IMG_0928Dawn at 1189 Bedford Ave in Brooklyn, New York

My last two years in Brooklyn I felt fortunate to have the view I did. My windows faced east, and, although the blank wall of another building loomed large directly in front, to the right grew a luscious tree and above was an unobstructed view of sky. I often woke at dawn and would stand on the fire escape and soak in the morning, while it still felt clear and clean.

Over the five years I lived in “the city” I learned to train my eyes away from a lot of what was around me: trash exploded from vandalized garbage bags; the grey on brown on dingy grey of sidewalk, street, and dirty buildings; tawdry advertisements; glaring lights. Instead I’d glue my gaze on any scrap of nature available: a leaf splattered on the curb; weeds flourishing in an empty lot; wheeling pigeons, making the sky sparkle with their sunlit wings. By the end of my five years in NYC I felt I struggled endlessly to find enough beauty that I might endure the ugly. “This is absurd,” I thought. “Clearly the city is the wrong environment for me.”

In January of this year I had the opportunity to move out and, with great relief, I did.

Now I live in the woods. There are no other houses in sight. I am on 40 acres, embraced in a bear hug of state land. When I look out my window, I see only beauty: layers of hemlock, bright clusters of beech leaves, spindly maples with slender branches that shatter the sky.

Conifers in Snow

Whether it’s a sun-soaked day that impels me to shut my computer and go out for a walk (or at least to do something useful, like fill the wood box) or an overcast one with a moody sky and pinches of sleet, I see that there is always a perfect harmony in the colors and textures around me. In the woods I am humbled — in that way that’s also elating — with the reminder of all the living and dying and churning forth of ephemeral beauty that is happening around me all the time, whether I am paying attention or not.

Living in such an environment induces a certain shrinking down to size, and a correlating peace with one’s place in this world. Red squirrels and red maples do not seem to fret over the “good enough-ness” of their lives, and it starts to feel a bit out of line to do so myself. I see their perfection — the kind that is inherent rather than measurable — and find it easier to see that same quality in myself as well, ongoing toils notwithstanding.

But of course, I could have felt this in the city. Strictly speaking, the city is no less a natural environment than the one up here. It too evolved from the tumble of cause and effect of living things trying to survive. It is certainly no less vibrant an ecosystem. True, in an urban landscape the parameters of opportunity and constraint are mostly man-made, but they yield an abundance of variety equivalent to that in a woodland environment. There’s differentiation, specialization, and the endless burgeoning of micro-complexity within the larger landscape.


Indeed, there was a time when the city inspired in me similar feelings as the woods do now. I moved there at a time in my life of greedy growth, too hungry for the tidy flower box of a town I lived in. New York City had the appeal of wilderness — an expanse of unknown, potential, and gritty reality.

To love the city is to feel a great compassion for the swarms of other people around you. All those lives, all that urgent self preservation, the palpable vulnerability and ferocity. The beauty of it can break your heart.

“A man never discloses his own character so clearly as when he describes that of another,” an insightful person is said to have said. This observation is true. And it also applies to our descriptions of the world around us. What we see in the landscape outside the window is, truly, a window onto the landscape inside.

New York City lost its beauty not because it changed (if anything it has become thrillingly greener in the years since I moved there, what with the urban agriculture movement, the roof top farms, and so on) but because I lost my ability to see it. My dissatisfaction with the city increased in direct correlation with my dissatisfaction with my life and dissatisfaction with myself for failing to improve that life. The fewer hopes and ambitions I managed to fulfill, the fewer opportunities the city seemed to provide for peace, contentment, and happiness. I condemned it as a place of harsh judgment and didn’t notice that I was the harshest judge.

I moved to the woods to gain a reprieve from the city, but what I really gained is a reprieve from myself. Of course, the change of view outside my window is very real, and one I appreciate intensely, but I know the significant change is actually in my point of view. Bickering at the corner deli used to make me groan, but squabbles of the same order at the birdfeeder make me giggle. I wince at lurid colors in plastic, but delight in the same hues when discovered in lichen. Although I’m a bit of an oddity in the small town I now call home, I feel thoroughly comfortable, as I never managed to feel when in the midst of thousands of peers.

I know there have been times in my life when I could not have appreciated this environment as I do now. And who knows, perhaps I’ll be ill content again someday. But I hope I do not forget that beauty is not a quality to seek, only to see.

Sarah Jean HartSarah Jean Heart is a writer, editor, and reporter living in Boonville, New York. You can read more of her writing and view more of her photography at The Perspective Project.

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I've lived in both the city and country and found many people who think only one or the other is "right". Glad to hear from someone else who can see the beauty in both. 

Nice.  Nice language.  Nice Photos.  Nice thoughts.  Thanks. 

