It’s just the beginning of March, but the Virginia bluebells are already poking their heads out of the rich riparian soil along the Potomac River. I have to admit to being somewhat obsessed by them. Each year, I watch with great anticipation for the flimsy little leaves to appear. A few weeks later, the rivers and streams here in the DC area will be carpeted with a brilliant blue that stretches to the horizon. I have brought everyone I know down to the river to revel in them. In the past, the bluebells blossomed around April 15, a small salve on an otherwise dreary tax day. In the past few years, however, they have come earlier and earlier. Ironically, this year they will probably bloom around the Ides of March, a full month early.
As I looked at their limp, mottled leaves emerging this year, I must admit that the joy that I have felt in previous years is tempered by their early arrival and its probable causation – a warming climate. How can I see the beauty, feel the joy, take in every delicate blue and white and pink blossom without also feeling the anxiety of the havoc we are wreaking on our earth? Each beautiful blossom seems to be a reminder of what was, and what might never be again.
As I reflected on the plight of the baby bluebells, I remembered an interview between Paul Holdengraber and writer Terry Tempest Williams, who has spent her life experiencing, writing about and protecting her beloved western landscapes. In the interview, she movingly tells of her devastation after the state of Wyoming issued permits to allow the hunting of grizzly bears that travel outside of the protection of Yellowstone National Park. After a number of political efforts had failed to stop the hunting, she drove into the park to find some sort of consolation:
"I thought, stop, too much noise. Too much rage. And I went into the park and drove through Willow Flats. On the edge of the Snake River, I saw the willows move. And there in the clearing emerges this immense being—a grizzly bear. And I thought, first and foremost, above all politics, here is beauty on four legs. I just wept. My heart calmed, my eyes opened, and I found a compassion that I had lost . . . and I thought, here, now, this is beauty, this is the strategy for survival . . . I have to believe in those moments of beauty that take us to a place of transcendence where anything is possible. We have to hold on to that."
Beauty is the strategy for survival. For us, for the bluebells, for the earth community.
And so I’m looking at the bluebells a little differently these days. Yes, I still grieve the damage we are doing, the species we are losing, the uncertainty of our communal future. And yet, as my heart is breaking, it is also opening – opening to the possibility that beauty will transform us, before it is too late. Open to the possibility that beauty will somehow survive, regardless.
At the end of the interview, Terry Tempest Williams added this: “We do go on . . . grief does dare us to love once again.” Once again, this year, I will risk falling in love with the bluebells.