It’s so commonplace here in Rappahannock that to remark upon the county’s beauty becomes cliché. Especially its natural beauty: the sun setting over the Blue Ridge; the restfully rolling hills; the way the clouds and light play upon the landscape; the historic, elegantly proportioned architecture….
But what of beauty’s opposite: the ugly? Is there any ugliness in Rappahannock County, or do we keep it out? Are our zoning laws like an invisible fence at the border, keeping not immigrants but ugliness out? Certainly, driving from Rappahannock into neighboring jurisdictions can be aesthetically jarring, what with their billboards, stoplights, strip malls and big-box retailers.
These New Year reflections are prompted by a book I bought myself for Christmas: “Ugliness: A Cultural History,” by Gretchen E. Henderson. The etymological root of the word “ugly” means “to be feared or dreaded.” It is not simply the inverse of “beauty,” but loaded with moral implications — ranging from a physical manifestation of evil to the notion of being freakish or “out of place.”
In that sense — being out of place — it must be acknowledged that, yes, ugliness indeed exists in Rappahannock County. Not much maybe, but some. Litter along Rt. 211, for an obvious example. Invasive species — like stinkbugs and Ailanthus — for another. What they, indeed most “uglies,” have in common is the unintended hand of man. (This is not to say that man does not also create beauty: just look at all the art from Rappahannock’s landscape painters!)
Another way of saying “out of place” is “unnatural.” And the weather this past December, averaging a good 10 degrees above normal, certainly seemed unnatural, like a monster with a deformed face. Had it been late springtime, Christmas Day’s weather would have made for a “beautiful day.” As it was, everyone with whom I exchanged holiday greetings used adjectives like “weird” and “strange” and “scary,” to signal how unnatural — therefore ugly — it seemed.
Even scarier was the weather report a few days later that the North Pole would be experiencing temperatures a full 50 degrees above normal.
Here’s hoping 2016 won’t be an ugly year.