Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder - But What If There Is No Beholder?

06/26/2015 04:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016


A flowering apple tree? A plum? Photo by Barbara Newhall

Something big and white and cloudy was lurking in the steep canyon below our house. I stood up from my computer and peered out the window for a better look.

It was flowering tree, growing wild.

I'd never noticed that tree before. You can barely see it from our house. It's surrounded on all sides by more predictable trees: A rangy bay laurel and its offspring. A couple of young and aggressive live oaks. An aging Monterey pine. A gigantic cypress. Also, an anonymous shrub with red berries that I have never much liked.

But here it was February, early spring in the San Francisco Bay Area. And a fruit tree - an apple? a plum? - was blossoming right below my back yard.

It was growing wild, unpruned, and shaded by oaks and pines.

I went outdoors to get a better look, only to lose sight of the tree entirely. It's probably a beautiful thing, I thought. But what a waste. All that splendor and no one to pay homage to it.

I resolved to make my way down the hill later in the week and appreciate that tree up close. Take a picture. Record the poignant, fleeting lives of those white blossoms.

And so, on a Friday afternoon I grabbed our camera, put on my hiking boots and a pair of old, expendable pants, and made the steep downhill journey through mud, blackberry, sourgrass and a rotting tree stump.

2015-06-02-1433223892-77638-floweringtreeupclose300x225.jpgWhen I finally reached the hidden tree, I saw that it was a tangled mass of limbs, branches and twigs, many of

Thousands of blossoms.
Photo by Barbara Newhall

them dead. Clearly no gardener prunes or tends this tree. It's on its own.

And this season, all on its own, it has produced thousands of small white flowers, each one quietly surging with life and, it seemed to me, intention.

I snapped my pictures, but I did not linger under the tree. I couldn't get much of a foothold on the muddy hillside. Also, my feet were getting wet, and I needed to get back to my writing room. I had work to do.

A Meyer lemon tree? A plum? The result of an apple core I threw down the canyon twenty years ago?

Picking my way back up the slippery hillside, I felt satisfied that this patch of beauty had not gone unappreciated. I had personally given it its full fifteen minutes of fame.

Back at the house I kicked off my muddy boots and thought about the proverbial tree falling in the woods. If no one hears it crash, does it make a sound?

Likewise, if no one sees this small tree bloom, is it beautiful? What if I hadn't been here to take note - and a snapshot? Could that cloud of blossoms have been beautiful without me? Without a beholder, is there beauty?

Maybe God is like that tree, hidden, and beautiful whether I show up with my camera or not.

Text and photos c 2015 Barbara Falconer Newhall. All rights reserved.

A version of this story first appeared on, where Barbara riffs on life, family, books, writing, and her rocky spiritual journey.

Barbara is a veteran newspaper journalist whose stint as the religion beat reporter at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay Area inspired her newly released interfaith book "Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith."