As part of my program of self-change and intentionality, I have been spending more time in natural places, more time in reflection, and more time practicing paying attention, really looking and listening and sensing and intuiting what is going on. I don’t claim to have become good at these things, but practicing is now an end in itself for me, and I think I’m getting better.

Most days I commute to the city (Toronto) and most days spend a lot of time in the company of strangers, whether I’m walking, driving, or picking up necessities in the local stores. The contrast of the dreadful human places and faces I see, with those that I see in the forest where I walk, or in my back yard where I run and meditate (or even in some of the Edens of Second Life) is remarkable, and disturbing.

Toronto is one of the more attractive cities in the world, but now it seems to me incredibly ugly. Office buildings and stores are stark and devoid of imaginative design. Houses are crowded together, shabby-looking, and afflicted with a terrible sameness. The grey roads and highways that we have paved over greenspace with are abominable, and they are littered with grotesque poison-belching cars packed together like oversize sardine cans. The spaces we have allowed to recover after we razed them to the ground to make ‘development’ easier and cheaper are now cowed imitations of nature, constantly cut back, infested with invasive species that gardeners deem more attractive than what grew naturally. They would take centuries to return to their natural grandeur through a pace of slow succession that we have no time for, and which we inhibit anyway, so they are awash in weeds and the grim, hardy plants, insects and small animals that thrive in recently-razed monoculture landscapes — the denizens of post-catastrophe.

And after looking into the faces of wild creatures (far away from the city, in places where there is no sign or sound of homo sapiens) the hordes of humans jammed together everywhere also look unsightly, lost, fearful — the word ugly is from the Norse word for fear.

They walk hunched and with effort. They carry far too much weight, and far too little muscle. They spend too much time indoors and too much in the direct sun, and their skin has a pallid, blotched, flabby, exhausted look to it. They work far too hard and far too long. Their faces are strained, even in moments of forced and vulgar laughter. The quiet desperation that seems to define their existence, the constant dreadful stresses that confront them and worry them, sitting relentlessly in the back of their minds, have taken their toll on their appearance and bearing. They wear hideous clothes to cover their mostly monstrous bodies. A teeming, diseased sea of swarming flesh, slaves rushing to do meaningless work to feed their (our) ruinous addictions. I do not except myself from this harsh description. Nor, any longer, do I except the young, who are often now as glassy-eyed, disengaged and filled with anomie as their cynical and exhausted seniors.

When I walk in the woods I encounter many wild creatures, birds, animals, fish, even insects, all of them stunning or at least strangely beautiful. I realize that almost all my photographs in recent years have been devoid of human faces and human artifacts. What has happened to me that I am so repelled by the sights and sounds of humans and all their detritus, yet so attracted and at peace in the company of other creatures, in places where, at least to my untrained eye, no recent human footprint can be seen?

I have no explanation for this. Perhaps it’s a form of reverse speciesism, this loathing for humanity and its wretched fabrications. Perhaps its a revulsion towards its sheer unsustainability, the fact that most people and all of their junk get cast off, discarded without thought, because they are of no use, and are part of no cycle of renewal that will quickly, when they come apart, make them new and beautiful again, naturally. We have become unnatural, and perhaps that is the most damning adjective of all in a universe that is simply, effortlessly, and staggeringly natural. I see wild creatures who coexist with each other peacefully flee in terror at the first whiff of human presence, my own included. I shrug and nod at this — how can I blame them?

When I was young I was awed and terrified by the story of the Ugly Duckling. It made no sense to me, to conceive that a duckling could possibly not be beautiful, or to believe that anything that was grotesque would somehow naturally become aesthetically delightful, or be perceived to be so in some different context. My parents tried another example from nature — the caterpillar reinventing itself as the butterfly — but this simply distressed me more. Should I feel revulsion at caterpillars? What about the fact that most caterpillars become moths? These were absurd teachings, and I discounted them like the religious and political and economic teachings I have tried to make sense of since, without success.

