Tiny Beautiful Wild Things

In 1995, the writer Cheryl Strayed hiked a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, aged twenty-six, alone. Four years earlier, Strayed’s mother had died of cancer at forty-five, just seven weeks after her diagnosis. The young woman’s life, marriage, and family fell apart in the wake of her sudden loss, and she became embroiled in heroin.

When Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, she did it – she said – in the hope that it would be her way back to being the woman her mother had raised her to be, rather than the woman she had become. And so she walked a thousand miles across the deserts and mountains of California and the forests of Oregon, past rattlesnakes and bears and cougar scat. In the desert, she rubbed sage between her hands and inhaled the scent, bright and fresh, as her mother had taught her, for energy.

Later, she became a writer. She wrote a memoir about her hike, called Wild, that topped worldwide bestseller lists in 2012 and was turned into an Oscar-nominated film. She also wrote a weekly column for the online magazine The Rumpus. In one of these, she wrote about what she would say to her twenty-something self, if she could speak to her now. She said:

‘One hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin, you will be riding the bus and thinking [how worthless] you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.’

I thought about Strayed’s words when I read, some days ago, about the ‘rebel botanists’ who are using street graffiti to label the wild flowers growing in the cracks of streets, paths, and walls across Europe. They scrawl chalk with arrows to alert passersby to the daisies and the herb Robert, the scarlet pimpernel and the wild fennel – these tiny beautiful things that we don’t usually see.

I smiled when I read this, because a couple of weeks ago, on my daily walk in local woodland, amidst the usual green of dock and nettle I glimpsed something else: a pale green spike, like the hood of an elf, or the flame of a candle. When I saw it, I realised that the whole woodland floor was carpeted with pale green spikes. They were everywhere, rising out of the natural compost, glowing in the sunlight. I had walked through the wood every day for a week, and not noticed. These were wild arum lilies, also known as lords and ladies; the wild cousins of popular houseplants and the majestic titan arum of Indonesia. I love the arum lily, common as it is here in ditches and woodland, because its ethereal green flowers are hidden in plain sight. You don’t see them – and then suddenly you do, and you realise that, like magic, they are everywhere.

It could be woodland; it could be pavements (183 different plants, Sheffield); it could be walls (186 species, Cambridge). So many! Why didn’t I spot the arum lilies? Why do we not see the wild pansies in the sandy corner of a sun-baked wall? (They really are stunning, when you find one.)

Sometimes we look past the tiny beautiful things because we are busy; we are en route somewhere else. Perhaps we feel, as Strayed did, that we don’t deserve them because of our own personal failings. Or perhaps it feels, at this moment in our life, as if no small thing could be meaningful, given the magnitude of our suffering. In the time of coronavirus, perhaps we feel the burden of others’ sorrow so greatly that we feel guilty for enjoying a wild poppy. We have any number of ways to discount tiny beautiful things. In the case of wild flowers, we call them ‘weeds’, untidy disruptors of concrete and clean lines. But what else do we discount, if we turn away from what is small and beautiful? The tiny act of kindness, the smile, the purple balloon.

What if a tiny beautiful thing is not just one thing; what if, when you catch sight of it, you realise that it is all around; what if someone, somewhere, is drawing a chalk sign that says, let’s look at this together; and what if for every tiny beautiful arum lily that you see, there is a giant arum lily growing, silent and majestic, in the rainforests in Indonesia?

When we look at the world a different way, it speaks to us anew. William Blake saw ‘A world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.’ When we look for the tiny beautiful things, we see what is large, and more beautiful. We are brought back to ourselves, and to each other.

This week, look for the tiny beautiful things. They may be wildflowers or birdsong. They may be your neighbours’ smiles across the road each Thursday, clapping for carers. The green of a tree. The colour of a favourite piece of pottery. A message from a beloved friend. A pile of really good books. The smell of flapjacks, made from oats at the back of the store cupboard, best before August 2016; or maybe a piece of chocolate, with this guided chocolate meditation.

Allow yourself to receive these. Dwell in them, soak them up. They are just as real as anything else that is hard and sad. But what we pay attention to matters, and if we don’t pay attention to the tiny beautiful things, we miss the answering hum of the world and its solace, amidst the sadness.