It is early in the morning and I ride my bike into town to the distant sound of church bells.
I am not sure where they are coming from but they blanket the town like some old stitched-together quilt and I feel comforted under their gentle weight. Because it is early it is damp, and it is very still — a moment somehow locked in time.
I glance around and see no people, no traffic. I am all that is moving. I suppose this could have been any morning in any small town on any given day. However, the bells signal to me that it is Sunday.
From my apartment the ride into town is downhill, an effortless glide. This allows my mind to wander. My breath comes easy and I whistle in accompaniment to the bells.
Perhaps what is easy on the body is equally easy on the mind. But for whatever reason I am open to the utter beauty of the sound of these bells.
I suppose the question at hand is really one of beauty: beauty in the crisp sound of bells, in the pleasing glide downhill, in the peacefulness of a small town coming to life on a Sunday morning.
Scott Russell Sanders in his essay Beauty suggests, “a creature, an action, a landscape, a line of poetry or music, a scientific formula, or anything else that might seem beautiful, seems so because it gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things.”
If so, what underlying order is there in the sound of these bells?
He maintains that what we find beautiful accords with our most profound sense of how things ought to be.
And again I think to myself, why ought these bells ring so beautifully?
The history of bells is a long one. Their prehistory is speculative but we do know humans by design mimic sounds they find pleasing. We can further guess that what we find pleasing is also something we find beautiful.
In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia, I was introduced to the wonderful and unique sound of the “bell bird,” a small and throaty creature, which I would say chimes rather than sings. It is easy for me to see how I would want to imitate this sound.
Bells in early Roman times were first associated with quasi-religious ceremonies.
Hung from the rails of chariots their sound gave thanks to the gods for a recent military victory.
It was only much later, around 400 A.D., that bells made their way atop church towers alerting worshipers to the time for prayer.
This is the image that overtakes me this morning on my ride into town.
When I reach the large lake at the bottom of the hill, I find myself wondering what this town, any town for that matter, might look and function like if beauty were the final judge of how we built our communities.
Would we have condominiums blocking our view of the lakes and streams that surround and are a part of many of the places we live and work? Would we have roadways at all, or automobiles, or row after row of houses, most looking striking similarly to each other?
If we built our cities and towns to follow the soft curves and gentle hills of the countryside, would we have squares and rectangular blocks and grids?
If colour, and its appeal to the senses, were our final judge, why would we paint our buildings in ways that detract from the natural colours of the mountainsides, or the sky, or the long row of clouds that break up the blue?
Sitting at the water’s edge, I take this one step further. If beauty were the scale to which we would subject all human activity, would we have developed a system of capitalism, corporate structures, free trade, yard sales, two for the price of one, would we have money at all?
And, where would we be with our willingness to go to war if beauty were the test we would apply to our decisions to fight and conquer; and how would we talk to our children if beauty of language were something we would always be conscious of; how would we treat our spouses if grace and gentleness were our one true calling?
I of course am not the first to speculate on the impact of beauty on our lives and in our livelihoods.
Architect and social critic Christopher Alexander pondered these questions for years as he thought about ways to redesign our cities and our buildings.
He was always searching for ways to make the places we live in come alive.
He speculated on forms and patterns in nature that were pleasing to us and insisted that we introduce and incorporate them into what we build and how we build.
Beauty for Alexander was a natural characteristic. When we surround ourselves with patterns that appear in nature we come alive; more importantly, we respect life.
According to him our communities can become compassionate, humble, loving by first respecting the forms and patters we see in the ripples of water, in sand, and in the clouds that stretch across our wide open skies.
Watching the waves splash up against the shore of this lake I return to Scott Russell Sanders.
“Beauty … has everything to do with survival. It feeds us from the same source that created us. It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature.”
I am glad I heard the bells this morning and I had the luxury to think about them.
I am connected to these bells and the gentle sound they place over this small town.
What is easy on the body is easy on the mind.