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02.11.09

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Crazy Beauty

Why becoming more like Miss Rumphius is good for the world

By Juliane Poirier Locke


Already doing everything from recycling to road cycling? Try a little craziness, Lupine Lady–style.

The Lupine Lady is a fictional character who provides a cheerful, guiding mythology for our beleaguered times. In childhood, this character says she intends to spend her life traveling and then retire by the sea. Her grandfather approves her plan but insists on an addition. "There is a third thing you must do," he tells her. "You must do something to make the world more beautiful."

She has no clue what the third thing will be, but grows up and accomplishes goals one and two. Then, as an old woman, she gets the idea to scatter lupine seeds everywhere she walks. Seed scattering in her town-by-the-sea earns her the derogatory nickname of Crazy Lady. But the seeds eventually become lupines—which of course reseed themselves each year—and spread such beauty they change the landscape, which changes the community by changing the way people think and feel. They stop calling her Crazy Lady. As respect and gratitude follow her act of beauty, she becomes known alternately as the Lupine Lady or simply Miss Rumphius, her actual name. (Native plant enthusiasts, take a deep breath. This is just a myth and not to be literally interpreted. No one should make a lupine monoculture of the Marin-Sonoma coastline.)

Miss Rumphius is a children's book by Barbara Cooney that won the American Book Award in 1982; it suggests to my adult mind that being an agent of beauty means taking the risk of being thought crazy. And this is a good thing.

Out in West Marin, Evan Shively is doing something to make the world more beautiful, and it requires craziness on his part. As the proprietor of Arborica, Evan removes fallen trees from people's properties, and with a sawyer's know-how, collaborates with the wood grains to create functional art resulting in doors, bar counters, table-tops. With a degree from Harvard, he could have taught literature courses. Instead, he plays with saws, recycles locally grown wood and creates masterpieces.

Making the world more beautiful may not include tangible objects. Take for instance the beauty of a humanely managed business. It may be pure coincidence that Amy's Kitchen in Santa Rosa makes organic food products (organic business pioneers were once dismissed as crazy), but a longtime friend of mine—let's call her Sally—is a happier person for working there. Sally's been a food technologist in the North Bay for many years, and this is the first company that has amazed her in a positive way.

 

"There seems to be a recognition that we have a life outside of work," she says. "And during work there are more frequent social times, more celebrations." In short, more fun. Sally was impressed when the company used paid work time to educate the staff about recycling and the reduction of waste, both in the company and outside of it. Other food industry players might call it a silly waste of time (i.e., money). I call it beautiful. Seeing how happy Sally is at her job makes me want to go out and buy an Amy's pizza for lunch just to celebrate.

Of course many acts of intangible beauty don't fit a business model. Mark Seelye was crazy to take time away from his paying gigs and his social life to perform for people who could neither pay him nor promote his career. But he did it anyway—and not just once or twice. A talented, professional musician, Mark has been playing music for free to the residents of Golden Living, a skilled nursing facility in Napa, for 25 years. That's worth quite a few fields of lupines, I suspect.

Miss Rumphius the Lupine Lady is a role model for our era. Perhaps sometime this week, after we take out the recycling or go for a bike ride, we can make some unique effort to make the world more beautiful. I know it's a crazy idea, but think of all the fun we could cause.


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