There is a stretch of the M1 motorway outside Belfast which comes dramatically to life in Spring. Every year in May I look forward to seeing the flowers. They announce the arrival of warm weather, and lift my spirits with the promise of open windows, holidays, summer clothes, and lengthening days.
Coming down the hill just past Dunmurry at this time of year the vista is spectacular. On either side of the road are dense, sloping woodlands. The colours are intense: the bright green tree buds opening against the latticed backdrop of the black branches, the white bursts of hawthorn, blackthorn, and prunus flowers. At the bottom of the hill the trees give way to small-fielded drumlins, and the motorway embankments are strewn with coconut-scented whin bushes. Their small, densely-bunched yellow flowers are so vivid it is almost painful to look at them. But the real treat is further on: clouds of yellow and white flowers growing in clusters on the central reservation, their sharp, clean, colour pure in contrast to the dull, dirty grey of the metal crash barrier. These flowers have significance: they are a testimony to the tenacity of life. Buffeted by the toxic, diesel-stained, wake of car transporters and airport coaches, they still unfailingly produce this annual display of proud, defiant beauty. The flowers embody hope; they flourish despite adversity.
In February, as I left Belfast on my way to Portadown, cones had been laid out on the carriageway. Speed restrictions were in force, and lanes were closed. Massive signs announced that work was due to be carried out on central barrier improvements for several weeks. By May the metal rails had been ripped out and were being replaced with concrete. A monstrous, many-wheeled machine squatted over the central reservation, relentlessly defecating the oblique wedges that made up the new, bureaucrat-approved, barrier. The soil that had nourished life was gone, sunk under a swathe of lunar grey.
I noticed with relief that the roadworks didn’t stretch far enough to threaten the flowers with obliteration. It seemed that the new barrier wasn’t going to go the whole length of the motorway. But my optimism was short-lived: in fact, the extent of the constructions didn’t matter. Within a few days a new threat was abroad; there was a financial crisis and boys needed jobs to do, however pointless. The destruction was brought by men in high-visibility jackets with spluttering 2-stroke strimmers. It took two of them a week to do their work. They slashed down every living thing in the centre and left a two-foot wide strip of yellowing stubble on the verge. The flowers were gone, left to rot on the ground when the wet weather arrived. The whins, growing further up the banks, were untouched.
On the other side of the Sprucefield junction I saw that one flower had escaped the cull, its solitary head poking out defiantly from between the metal barriers. Its strong roots spread untouched beneath the ground, and alone in its new post-apocalyptic surroundings it carried on, undeterred, with the act of living.