whatever the test might be, mathematics in school, seminars in college, or eyes in Flagstaff, she wants an “A.”  She came from a family that didn’t suffer second best gladly.  As with people whose eye sight has been threatened or even taken away from them, she values eye sight.


One of the uses of eye sight is the appreciation of beauty.  We can appreciate beauty with the ears and the rest of the senses, as in smelling a rose or savoring a tomato fresh off the vine, but eye sight is especially dear.  In Flagstaff, our gift is living amidst beauty.


Albert Camus, the French Nobel Laureate, wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus that the inhabitants of Oran couldn’t abide the beauty amidst which they lived so they built an ugly city to shield them from the beauty.  So what’s it with the ugly gardens in Flagstaff, the ill-kept ones and the eye sores enshrouded with sheets of gravel, the ones with the textures of death?  Why would anyone enveloped in such natural beauty as our forests and mountains cover the yards with crushed rock, giving their yards the appearance of the barren perimeter, the kill zone, surrounding a military disciplinary barracks?  Perhaps they don’t like beauty, feeling comfortable only with the banal which demands nothing of them because beauty demands attention.


A long time ago, my brother asked me to take an Italian physicist visiting Caltech with me on a fishing trip I’d planned in the Eastern Sierra.  As we approached a roadside park just below Mount Whitney, he tugged at my sleeve and said, “We must stop here to pay homage.”


The frequent excuses for the banality of desolate yards are saving water, too much work, and too much money.


Native grasses and drought tolerant plants need a little more water than gravel, but they look a lot better.  They cool down the yard rather than heating it up.  Sheep fescue and Arizona fescue are quite beautiful.  Wild flower seeds scattered amidst the grasses, such as black-eyes Susans, add vibrant color to a yard.  It’s all so damned easy and inexpensive.


Beauty is food for the soul, and if we don’t feed our souls, we wither away inside.  The place to begin with beauty is the natural world, specifically the world around our houses.  This is not to diminish artificial beauty, the beauty in music, art, and literature.  I relish them all.  Indeed, I used to write a newspaper column on art.  Alfred North Whitehead once said that all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato.  All of the artistic achievements of the human spirit are but footnotes to the beauty in God’s creation.


One of my correspondents, Dr. Kenneth Cole, a Research Professor of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability at NAU, wrote: “gardening is a present day piece of art” which will give everyone “something better” than the everyday.


I’ve often wondered why some people choose to live amidst desolation when beauty is so easily available.  I think it’s that beauty demands homage.  The barren can be ignored as people pursue the humdrum.  Just as a belief in God demands worship so beauty demands homage.  These aren’t casual affairs of passing interest, such as billboards.  We have to pay attention, allow ourselves to absorb beauty and its meaning, indeed, to become enveloped in the beauty.  It’s as essential to the soul as eating is to the body.


The demands of a garden aren’t physical, but spiritual, and there’s the rub.  They demand our attention. 

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2013

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared 8/10/2013.  Smith blogs at and emails at 




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