Every-colored flowers

In the eastern parts of Umbria, the land lofts up from fertile valleys into rich-forested mountains. These are the Apennines, a range I’d heard mentioned before but knew nothing of, a string of low mountains stretching the full length of the Italian peninsula. Yesterday, on a recommendation from our Italian language teacher, we drove out through these mountains’ burgeoned forests, wound the gorge beneath Cerreto di Spoleto, towards the fields of Castelluccio di Norcia, a Roman village decimated by the 2016 earthquake.

Driving through the Apennines

In the eastern parts of Umbria, the land lofts up from fertile valleys into rich-forested mountains. These are the Apennines, a range I’d heard mentioned before but knew nothing of, a string of low mountains stretching the full length of the Italian peninsula. Yesterday, on a recommendation from our Italian language teacher, we drove out through these mountains’ burgeoned forests, wound the gorge beneath Cerreto di Spoleto, towards the fields of Castelluccio di Norcia, a Roman village decimated by the 2016 earthquake.

The ruins (and revivings) of Castelluccio perch above the Piano Grande (the Great Plain), famous for its yearly bloom of poppies, lentil flowers, cornflowers, thistle, daisies, and so many more, and it was this flowering whose tail end we had come to see. As one blossoming of color erupts, subsides, and passes its banner to the next, the fields shift and sparkle and fade in a slow gradient of green and white and blue and red and purple. I had seen pictures. They were spectacular. The real sight–I’ll do what I can to give it justice.

I look at these images, recall their memories, and I just breathe. In and out, watching, thinking, in the presence of this beautiful proliferation–it is a holy kind of a thing. It’s the kind of sight that makes you just stop, just say something like “oh.” There it is.

My husband and I sat down at the edge of the field and hand a long talk about beauty, and what it is, and distance and nearness. I want to sketch out some of the ideas we talked about. I think they’re important.

When I think of this fiorita, it is the gradient I most powerfully recall, and it was this gradient that drew me in:

Yet, this is something of a lie. In all its splendor, in every painted stroke, at closer glance, these fields are these:

They are cornflower and poppy. They are wind-blown and frail, born of rocky soil. They are… ordinary. Imperfect. And here’s where I first get stuck: the two flowers above, they are beautiful. When I study them, I see the vibrance of their color, the sharp angles of the cornflower petals, the crinkled softness of that poppy. And yet, their beauty is, to me, not a tenth as striking as the broad fields of which they are a part.

And this confuses me, because I know that if I got closer to those gradiented fields, if I examined them close-up for their secrets, it is flowers like these two here that I would find. And the beauty that I see is a product of my distance from them. And my first thought is to say that this cheapens the fields. Their magic diminishes by their ordinary nature. They are only flowers. I have seen flowers before.

Above this variegated spread, the ruins of Castelluccio bake and slope. In 2011, 150 people lived there. After the earthquake, thirteen chose to remain.

Ruins have a strange fascination in the American imagination. The ruins left by indigenous cultures in North America are less vivid in the public consciousness than those of the Roman Empire, and we flock to Europe so often to see “old things.” And that kind of focus lingers in me too, so that when I saw the rubble on that hill, it seemed to express a potent symbolism–living nature and the crumbling past, and the mystery of vanished things. The ruins preside here like a temple to some unknown god, and the very unknowability makes me more sure the truth is something marvelous and fascinating and rich in unrecoverable meaning. So my mind spins, and these mysteries proliferate, as surely as a rainbow’s end moves ever farther across a plain. It is a brilliant fount of inspiration, this imagination, and, as I grow older, I understand, a lingering naiveté.

Much of Castelluccio today is inaccessible, but around an old plaza, a few new shops have been set up. There is a cafe, a public restroom, and stands of lentil sellers. It was the most tourist-focused site we have seen so far in Umbria.

It is something like those flowers, I recognize. There is a disconnect between the imagination and reality, between the distant and the near. I wrote about a similar idea back in February, about Norway. About its magic on my first encounter, and its grudging metamorphosis into a more ordinary mix of good and bad, of beautiful and trying, and I see that this question is enduring. How do I reconcile the beauty of the imagination with the relative blandness of the everyday? What does this say about me, that I struggle here? What does it say about the truth of things?

I breathe. I wonder. I mourn a bit, because it has been the imagination all my life that has drawn me forward, kept me hoping, wishing, in awe of all around me, and kept me writing too–it has been because I expected one day to discover that my imaginations corresponded to an objective truth. I think as I grow older, I see that this is, itself, an imagining.

But let’s return. The flowers. What is the solution? I need to find it. I need to understand if I am to hold on to meaning.

Beauty, they have long said, is in the eye of the beholder. And usually I have heard this to mean simply that what one person finds beautiful, another may find ugly. But I think the deeper sense here is that beauty is not a thing that exists outside the mind. Or rather, beauty happens when an observer identifies something as beautiful. A flower has no inherent quality of beauty. A flower’s beauty is something we create.

So when I see the beauty of those variegated fields, that beauty lives in me. I have not found it, but assembled it. And when I fail to see beauty in a wilting flower, then it is myself alone with whom I have to reckon.

Things become complicated here. Because I teeter here on the edge of saying that nothing means anything at all, which frightens me terribly, and then I want to scurry back to a solid, feel-good base, which feels like ignorance.

Is a flower a thing at all? Isn’t it a group of cells, or atoms? Who can say quite where the flower ends or begins. What of a petal that has fallen off? What of a fungus at its root, without which the flower would not be able to metabolize some nutrient? And yet, of course a flower is a thing, because it can reproduce itself, because it is a complex but coherent system, and simply because I define it as such. It’s easy enough to say that a field is not a thing. It is a group of individual flowers. But then, if a flower is in fact a thing, then mightn’t a field be too?

Maybe I am not a thing. Maybe this thing I call myself it simply cell and molecule and proton and charge, and perhaps some kind of soul squeezed in. And yet, there’s something else, because if someone wanted to see the true me, yes they could look at my atoms and identify each one, and they would learn so much more about me than I will ever know, yet they would not know me in the same way as when they take the larger scale. When they look at me as if I were a thing, even if I objectively am not, they see something different, and I have to believe that has some meaning.

I think I have assumed that the distant view, the one pencilled by the imagination, is inferior to the close. Perhaps that is not true. Perhaps they are only different. Perhaps a tourist’s view and a local’s view are not in competition, but both provide something the other lacks. Perhaps part of the beauty of one flower is its participation in a distant field, reflecting photons to a distant viewer who will never know about wilt or rock or wind.

Or perhaps not. I’m still trying to understand. Thanks for listening. What are your thoughts? What do you imagine? What do you believe?

With love,
Jimmy

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