In defence of of small beauties

Summer is well and truly over.  How do I know?  This morning as I settled down to my desk there were snowflakes falling on the fir tree outside my window.  I have spent the entire summer staring through that window at the same tree.  Going nowhere.  The study of a bent fir cone has occupied countless hours of my time.

I’m accustomed to travelling, frequently removing myself from the daily routine. So this year has been an adjustment.  At times I have felt stuck, as though there was no end to, and no escape from, the day-to-dayness of life.  But it has also meant time to settle, time to slow down and perhaps to better appreciate the things around me.

Swirly patterns made by the river foam

On a flight a few years ago, as the engines wound themselves up for take-off, I reached for the in-flight magazine. Instead of calming my nerves, the article I read plunged me into the rushing adrenaline of extreme sports and adventures: free-solo climbing, parkour jumps, running marathons in the desert, that sort of thing.  The author described pushing one’s limits as the only way to feel truly alive.  It bothered me.  As someone who can scare myself to death simply sitting with a pen in my hand, I have never felt the need to jump out of airplanes.  To me, it also seemed elitist, in the sense that unless you engage in death-defying feats or travel to dangerous places, you are somehow not fulfilled.

It’s at least 30 years, since I first heard Simon Armitage, the UK’s current poet laureate, read his poem “It ain’t what you do, its what it does to you”.  It spoke to me then, as it still does, about the small day to day experiences, that can hold just as much richness as visits to exotic lands, or just as much of a thrill as leaping off tall buildings.

It ain’t what you do, its what it does to you, by Simon Armitage, from Zoom (BloodAxe Books, 1987)

My Easter holidays as a child were spent in Cornwall.   That’s Cornwall, UK, not Ontario.  Unfettered I roamed the cliff tops and the hedgerows, the scrubland and the rocky descents to coves and caves. I had all kinds of private adventures, but it didn’t matter whether I had spent the morning as a pirate, a smuggler or a horse.  When I returned to the holiday cottage, I always had a clutch of flowers in my hand.  The couple who owned the cottage must have had endless patience. Presented with the wilted bouquet, Mrs Pollard would go through the flowers, name each of them for me and tell me a bit about their characteristics, their likes and dislikes.  It was an incredible gift to a young child, encouraging careful attention to the small beauties under my prancing hooves.

Milkweed pods releasing their seeds

Over the past seven months, I have found myself paying more attention to those small things, close at hand.  Things that I can focus on while the world outside goes crazy.

Little things, by Sharon Olds, from The Gold Cell (Alfred Knopf, 1987)

It would be wrong to love this pandemic, with all its attendant suffering and death, and the limitations to our individual freedoms. But perhaps it does come with the gift of forcing us to look for those little details we can enjoy each day.

This is the first year I have understood the saying a “carpet of leaves”

Now living in the Gatineau hills, I recognize how fortunate I am to be able to connect with the natural world on my daily walks. But in truth, I don’t think that it matters where you live.  There are small beauties to be found everywhere. Thanks to the magic of Twitter, I follow another UK-based poet, Ian McMillan.  His daily walks through Barnsley, one of those gritty northern towns, reveal magic at every turn: raindrops running down a bus shelter window, a taxi carrying last night’s dreams home to bed, the morning sky the colour of canned salmon.     

Morning sky

And as for the bent fir cone.  The scientist in me wonders whether it’s a mutation, whether the close proximity to another cone is sensed by a yet poorly understood mechanism that acts as a growth inhibitor, or whether the cone’s particular growth is affected by its orientation to the light.  The poet in me spends hours trying to turn it into a metaphor, or give it some purpose.  But in truth, it is just a bent fir cone, living its own life, and all the more beautiful for that.