Thank God For the Flower
I am a fully paid-up city-dweller. For 28 of the last 30 years, I have lived in places that count their populations in millions: London, New York, Birmingham, Johannesburg and now Durban.
I adore the excitement, unpredictability and variety of cities, and also enjoy the noise, the smells and the people.
Many readers may be horrified by this and would not give up the tranquillity of a small-town or rural setting. I too can appreciate those places, which is why, like many other urbanites, I spent some time over the holidays outside the city, enjoying the South African countryside.
In fact — if I can let you glimpse inside the writer’s craft — I am typing this while gazing out across the Sundays River Valley in the Eastern Cape, looking at fields of citrus trees, listening to babbling water and the gentle sounds of birds and insects. And last night, thanks to a complete absence of light pollution, I was able to see the magnificent display of stars in an African sky which are, of course, always above my head but which I can barely glimpse when in a city. Bliss!
Whether we live in a rural idyll or seek to escape from the city to a farm or mountain or beach over the holidays, we can all appreciate the beauty of the countryside.
Long before the days of atheists and rational materialists, the Book of Wisdom warned us that we cannot be amazed at the beauty of creation without also acknowledging the Creator. And it is hardly surprising that historically our retreat houses and monasteries have been placed in stunningly beautiful locations with great views.
While the early German Trappists were clearly focused on evangelising the poor, they did not do too shabby a job of building their missions in some of the most lovely valleys in KwaZulu-Natal: Mariannhill, Centocow, Reichenau.
But unless you have the good fortune to live in a spot as lovely as those, does that mean that you have to wait till another holiday before you can enjoy the splendour of God’s creation? Of course not.
First of all, even when sitting in a smoky township or a noisy city office, we have the traditional means of reconnecting with those natural views through postcards and photographs and paintings. The magic of technology means images of the whole world are now immediately accessible on a laptop, tablet or smartphone.
But that is a second-hand experience. We can still get back in touch with a first-hand experience without having to flee to the countryside.
I fear that those of us in cities don’t spend enough time connecting with the pockets of nature that are hidden around us in the city — the little bits of Eden on our doorsteps. Some of those spots are world famous: the Company’s Gardens in Cape Town, the Botanic Gardens in Durban, the Rose Gardens in Bloem (in bloom!). But every city and town has somewhere a patch of green, a few plants, some flowers that are an echo of nature, however faint.
We might be dismissive of these, especially when in many cases they are not what they were. And not every garden can be Kirstenbosch. But before you disparage your local run-down park, stop and “smell the roses”. I mean really smell the roses (or the daisies or the proteas or whatever you find). Not because there will necessarily be a strong scent but because the act of putting your nose close to a flower forces you to start looking at it in more detail.
That is when you begin to notice that the grandeur of God’s creation is not just in the great vistas of the Drakensberg or the wide expanse of the St Lucia beach or the awesome scale of the Karoo, but in fact in every small work of nature.
The most ordinary flower soon becomes extraordinary when you stop to look at the way the petals intersect or how the leaves are composed or observe the complex structure of the elements.
A gardener friend of mine used to challenge me to name how many multiple hues of colour there were in a patch that I would initially describe as “just green”.
The poet, William Blake, captured this idea in his famous stanza:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Something as simple and as ordinary and as commonplace as a grain of sand or a wildflower, one among millions, when looked at closely contains within it the immensity and intensity of God’s creation: if only we will bother to stop and look.
So may I offer you this as a late New Year’s resolution? If you are in a city, make sure you take some time to visit a park or a garden or even to spend some time sitting (not working) in your own garden and pause to just gaze in wonder.
If there is not a suitable garden at the moment, think about what you can do — perhaps working with your friends or fellow parishioners to develop a piece of greenery in your area to help you and others to contemplate.
Don’t wait for someone to give you permission — just start planting and weeding and watering (though do observe whatever restrictions are in place). And you will be surprised at how quickly other people want to join in.
And wherever you are, sit down with a flower or a leaf or even just a blade of grass and wonder at the splendour of God’s creation, and then give thanks to the Creator.
Catch up with previous columns by Raymond Perrier