Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A garden of reflections


The snow blinds me. I cannot look at it when the sun shines. As it does, very brightly, in a cold January sky.
So I am now like one of Plato’s cave dwellers who cannot look at the sun (truth, reality, the idea behind the shadow) because their eyes are accustomed only to shadows, to darkness. The cave dwellers in Plato’s allegory of the unexamined life can’t see the truth of their existence; they see only shadowy approximations.
It’s a painful subject. I crave the light, the sun. It is necessary, good for me, provides the vitamins we miss in the winter, does something to the body chemistry, kicks in the endorphins or stirs up the enzymes. But I can’t look at it when the snow is this pervasive and the sun is high and unclouded.
I can’t have what I need.
Is this a parable? Does truth hurt? I need the truth, but I cannot take it?
Snow blindness aside, frigid temperatures or not, we need to live in nature, as much as possible. It is good for us, because our own nature grew from, developed out of, and remains part of Nature. We are natural beings. People say “mortal,” but that’s what mortal means. All living things in the natural world – and, folks, there isn’t any other for creatures with bodies – die. Perhaps our words or deeds or creations, a building, say, or a book, live on; and our memories live on in the lives of those who know us; but only for a short time, until nature takes them back as well. Nature is death, as much as birth. We conquer the world and the history books remember us for a comparatively long time; but in the end, obviously, clearly, unquestionably, all memory of our existence passes away. Everything passes, a nice calming sort of way to putting our condition. All is vanity, sayeth the preacher – not so nice. But it really amounts to the same thing.
Consider the lilies – not simply of the field – but of the garden, where we call them ‘ornamental’ or, tellingly, ‘day lilies’ (or 'toad lilies,' which bloom in October and win a place in our calendar). Consider how beautiful they are – or were. Do they endure? Do we remember them? I’m afraid I don’t see any lilies out there now and have not for some months. Granted they did not toil or spin (or weep), and I must say they seemed pretty cheerful about the state of things and uncomplaining about their inevitable decline, loss of their beautiful, youthful parts, and eventual – passing? Their natural decay back into the soil. I keep some of their petals in a bowl. They have a second life as dried versions of their former vitality. It’s a nice reminder, though a mere shadow of the real thing, not that much like the living flower. In reality, indisputably, the flowers are gone. Forever.
But, wait! They’re coming back! With any luck. I hope.
I can’t speak for the lily’s point of view, but I don’t worry about a flower’s mortality though poets from time immemorial have offered them as symbols of the inevitable passing of all beauty and all life.
January is the death of the year, the apparent death of nature in New England and most places in the northern hemisphere. Those dark pink buds on my rose bushes are not in fact going to bloom any time this season. “This season” is so over. We contemplate a graveyard in winter snow. And we inevitably think of our own endings. We go; new people come.
For as the song says, the graveyards go to flowers, every one.
We need nature, as much nature in our lives as we can get, to remember who we are. But then we have to make peace with that knowledge.