( This post is something of an indulgence in these difficult times. It was indeed first written in a different time and different world – November 2017 – but has perhaps still some relevance.)
On the highway between Lake Louise and Banff, cars pulled onto the shoulder, and camera-wielding drivers and passengers tumbled out—not to immortalize one more grizzly bear on social media, not this time—but to render awed tribute to the full, double rainbow that arose out of the earth in the far valley and returned to the earth on nearby slopes still clad in mists of retreating rain. The upper rainbow a soft-focus version of the brilliant lower arc, each color band was intensely itself yet merged seamlessly into the next, the red and purple declaring themselves against a backdrop of mountains and clouds.
The physics of light refraction, most certainly familiar to most of the open-mouthed photographers, meant little in the moment. It would have taken a truly hardened, indifferent soul not to see this unearthly beauty and then to bless the web of coincidence that had prompted light to undress itself behind a veil of retreating raindrops.
Can a rainbow know its adorers? As a peacock might self-consciously fan out iridescent tail feathers and strut before its admirers? Surely it cannot be sacrilegious to imagine such mysterious conversation.
The belief that rainbow hues have spiritual dimensions is very old: from the original makers of mandalas, Buddhist monks who wove sand into magnificent sacred works of art, to today’s devotees of Zen adult coloring books, human beings have known that each vibrant color must mean something.
Even those who have stripped all that is sacred from the color spectrum—interior decorators, web-designers, and ad-makers—still know very well that the exact shade matters. Paint the walls bright yellow and we’ll consume more food! Use subtle greys and blues and we’ll stay longer, become more pliable to the message, whatever it is.
Fortunately, the rainbow, co-opted as it has been for various purposes, is not the only divine gift to the human eye. The world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” to use Hopkins’ immortal phrase, through a reckless profusion of flowers, from the grandiose, diva-like spread of tropical plants to the infinitesimal delicacy of alpine flowers growing far above normal human tread.
Gardeners the world over confess their immoderate obsession with the unending possibilities in the intimate marriage between color and texture. Have you ever fingered the petals of a rose in full bloom? Velvet itself is pedestrian in comparison. Or noted how the leaves of the paintbrush transfigure themselves into flowers, adopting whatever shade of red or orange or magenta or pink or yellowish white is de rigueur at a particular altitude?
Or pondered how it is that the leaves of fireweed in fall turn a dormish brown in one valley, yet in another choose to wear gorgeous purples and magentas and oranges?
Or asked a lily enthusiast to describe the patterns of lines and dots in Amber Flame or Chocolate Canary?
When I immerse fragile petals of black pansies in boiling water in the first stage of making jelly, a brilliant turquoise precedes the deep amethyst of the final product. That red rose petals should yield a soft blue before turning into a deep pink is no less miraculous to me. No wonder that medieval alchemists, looking for the elixir of youth, or that which would change all to gold, knew that at the heart of all things is a congruence of elements that none but the Creator understands.
Our subconscious responses to the symbolic resonances of color are particularly evident in how we react to the contrast between what is black and white (literally or metaphorically) and what is color-full. Remember Schindler’s List (1993)? Most of the movie is filmed in black and white, shifting to color only in the last scenes as attention turns from those who perished to those who survived. Other than that, color appears only in a couple of poignant scenes, in which one little Jewish girl wears a pink coat, such a contrast to the inhuman categories of Jew or not-Jew that she provokes tears long before the sheer scale of the tragedy makes weeping the only reasonable response.
Black and white, as a metaphor, has come to stand for immovable regulations and an avoidance of all nuance. In religion, black-and-white distinguishes between the saved and the damned (no in-between, or compassion); in politics, black-and-white sorts all people and positions into the evil and the good (with the sorter seemingly always among the good).
Although it seems prudent not to rely too heavily on physics as a source of moral wisdom, especially since the beautiful calls for awe, not moralizing, I cannot help but ponder what physics might teach me. Light is essential for the perception of any color whatsoever; color cannot be seen in the dark. Even more striking, light itself must be broken (refracted) before rainbow colors appear. A consistent rejection of all variances, fragments, ambiguities, irregularities—terminal black-and-white categorization, in other words—impoverishes us, whether we know it or not.
A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord, / How rich and great the times are now!William Henry Davies
There is a crack in everything . . . that’s how the light gets in.Leonard Cohen