I stood on the edge of a carpet of decaying roses in the middle of July of this year, which was, I think, around six weeks after they had been laid down. What amazed me was how long the flowers were lasting; that is to say, how they were still offering something to be enjoyed long after their conventionally accepted shelf date. It was an installation in Edinburgh’s Modern Art Gallery, an artwork called ‘Red on Green’ by Anya Gallacio. She had created a huge swathe of crimson, filling almost the entire floor space of the gallery with 10,000 red roses (just their flower heads), which then gradually wilted and decayed over the course of the exhibition. By the time I got to see it they were no longer fresh, plump, full blooms. When I saw them they were fading flourishes that had begun to lapse in concentration and lean into one another. Their shade was no longer a vibrant red but was a subtle spectrum of darker reds and purples, the colours of a healing bruise. They were cradled in the arms of ever-lightening green leaves, for as the blooms deepened in colour, the leaves that held them faded from green towards yellow and even into silvery white. Despite their drying and dying state, the flowers retained a heady scent.
There is beauty to be found in the transformation of decay: that’s what the work said to me. It took me by surprise, but I found a degree of nobility in their slow decline, almost a message of graciousness as they wasted and withered. I made a promise to myself to go back a few weeks later to see what difference in smell, colour and form I might notice over time; except August ran away with me and I never did go back. As it turns out it mattered little that I didn’t return, as a similarly profound installation, one wrought from nature, now stands right outside my bedroom window. It’s the birch tree in the backgreen and it is doing the same as that blanket of roses in the art gallery. Slowly the tree is putting itself to sleep, stooping into winter, leaves glowing orange in the late afternoon sun, stripping itself bare as its foliage decays in a perfect halo around the foot of its trunk. In a few weeks it will be a bare frame of peeling silver bark and I will struggle to remember how it looks in summer. Some year, of course, it will die entirely, like the cut roses, and its sap will forget to rise in spring. But I suspect I won’t be here to see that. Decay, regeneration, decay: it’s worth stopping to appreciate all of the stages and to marvel at things dying away.
Fall Leaves Fall, by Emily Bronte
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.