Local Color

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   February 6, 2020

Nature is so full of miracles that we tend to take some of them for granted, especially if they are there all the time – like our own bodies – or if they, at least, come and go with predictable regularity – like the sun and the moon. But there are others which tend to surprise us, because they are, to some extent, unexpected – even more so, if they are spectacularly beautiful.

One day, some years ago, I had an unforgettable encounter with a rainbow.

First came the rain, then the sun, then the rainbow. There it was, stretching across the sky, above our protecting hills – that lovely arc of color which, no matter how many times you see it, and no matter how well you know the scientific explanation, still somehow seems miraculous.

But I was in a hurry, and my walk was taking me in the opposite direction. The only way I could keep enjoying that spectacular vision was by pausing every now and then, and turning around. But it made me feel guilty to treat a miracle so casually, and each time I turned around, I feared it would already be gone. I kept thinking of those lines from a poem called “Leisure” (by W.H Davies) that we learned at school in England:

What is this life, if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?

I felt even worse when somebody walking in the other direction, a young woman whom I didn’t even know, actually said to me as we passed, “Have you seen the rainbow!” – and I had to assure her that I had seen it, and then (partly out of politeness) pause once more, and admire it with her.

What is it about rainbows that makes people want to share them? As I hurried on, my mind raced through its little catalog of rainbow lore. I thought about the Irish legend of the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, guarded by an impish leprechaun, and about Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, singing of that wonderful land “Somewhere, over the Rainbow.” Then there was that other old song, about the poor fellow who’s “always chasing rainbows,” and who laments that “my dreams are just like all my schemes – ending in the sky.” Many people apparently see the rainbow as something essentially unreal – which I suppose is a feeling we get because it doesn’t last, but comes and goes mysteriously.

But (it occurred to me) there is another idea about the rainbow also prevailing in our culture, which goes back at least as far as the book of Genesis and the story of Noah and the Ark, and which sees the rainbow as a symbol of hope. Of course, this must derive from the fact that rainbows tend to appear when the rain is ending, and the sun is coming out. The Bible turns that into a “sign” of the benevolence of God, a promise that he will never again seek to destroy all life on Earth, as he supposedly came close to doing with the Great Flood. I have always liked that story – but Noah was no Dr. Dolittle – and I would have liked it even better, had he not, as soon as the Flood was over, felt obliged to start killing and sacrificing some of the very animals he had helped to save. (Children are not usually told that part of the story.)

Does the rainbow, then, mean hope, or does it mean illusion? Or does it mean that hope and delusion are ultimately the same thing? Fortunately, those are not the only possibilities. In some cultures, the rainbow is seen as a kind of bridge between the worlds of gods and men – an idea which I personally find very appealing. If we must live all our days in doubt about the true nature of the universe, aren’t we lucky to have, at least occasionally, this beautiful suggestion of a cosmic link between what we know, and all that we can never know.

With this happy insight, I reached my destination – my house on Valerio Street – and dashed up the steps, realizing, only then, just why I had been in such a hurry. “Quick!” I shouted in from the doorway to my wife, “Come out and see the rainbow, before it fades!” She rushed out to join me, and there, on our front path, holding each other close, we both just stood and stared.


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