While photos have the ability to make almost anything look beautiful, the corollary is that there is beauty to be found in most everything.
Of course some things may be more obviously beautiful than others, but the trick to recognizing beauty is in allowing yourself to feel it—the calm in the morning before the sky has fully brightened, the smile that stretches across your lips when you notice that the cherry trees have precociously started blooming though it’s not yet the end of February.
This time last year I couldn’t wait for spring to come. It was my first winter, by way of which I mean that as a California girl, I grew up spoiled with full blooms in February and year-round flora. I got through the cold all right, kept warm most of the time by my stylish wool coat and in the times I wasn’t, knowing I’d live. That experience of my first winter, joined with my newly acquired skill of artfully wrapping a scarf, turned out to be quite useful when this year I ended up in DC, a city in urban design and architecture Paris’ (arguably less classically beautiful) twin.
By mid-February I was growing depressed by the barren limbs of the trees and feeling resentfully undercompensated in snow. I hadn’t learned to appreciate the quiet of the city, the way my breaths froze in air and time. But this absence of liveliness made it such that when the flowers did start to bloom, it was exquisite—a slow reprise that, having all but disappeared, was all the more anticipated.
The flowers bloomed slowly and in turns. For weeks I passed buds on my walk to school, and though day after day they did not seem to grow, in a few weeks’ time they had blossomed. The first to do so were the cherry blossoms; then it was the wildflowers and tulips, and finally the magnolias.
On the first of May, the florist above which I lived sold sprigs of muguet de mai, or Lily of the Valley, to give to close friends and family, as is the custom.
In Paris, the magnolias were the first to bloom. Having visited the third weekend in March, I’ve yet to truly see Paris in the springtime, but the magnolias in the Jardin du Palais Royal were spectacular, their thick pink petals reaching up into an overcast sky.
Only the bravest of cherry trees near the Petit Palais had blossomed. The Grand Palais, however, had opened a temporary exhibition called, appositely, “Jardins,” which I adored: analog photography and silver bromide gelatin prints, cut paper, watercolors of crumpled irises with edges like eyelash lace. My favorite work was one of two botanical drawings from Conrad Gessner, Orlaya grandiflora, a sketch of the white lace flower from between 1555 and 1565.
Last year taught me to find beauty all around. Perhaps it was in part my environment that taught me this—Europe, a continent of history, where an old beauty is literally in the details of its palaces, its opera houses, its bridges, an homage to opulence. This year I look forward to the blooming of the cherry blossoms—to the Yoshinos and peony-like Kwanzans, with their layers of tulle, to the paper flowers of ancient Sakura—to the anticipation.
In the final space of “Jardins,” René Magritte’s Le Grand Style (1951) took a room to itself, depicting a dark stalk growing upwards into a star-filled sky, planting there a strange flower: Earth, iridescent like the moon. This year I will appreciate spring as it comes, one of the gentle workings of the Earth.