Aesthetics — the study and science of beauty and perception and our response to them — seems to me the ultimate human intellectual arrogance. It is as if the rulers of the world’s most violent nation presumed to declare themselves the arbiters of global peace (oops, bad example). The natural world is inherently beautiful for the same reason it is inherently cooperative and peaceful — because we (all-life-on-Earth) collectively wanted it that way and made it so, conferring Darwinian advantage on the beautiful, the collaborative, and the fit.

No such advantage is conferred in our terrible modern and disconnected human world. And so we get uglier, more competitive and quarrelsome, and more, in every sense of the word, unfit.

This is a problem. If we’re going to make our best effort to make this world (or at least the part of it over which we temporarily hold sway) a better place, it is important that we really care about each other. But how can we care about each other when there are too many of us, fighting over the dwindling resources that have artificially sustained us, and when we don’t like each other, have no appetite or energy to work together, and, too often, can’t even bear the sight of each other?

That’s what’s really ugly.

Category: Being Human

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Ugly

  1. Siona says:

    You mystify me sometimes, Dave. I see beauty in what you call ugly; to me there is something beautiful included in death and dying and that which is un-becoming. Rotting and putrefication and bloat and festering and inflammation are all parts of the same vast processes of life and birth, and are beautiful balancing factors in their own right. Cells dies; people die; species die. Life goes on. Step back far enough, and the blip of humanity on the planet as a whole will become just another piece of a “cooperative and peaceful” natural unfoldment. I think that judgments might be ugly, but not the bubbling processes of humanity, our ossified termite-mounds and overflowing nests. And to me it’s a miracle, and a beautiful one, that despite the massing we still, for the most part, support and love and live together, and that we’ve managed to (consciously or otherwise) create a vast interconnected web of livelihood that perhaps surpasses that of nearly any other single species on the planet. Deadly too, perhaps, but if we do ourselves in, well, Viva Mother Nature.

  2. You beat me to it Siona. How can we NOT afford to care about one another, especially when there are too many of us fighting and judging one another?Love you Dave :-)You too Siona…

  3. Wow, man. And I thought *I* was cynical. ;-)What I really agree with is that the society we have created is detrimental to our mental and physical health, irresponsible, destructive, hateful, and unsustainable. The planet will go on, with or without us. Personally, I think the planet has had enough of our shit and is going to make us take a significant step back in the next 25 years. And if we can’t get our shit together then, the planet will be done with us. This idea that we are masters of nature will be squashed.

  4. EJ says:

    Coming after yesterdays post on hope this is quite startling. I have to agree with you on most of what you write. It’s part of the reason I live 45 km from a small (not even ugly) town. I only even go there once every week or two. But always I am happier at home in the woods. Another way to see that our human way of thinking is so often wrong is that there is a backside to most of our creations. Nature is equally beautiful from all perspectives (front, back, up, down, old, young) beyond judgement.

  5. David Parkinson says:

    I agree about the physical ugliness of the cities that most people live in. When I return to Toronto (Thornhill now, where my father lives) to visit, I’m horrified by the hostility of the urban environment to the person stupid enough to try to walk around (that’d be me).And I know what you mean by the ugliness of human life too, but I struggle a lot to try to recognize the potential buried (deep, very deep, sometimes) in all of those poorly dressed worn-out looking folks. Everyone is more or less doing the best they can with what they have to work with; the real ugliness is the deprivation that leads to living such flat and barren lives. I don’t like to romanticize the real poor of the world, but in many cases they may be more down and out financially, but they don’t look so beaten down as poor folks do in N. America, because at least they have a culture that contains meaning for them; or a strong family structure; or a community that they feel they belong to. IMO, that’s the saddest deprivation that many people suffer from in our rich corner of the world: enough poverty and stress to wear them down, but little compendsation in the form of social/cultural capital, places to congregate, shoulders to cry on…

  6. beth says:

