Yesterday at dusk I took a break from life and sat at the intersection of Allen and Stanton Streets in the Lower East Side of New York and began to read Vita Sackville-West’s A Joy of Gardening. On cue, as I turned the page to the opening essay, “The beginnings of revival,” I witnessed a curious incident so full of irony.
In an effort to beautify the city, tremendously large planters have been situated in the Allen Street median along with some rather comfortable deep red benches and seats. Most of the planters contained generous amounts of yellow tulips, their blooms perfectly synchronized. The vibrant yellow complemented the green paint of the bicycle lanes on either side of the median, as well as the attractive red seating (yes, city gardening involves so much more than plants). A middle aged man walked across the street and suddenly stopped at the planter nearest me and quite self-consciously and methodically snatched a yellow tulip from the planter, even being so careful as to break the stem off at its base just above dirt line. As he turned, an elderly woman who was rushing to catch the bus across the street, bumped into him. She apologized, and he replied, “control yourself.”
Ah, what yellow compels us to do!
If divinity itself is responsible for the appearance of yellow in the early spring garden, then humankind is responsible for muddling the certitude of its cheer. “Nature’s first green is gold” (a variance of yellow, no?) so Frost mused, though many a gardener friend will be quick to point out that purple crocuses and white snowdrops appear well before the cheery daffodil. (Side note: most often in Delaware I see purple and white crocuses, but there are yellow crocuses: Crocus ancyrensis, C. chrysanthus, and C. falvus…which reminds me I never did plant those crocus bulbs I received spring 2009).
If blue anchors the sky in the garden, yellow anchors the sun. Spring yellows—crocuses, tulips, daffodils, narcissus, forsythia—greet and presage the abundance that awaits us. Summer yellows—yarrow, Coreopsis (pictured), Golden Ray Ligularia--both mellow us from heat-induced agitation and simultaneously refresh. Autumn yellows—the more ochre, deeper hued flowers such as rudbeckia, Helianthus (perennial sunflower), and various chrysanthemums, all suffused as it were with doses of with gold and orange—evoke the memories of spring and summer, and prepare us for the solemnity and austerity of the winter garden.
And so yellow may very well be the key to our revival—of the city, of the self, of the garden, of the mind. Yellow invites us to dig in the still cool spring soil. Yellow encourages us to take a break in the summer heat and enjoy the results of our labors. Yellow signals caution, yet yellow stimulates. Yes, yellow excites—and may even incite us to commit crimes (snatching flowers unaware of our criminality, all the while casting stones at others). Yellow, I am increasingly convinced, is the color of contradiction.
Yellow reminds us that though we may aspire to divinity, we are in the end only human, all too human.