Contemplating the commonplace

Daffodils 2016

‘They’re really quite common aren’t they? I mean, you wouldn’t want them at your wedding.’

My daughter was not, as you might suppose, talking about some of her relatives. She was responding to my annual rhapsody on the humble daffodil. I have always loved daffodils—the way they herald the spring and appear on every patch of green almost overnight. And the scent of eastertide for me has always been the daffodil’s delicate perfume. However, my daughter, as you have heard, thinks otherwise. And so, I’m sure, do many others who view this spring flower as nothing more than a wildflower, a weed, not in the same class as those real flowers such as the rose, the dahlia or that piece of showbiz on a stick, the chrysanthemum. But have they ever looked at a daffodil—really looked?

When you ask young children to draw a flower, what they produce is closest either to the simple cup of petals that is the tulip or to the star of six petals and the trumpet of the daffodil. The relative complexity of the daffodil’s structure is not beyond the drawing hand of a five-year-old and it is perhaps this very early familiarity that breeds the later contempt from those such as my daughter. But, for me, the architecture of this flower is about beauty and sublime simplicity.

To buy a bunch of unpromising stalks from the supermarket and to place them in a vase of water and watch the flowers unwrap themselves over the succeeding days to become solar panels of petals surrounding deep trumpetted honey traps is one of the many little miracles that make up the world.

And I talk about daffodils as if they were all the same.   In fact, along every bank and pathway you will probably see many different manifestations of the same basic design—from subtle variations in colour and shade to more striking recombinations of shape, structure and habit.

The daffodil is, however, commonplace and its very ubiquity often makes it invisible to us. It is everywhere and therefore we see it nowhere. The same is true of much of the world around us. Sometimes we say we take things for granted, but that’s not quite the case. ‘To take for granted’ implies an active awareness of the thing in question and then a dismissal of its importance or relevance.     That’s not how it works with most of the commonplace things we ignore. There is nothing active except our oversight as we busy ourselves with lives that would benefit from taking the necessary moment or two to stop and stare.

In science, we spend a lot of time and effort trying to discover what is at the end of the microscope or the telescope or the endoscope, and while that is all fine and good, it would do us well to remember on occasion to lift our eyes and look around and catch sight of the commonplace. Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth, and for me it is also a time of reappraisal and reflection. We spring clean our homes and as we do, we should also spring clean our minds. While we clear the back bedroom or the garage, black-bagging the detritus and weighing up whether to keep this or dump that, we should consider our thoughts. There is also the clutter of obsolete ideas, notions with parts missing and opinions that not even the charity shop will take. We need to clear away the old so that we can create the new and refurnish our mental lives. But how?

Breathe the still chilled air of April and notice the sharp shadows of the branches in the morning sunshine. Wonder at the life force bursting from every lime green bud and the urgency of the songbird gathering her supplies. And look closely at the daffodils. Recognise that Spring is all around you but also that it is within you too. You are lucky enough to be living in this swirl of renewal and, if you choose, you can be touched by it too.

Take stock, look around you, consider what’s next and go find a daffodil to smell.

© Allan Gaw 2016


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Testing the Waters

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What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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