    Unfit! Good word. Let me see if this entire passage will fit here:”We are an exceptional model of the human race. We no longer know how to produce food. We no longer can heal ourselves. We no longer raise our young. We have forgotten the names of the stars, fail to notice the phases of the moon. We do not know the plants and they no longer protect us. We tell ourselves we are the most powerful specimens of our kind who have ever lived. But when the lights are off we are helpless. We cannot move without traffic signals. We must attend classes in order to learn by rote numbered steps toward love or how to breast-feed our baby. We justify anything, anything at all by the need to maintain our way of life. And then we go to the doctor and tell the professionals we have no life. We have a simple test for making decisions: our way of life, which we cleverly call our standard of living, must not change except to grow yet more grand. We have a simple reality we live with each and every day: our way of life is killing us.” ~Charles Bowden, Blood Orchid

  7. Siona says:

    Chris? Thank you for reminding of something that was left unsaid. I love you, Dave, even the the occasional scales that shield your eyes. And you, Chris, too, of course. (And this comment thread is one of my favorite yet. Thank you, all, so very much. )

  8. You too again Siona…especially today,

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Gotta buy Blood Orchid…this guy sounds like my kinda guy. Chris & Siona, I agree with you of course, but I can’t get past the sheer stark contrast between the natural and man-made places I reside in. Just the imaginative poverty and the incredible squandered possibility, and all the hatred… so pointless, discouraging and, alas, ugly. Doesn’t stop me from loving, however, in my wonky and erratic way :-) But I’m sitting here listening to the coyotes howl in the forest, and I find them so much easier to love than the majority of our sad species.

  10. I too am enjoying this comment stream. What is crucial to my stability is that even though I visit this space that Dave writes so passionately about, I always (or have so far) come back from it, as if from the depths of the ocean. When I’m surfacing from diving, looking up at the sunlight, I always feel panic and delight. Panic because, even though improbable, I may not make it to the surface–(for whatever reason) and delight because the light draws me as if I’m a sunflower or a moth. It’s not that the depth and darkness of our interior void is to be a-voided; it’s just that there’s another, equally compelling, perspective.There’s lots of fractals of Truth. I loved the ‘Blood Orchid’ quote–thanks, Beth.Another Beth

  11. mattbg says:

    Good post, Dave. I refuse to venture into that animals vs. people stuff, though. That is the underlying ugliness of the animal rights movement: most of them simply hate people and a love of animals is a socially-acceptable outlet for these emotions. It’s easy to ascribe your own thoughts and feelings to an animal that can’t tell you how it feels. There’s also a subset of these people that paradoxically seem to reduce people to deterministic creatures who act through no fault of their own and are therefore not to blame for their actions, yet they still can’t forgive or tolerate them.And we don’t love all animals equally, do we? Do we love invasive mice, rats, ants, termites, and cockroaches? We love cute or attractive animals that don’t do us significant harm and then we map these human explanations onto them, such as that they don’t do us harm because they’re innocent and friendly. They could equally be scared and acting in the interest of their own survival. On being judgmental, too… it’s how we survive, and it’s useful. If you look like a thug, I am going to judge you as dangerous. If you don’t deal with anything judiciously because you’re intent on loving it all unconditionally, I am going to judge you as a waste of space. People that are relatively well off and live in comfortable circumstances and keep mostly like-minded circles of friends can afford to carry ideas like nonjudgmentalism around with them and it serves them well and reduces conflict. But they don’t consider what happens when ideas like this get passed down to those who are not so well off and who don’t live amongst manicured lawns and calendars full of social functions, which these ideas often are. Ideas like this often have nuance and are intellectual playthings to some degree, but the nuances seem lost when they filter down to the lower levels of society. They reach these lower levels and you find that the single mother brings in an unjudged pedophile to share her bed in the same house asher young child. Or the young woman repeatedly moves violent boyfriends in because to judge the warning signs would be wrong.

Comments are closed.