Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — Saturdays, a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.
By Maria Popova
“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore,” Rachel Carson wrote in her stunning meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life, “we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp… the ultimate mystery of Life itself.”
That mystery comes alive through the lens of the humble, miraculous oyster in the opening pages of Rowan Jacobsen’s altogether wonderful book The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World (public library), modeled on John Steinbeck’s forgotten masterpiece The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
When the full moon hauls back the waters, they emerge, a glittering band along the shore, like doubloons washed up from the wreck of a Spanish galleon. They close their shells tight and, for a few hours, become land. Bears slip out of the cedary woods and trundle over them, picking at small fish that lingered too long. From a distance you might think they were glinting rocks, just another cobbly beach, rather than acres of living coastline. But if you stepped out of your boat and explored, old shells popping softly beneath your boots, you’d smell their salt-spray aroma and hear the crackling of receding water droplets and know that they were the living sea itself, holding on to the land to keep it from squirming away. And if you sat down among them and pried open some shells and tipped the briny flesh into your mouth, you might get some sense of how it had always been.
Then the moon lets go and the water returns, snaking along the low points, bubbling up like springs from under the shells. Soon they are covered, and they phase back to their other existence. They open their shells and drink in the sea. The bears withdraw and sixteen-armed purple sea stars pull their way up the tide’s advancing edge, gobbling as they go. Tiny creatures hunker down beneath the shells, within the shells, spinning out little lives in a biogenic world. For a few hours, they disappear beneath the waves. And if you arrived at high water and didn’t take the time to poke around, or if you were from some place where the land and the water have already come unglued and you assumed that the world you knew was the one that had always been, then you’d probably keep on going, and you’d never even know they existed at all.
Complement with the optimism of the oyster, then revisit other enchanting Unphotographables: Henry Williamson on the transcendence of a winter storm, Jack Kerouac on the self-revelation of the windblown world, Richard Powers on the majestic migration of sandhill cranes; Georgia O’Keeffe on the grandeur of Machu Picchu; Iris Murdoch on the sea and the stars; an Alpine transcendence with Mary Shelley; an Alaskan paradise with Rockwell Kent.