Where I live, we’ve had a lot of rain recently, so now, we have a lot of mushrooms in our community. They are growing in all the neighbors’ lawns. Some look like perfect toadstools, with a skinny stem and a wide top, shaped so that a small mouse caught in a Disney movie could find shelter during a sudden storm. Some are tall and thin with a narrow, pointed top which are best described as, um, erect. Some are oddly shaped, with tops that are wavy and irregular and almost no stem to raise them off the ground. Many are a creamy eggshell color on the top, but others are brown or yellow or gray or green or even a dusty but vivid orange-red. Some have spots or streaks that look like shadows, while others are smooth and constant.
Every time I see the mushrooms as I take the family dog on our daily walk through our neighborhood, I feel compelled to run home, grab my camera, and retrace my steps to try to capture some photos of the neighborhood fungi. Lately, I have paused before acting on that impulse because I am not sure why I have it. They are not beautiful. Even with the best of camera settings, with high-contrast lighting, saturated colors, and blurry backgrounds to make the resulting photos as dramatic as possible, they are still just mushrooms. They are plain at best and disgusting at worst. They are certainly not the subjects for the kind of photos one would want to hang on one’s wall. So why do I feel driven to photograph them?
The mushrooms are not beautiful, but they are fascinating. I think it is the similarity between those two evaluations which compels me to get my camera, and I think it is difference between them which has lately made me pause before using up more precious megapixels. Just think about the words themselves. Both beauty and fascination are nouns, and both can be expressed as adjectives, too: beautiful and fascinating. But when you try to make them verbs, things go awry. Something can fascinate, although it will require a direct object which is willing to be fascinated. But to be transformed into an action, beauty needs a little help. Although one can beautify, it sounds a bit awkward; one would be better off making beauty, or creating beauty, and then beauty itself becomes the object and the action gets put elsewhere.
Both beauty and fascination are subjective; one person might find something beautiful or fascinating or both, while someone else may not. Both beauty and fascination are a part of the equation of beholding, but they come at it differently. Beauty is something intrinsic to the object itself: a beautiful flower bears its beauty whether someone is looking at it or not. Fascination, on the other hand, happens inside the observer: an object is not considered fascinating until someone notices it, studies it, and allows it to evoke wonder or curiosity.
Besides our neighborhood mushrooms, how else might that distinction between evaluating some things as “beautiful” and others as “fascinating” be applied? Objects in nature can be either; as a gardener, I have encountered and planted specimens in my yard that were beautiful but not fascinating, as well as ones that are fascinating but not beautiful. Visual arts have a more clear purpose which can allow a judgment of either beauty or fascination; a piece might be created to communicate beauty, but it also might be designed to communicate other messages which make it fascinating, even if the piece itself is not considered terribly beautiful. Similar things could be said about writing. But what about sounds? Music can be beautiful, whether it is from a bird or an orchestra; it can also be fascinating, although only the most academic of critics would sit through a symphony or a song that is fascinating but not beautiful. And what about food, or odors, or textures? We add other senses, so that something can have a pleasing taste or smell or feel in addition to its visual beauty. And, at the same time, its flavors, odors, textures, and appearance might also be fascinating.
So what about people? I’m not sure more could be said of the myths of human beauty and the mysteries of human attraction, so I will only say this. One of the pieces of the Christian way of seeing the world I treasure most deeply is the affirmation that all people are loved by their Creator, and through that love, every person is made beautiful, no matter what he or she looks like. As with a flower, human beauty is intrinsic, and I find that truth to be one of the most beautiful. Fascination, on the other hand, happens in the mind of the beholder, and I think it is in there somewhere that we can understand such phenomena as attraction, tolerance, kinship, jealousy, pity, empathy, and a whole lot of others.
The window of opportunity to photograph mushrooms is very small. After only a few hours of sunshine, they start to shrivel, to shrink, and to fall, and no matter what colors they displayed when they were at their peak, they all turn to a mushy, slimy brown. At that stage, I do not find them fascinating any more, and I am not even tempted to take a photograph; their value to me is simply that they will decompose and add their minerals, fibers, water, and other nutrients to the soil underneath. Still, we had some rain this evening, so when I go on my walk tomorrow morning, shall I take my camera along with me?