The golden shower orchids in my wife’s garden are particularly lovely just now. In the evening with the late sun gleaming they cascade in beauty on the old tree boughs. They lift the spirit every time I see them.
Years ago when they also wondrously appeared in rich profusion I wrote an essay mentioning them, which is truer than ever for me as I have got older and the world has got heavier. This is the essay.
I suppose it is getting older that brings this on but I have come to the conclusion in a long life that the high dramas of public events – the summits of great men who think they control events, the ribbon-cutting celebrations of immense enterprises, the coronations of Presidents and the inauguration of Parliaments, the inflated pageants of festivals and carnivals and celebrity occasions – fade into inconsequence compared with the quiet satisfactions of private life.
The realization that grand events, man’s ceaseless manoeuvrings for power and position, are basically boring and unsatisfying increases with age in almost exact step with a growing liking for the simple, uncomplicated peace and beauty, for instance, of the garden at our home, filled with humming-birds, on a golden afternoon turning into moon-filled night or a visit to the forested, wind-swept banks of the great Essequibo.
If you have seen a kingfisher dart and swerve and dip on a Guyana river or red-water creek you will know what I mean. Mary Oliver’s poem describes a kind of perfection.
The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a silver leaf, I think this is
the prettiest world – so long as you don’t mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn’t born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water – hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don’t say he’s right. Neither
do I say he’s wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.
Lately I read an extract from the journal of Edmond de Goncourt which struck me as measuring what is important in life very well. He stayed at home when one of the 19th century’s great, culminating events was taking place outside his window in all its splendour and public clamour – the Paris Memorial Exhibition of 1899 – and he wrote:
“In front of me, a plate of strawberries. Besides the plate, in a rock-crystal flask, a Richardson rosebud, yellow edged with white. Upstairs, awaiting me in my darkened bedroom, a glass of Martell brandy and my bed turned down for a siesta of light and hazy slumbers. And, deep inside me a feeling of inexpressible scorn for all that trundling activity going on outside – the cabs, the omnibuses, the drays, the trams, and the carts, taking people to the Exhibition.”
The last few weeks have seen in our garden, shining on the dark tree-boughs, cascading over the fence, a shower of golden orchids in astonishing profusion. It is a gift of beauty beyond price or fame and day after day our lives are enriched by this matchless display. What event manipulated by kings or clowns could compare?