No Substitute

‘Tis the season; late summer early fall. The year has settled into itself. Morning visits to the vegetable garden see me return with my trug laden with zucchini, beans, tomatoes (so many tomatoes), potatoes, raspberries and more. It’s also a time for acceptance. Despite the daily haul, I know the veggie plot is winding down. There is little chance now that the five eggplant plants will flower and produce fruit, the cucumber plants have shrivelled thanks to a beetle infestation, and the lettuce has long since bolted. 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, 
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, 
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease, 
For summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells…”  

Excerpt from Autumn by John Keats, 1820

It is my favourite time of year. The crisp tang in the air offers a taste of new possibilities. It’s a time to start afresh, to chart a new course. It is the time for sunflowers

It won’t be long before the trees have turned to red, but for now, the predominant colour in the village is yellow. There are sunflowers everywhere, and their happy faces never fail to brighten my morning walks.

Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers 1888 Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73 cm Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924 NG3863

In 1888-89 Van Gogh was painting sunflowers in Arles, in the South of France. He was charting a new future for himself; a home and studio to share with his friend Gauguin. I imagine him excitedly pouring all his hope into the various versions of the vases of sunflowers he painted during that period of his life.

I have been lucky enough to see Van Gogh’s work in many galleries: the National Gallery in London, UK; the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (previously at the Jeu de Paume); the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, UK… but the Sunflowers in the picture above remain one of my most favourite paintings. As a non-visual person, I never cease to marvel how the yellow sunflowers on a yellow background stand out and glow on the gallery wall.

I wrote the following poem after one of our many visits to the National Gallery. It was the first time that we had taken the children, and the first time that our seven year old son had seen a Van Gogh painting in person.

No Substitute

We are two rooms away
when he shrieks
at a distant glimpse of van Gogh's chair.
I cannot stop him
from running off
sending old ladies spinning
bursting through couples holding hands

I follow quickly
settling the elderly back onto benches 
apologizing, reuniting lovers.
When I next catch up with him
he is a stilled tornado 
at the base of van Gogh's sunflowers.

The sudden yellow of hope surrounds him.
He is full of the thickness of paint
Yes. This is the way it should be
he shouts to his world.

When he was half this age
he couldn't understand
why distant objects must be smaller.
I bought him binoculars 
waited for his smiles. But he was angry.
He couldn't make those far-off colours reappear.

Leaving the gallery I take him to the bookstore,
offer him postcards, a Van Gogh print for the wall of his room.
His eyes darken. He's older, won't offend me.
What I want he says is to stay here with the paintings.

I know it won’t be long before we have to say farewell to the sunflowers, so I’m making the most of their messages of hope and cheer. Who knows, maybe next year I’ll try and grow some myself.