Thank you for your thoughtful reflections. Having grown up in the country and now have lived in "the City" for over a decade, I find myself with many of the same yearnings to be free of the "ugliness" not just of sight but sound and smell as well.  It's important to interact with nature more, to sense their inherent contentment with life. Congrats on finding your new home in an environment that reflects the beauty of you. I hope to find my new home, closer to nature and away from the man-made ugliness within the next year.  The reprieve from myself as well as the millions of others has become quite apparent.  Then I can visit this beautiful city and see all the wonderful things that drew me here once again.    

After spending ten years in NY, seven of which were in Brooklyn, this essay rings true.  The city does wear you down, and it is sometimes only in retrospect that you can once again appreciate the tremendous beauty of architecture and diversity of culture. Seeing beauty comes from within, through the filters of the mind.  Thanks for this reminder, it will help me get through March of our brown winter in Minnesota.

Amen and amen, Sarah Jean. Beautifully written. The mind and the eyes are the filter through which we recognize beauty, see through the garbage and clutter of the gutter, and set the lighting and focus of our inner camera. We will find what we seek. I love the city. I love having "city eyes". I live in a small community now, but miss the pulse and beauty, the beat and the excitement of the city of New York. We lived there in graduate school and I still long for it. But I love to look out my window and see hills, mountains, pines and wildlife. Still, the "wildlife" of the city has its own appeal. To see the world in a grain of sand...or a half-eaten sandwich...or in a fellow subway rider's relish where I am at the moment. That's it.  As Colonel Potter once said on the series M.A.S.H, "If you ain't where you are, you ain't nowhere."

So very true. As one who recently moved from city to small town, I find many similarities in my own journey. Thank you.

This is an excellent essay, both highly relevant and "relatable" for (I think) many of us--certainly for myself. 
Some months ago, I moved from the city I called home into an open country community. It was a time of personal loss, and initially I felt very isolated. Multiple times in the course of each month, "business" of one sort or another has carried me into the city again.  While at one time I looked forward to any occasion to return, I realized over time that this did nothing to calm my restlessness or assuage my longing for connection. I would leave depressed.  I could not access the urban energy I had once imbibed freely.  It was not my home.
Last fall, I took a small step. I noticed one day near my new, rural home that my "up the road" neighbor had mown his field.  I asked him if I could "walk his property."  Without a moment's hesitation, he consented.
At first, I would simply cross the field on clear nights, just far enough to move beyond the "'light pollution" and view the expanse of stars.  I began to venture as far as the crest of the field, particularly at sunset.   Gradually, I moved further into the land, carefully picking my steps along rugged swaths my neighbor has tractor-cleared.  These paths wind through woodlands, glades,thickets, and creekbanks, diverging and reconnecting. 
What began as a dark, solitary space to look to the heavens imploring for light points of connection, has become a place for daytime communion with the living earth.  I can linger by a small lake, or in a secluded knoll where the old family cabin still stands, or among enormous oaks clustered at the meadow's ridge. We are in spring here, and each day offers new signs of emergent life. Increasingly, I am aware of the hospitality offered me by the myriad inhabitants of this expanse of earth.
They subtly disclose the nature of their--our--life together. 
They appear unexpectedly, affording generous glimpses of an unseen world.
They invite me to re-inhabit my own inner landscape.

They buffer the violent places I find within myself. When I encounter desolation, they are quietly present.

They are the concelebrants of any new truth and beauty I discover.
They move me toward a sustaining and sustainable life.
Precisely because they offer such life to me--here and now and particularly for me--my self-pity  gives way to compassionate awareness that such life is meant for all, all my kindred (and all ARE my kindred). 
I realize now that the nagging sense of "not-enoughness" I had been carrying with me in my human interactions has given way to a certain ease born of a new amplitude of spirit--and of new perception.  
Rachel Naomi Remen's citation of Proust ("The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new vistas, but in having new eyes") and Sarah Jean Hart summation of her own hopes (to remember that "beauty is not a quality to seek, but to see") lends voice to my own kindred feelings.



great stuff Sarah, And I see by the comments that the urban-rural transitions have been a dynamic for many others...A theme to come back to I suspect.  Thank you for sharing this.  Baba

But you did seek beauty, and in doing so, have found your peace.  I too lived in the city (Manhattan) for 7 years (when it was not so 'green', and still, it had a beauty all its own).  But it is not the kind of beauty I seek now, in maturity.  I did not find peace in NYC; excitement yes, success yes, energy yes - but most often it was hard to tell if I was feeding off the energy of the city or if the city was feeding off the energy of me.  We take nourishment from our surroundings, visual and otherwise, and it is important to seek that which is nourishing...  I am glad that you allowed yourself to continue seeking until you found it.

Thank you so much for your kind words. I am deeply touched.