By Matt Dickerson
An ESPN talk show host recently complained about the sport of baseball. He argued that what mattered in sports were memories, particulars, and memories of particulars, and that baseball was all about numbers. Actually, he sounded slightly less articulate than that, and somewhat louder, angrier and whinier. Nonetheless, I agreed with the first half of what he said: Beauty is in the particulars.
This is why I disagree with his premise that baseball is less beautiful than football or basketball. Contrary to his assertion, baseball is not fundamentally about numbers, but about particulars — at least as much as the other sports to which he was comparing it. It is about one beautifully executed pitch at a critical moment. Or one beautifully executed swing. Or perhaps just a stolen base.
I have long forgotten the scores of Games 4 through 7 of the 2004 ALCS between the Red Sox and Yankees. I could not tell you any individual’s series batting averages, or ERA, or number of strikeouts. That is, I have forgotten the numbers. But I remember vividly Dave Roberts stealing second base off Mariano Rivera, and the tiny margin by which he was safe. I remember Bill Mueller’s subsequent single up the middle that tied the game, and the look on Rivera’s face.
For me, at least, fishing is also like that. It is about the particulars. Sure, when somebody asks me how the fishing is, I may give some numbers. “Pretty good,” I’ll say. “I caught five or six.” And if they pursue further, and ask, “Any size to them?” I will again answer with a number. “The bigger two were around 15 inches.”
But what I really remember was the feel of a fish. Its color. The spots on its side, and the shape of its jaw. The rock behind which I caught it, and the way it took my fly. The suddenly adrenaline rush when I saw it hit the surface or felt that first tug on my line. I could not guess how many salmon I caught when I took my fishing trip to Alaska, and I didn’t even bother to measure the length or weight of the biggest, but half a decade later I can still picture the spot in the river where I caught it.
Unfortunately, these memories are harder to communicate in a few words, and so we resort to numbers to tell a quick tale — like reducing all the memories of a baseball game to a box score, or perhaps just a final score.
The principle of finding beauty in the details seems to grow more meaningful with each passing year, and is especially relevant with respect to nature — to the beauty of creation that surrounds me. My sons long ago ceased to need (and possibly even want) me to walk them to the school bus. But during the school year my wife and I still make the morning walk down our long driveway every day because we enjoy it. This spring, we frequently walked back to the house through the woods.
Spring wildflowers are among my favorite flowers. Small, delicate, easy to miss. They don’t stand out like the planted flowers in our garden — which I also like. They hide under leaves, and lay close to the ground. They fold up at night so that on a cold morning you can miss them altogether.
But during that brief period between the melting of snow and the leafing out of our trees, they are a delight to look for and to look upon. They really are details. Minute details. They are particulars. We enjoy them from a distance glancing through the trees. We also get down on our knees and peer at them from up close, marveling at their delicacy, and that anything that looks like that and is so small can actually survive.
My wife likes to learn their names. Part of the joy of particulars is knowing the name of something. This spring, on that two hundred or so yard walk through the woods from our mailbox to our home we spotted bellwort, bloodroot, violet, red trillium (also known, appropriately, as “Stinking Benjamin” because of the smell emitted when picked), white trillium, painted trillium, hepatica and the wonderfully named dutchman’s britches.
Just as it is the memories of some particularly good ballgame that keep me watching baseball more than any scores or statistics, and thoughts of some particular fish that keep me fishing more than any numbers, it is also these particulars that motivate me to try to care for the world on which I live far more than any abstract statistics about ecological problems.
I am reminded of a paragraph from the wonderful essay “A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry — in part because of the particular beauty of Berry’s poetic prose. The essay describes Berry’s walk through the woods down a hill by his home in Kentucky. It is worth ending this article with a few words from his:
“One early morning last spring, I came and found the woods floor strewn with bluebells. In the cool sunlight and the lacy shadows of the spring woods the blueness of those flowers, their elegant shape, their delicate fresh scent kept me standing and looking. I found a delight in them that I cannot describe and that I will never forget. Though I had been familiar for years with most of the spring woods flowers, I had never seen these and had not known they were here.
“Looking at them, I felt a strange loss and sorrow that I had never seen them before. But I was also exultant that I saw them now — that they were here. For me, in the thought of them will always be the sense of the joyful surprise with which I found them — the sense that came suddenly to me then that the world is blessed beyond my understanding, more abundantly than I will ever know.”