There is an unbearable beauty about Edinburgh these days. All week I have witnessed nature’s exquisite performance; free displays so stunning to look upon that I am not sure if they are filling my heart with joy or wounding it with pain. It is too much to take in. I’ve come to think of my reaction to it as a form of grief. If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I mean. It’s that sharp pain that everyone experiences when someone dies; when the world continues to go about its brazen business and you can’t quite believe it dares to proceed as normal when your world has jack-knifed, been ransacked, ruined. And that’s what I get a sense of these days: a collective loss, a heavy hurt, a quiet grief hanging in the unseasonably warm April air. No matter how tightly packed one’s insultation, everyone has lost something. And while the sharpness of the bite is different from person to person, we’re all feeling it. For some it is a loss of freedom. For some it’s not having a hand to hold. Others miss their place to work, some crave the solidity of an old routine, and nearly all of us mourn future plans that we were so sure of.
For a while we will spiral and fall into a grief-like state over our losses, it’s normal, maybe even necessary. But nature knows nothing of this grief and so it swishes in gracefully, choosing this year, above all others (at least that how it seems to me), to be particularly munificent with its gifts. Take the excessively majestic sunset on Thursday night. It was so inappropriately gorgeous that I felt uneasy watching, I was almost embarrassed by it. It was as if someone had turned up to a funeral wearing a wedding dress. And the cherry blossom in Waverley Gardens yesterday is playing the same trick. So excited is it by its own brilliant luminosity that it has turned up two weeks early. (I know because I have photographic evidence on my phone from previous years.) I can’t stop myself from taking photographs – the sky, the blooms, the trees, the birds – but the pictures never do true justice to bleeding vibrancy of a Rothko canvas that makes a gallery of the evening sky, or the wanton decadence of candy blooms in full explosion. And in these days of less, of social distance, restraint and holding back, there is something licentious and shameless about how buxom, overblown and almost distastefully pink they are. How dare they be the mood for a carnival while we mourn.
Yesterday, I stood on Princes Street under three cherry trees, sisters overdressed for the quietest ever Friday in town, and, in the stillness of the morning, tiny petals dropped and spiralled through the air, coming to land on the pavement like kitsch fairy dust. I decided, there and then, it is a good thing that these blooms are so transient and fleeting, because they are too much for me to take in right now, too extravagant and sensual, too generous in their colour. Too much beauty can and does assault the senses. Or is it my temperament, senses dampened by the prevailing tenor of news? I think I am dulled by days of withdrawal so that clumps of forget-me-nots under a hawthorn hedge are more than enough to thrill me. The hawthorn doesn’t hog the stage, it is happy to play a supporting role, just a few blooms like stars specking the sky at dusk, while the cherry blossom Haley Comets its way through our streets and parks and gardens and in a few weeks-time we’ll barely see its tail as it fades away for another year. This year I crave the understated beauty of the hawthorn and the whispers of woodland flowers.
I’m trying to make sense of it all when the phone rings. It’s A. from rural County Derry. Get yourself to the middle of nowhere and then turn up a laneway and down a track and up a gravel path and you’ll find him sitting on his doorstep drinking a can of Smithwicks. ‘I’m looking at horses in a field,’ he told me, ‘and I thought I’d ring and tell you. Five racehorses have been let out for a gallop here in the Macknagh, and they’re something to behold. They’re whinnying and biting and sporting, swishing their tails and making my heart sing and I have never seen the grass as green nor the sky as blue and the world as perfect. I’m enraptured.’
These days we all have at least one gaping need. The world is full of unbearable beauty. May you find that place where your gap can be filled.
Canal Bank Walk, Patrick Kavanagh
Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.