On Rainbows

It was October half term, we were on the West coast of Ireland, and for the past five days the wind and rain had taken it in turns to try and keep us indoors.  As tempting as a week by the log fire playing board games and reading books was, our parents were determined that, having driven all that way, we were not going to miss out on the famous Irish coastal landscape.

I have glorious snapshots of memories from that week.  Climbing up a hill into a headwind so strong that we were practically crawling by the time we reached the top, then running back down full of euphoria and terror as the wind threatened to lift us off the ground.  Standing on the harbour wall as the waves rolled in from the Atlantic and crashed against the rocks with a force that seemed to shake the earth beneath our feet.  And then there was the rainbow.

watercolour of a rainbow breaking through clouds
Original artwork by Helen Gallagher

It was the first clear day we had seen all week and, of course, it came just as we were packing up ready to head home. We loaded everything into the car and gazed wistfully up at the sky which was now a strange shade of grey that the locals apparently called ‘blue’!  We set off down the lane, turned left at the bottom of the hill onto the main road and there in front of us, tumbling out of the hillside and splashing into the ocean, was the biggest, brightest, double rainbow I have ever seen.  It was a spectacular sight and it’s a memory which has stayed with me all these years later.

Scientifically speaking rainbows are ‘atmospheric optical phenomena’ which occur in a well defined set of circumstances.  The sun has to be at between 0° and 42° above the horizon, there has to be rain in the air but also no cloud cover to block the sunlight, and the observer has to be facing in the right direction away from the sun.   They are simple things but rainbows, because of their beauty and ephemerality, carry so much more meaning for us than that.

Just about every culture in the world attaches some degree of significance to rainbows, most, though not all, positive.   For example rainbows are seen as a path between earth and heaven in Norse and Polynesian mythology, they point to a pot of gold in Irish folklore, they carry symbolism of wellbeing and equality in contemporary Western society, the Rainbow Serpent is an essential part of Aboriginal culture across Australia, and they are a reminder of God’s promise to Noah not to destroy the earth in Jewish, Christian and Islamic theology.

However a recent scientific study1 has found that climate change is having an effect on occurences of rainbows around the world.  As weather patterns change some places will see fewer rainbows, and others will see more.  This may seem like a trivial thing in comparison to many of the other consequences of the changing climate, but it’s a reminder that our actions don’t just have physical impacts, they can also have cultural, social, emotional, and spiritual impacts as well.

We can combat climate change in all sorts of ways – through changes to our lifestyle, how we spend or invest our money, how we vote, how we travel – and New Year’s resolutions can be a good opportunity to reflect on these.  But like any resolution they are more likely to stick if we make those choices not simply with our heads, but also with our hearts.  Perhaps, like Noah, the rainbow can also be a reminder to us of our own promise not to destroy the earth.

We never did find a pot of gold at the end of that particular rainbow, just a ferry back to Holyhead, but the real treasure was the image which was left imprinted in glorious technicolour in my memory.

Revd Richard Clarkson is Rector of five rural parishes in North Shropshire. He has degrees in Physics and Theology and has a Master’s dissertation on Nature Contemplation in the writing of Maximus the Confessor. He is a member of the Lichfield Diocese Environmental Group, a JRI director – and dad to three wild boys!