Nature infuses our imaginations, our dreams, our poets, artists, folklore, religions and even our national symbols with its potency. Even when it seems to be banished to the periphery, nature actually undergirds us all.
In times of national crises or celebration, national symbols are harnessed in service to idealized versions of nationhood and citizenship, for better or worse, to resonate or alienate. Very many national symbols draw their iconography from nature.
Although not an official symbol, in South Africa in the early 1990s, the rainbow was adopted as a symbol of unity in diversity. South Africa’s first democratic elections took place in 1994. The idea of the ‘rainbow nation’ was first coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and was taken up by others, including the first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. And since then it has been adopted as an uplifting vision of cooperation and nation building, and even utilised by big business promoting buy South Africa campaigns.
Unfortunately, such hopeful visions have not delivered any real or fundamental change. The ‘rainbow nation’ is no longer an overarching narrative of promise. In his article titled ‘Ours is a country in desperate need of a better national myth’, Malibongwe Tyilo (2021) discusses symbols such as the rainbow, and reflects that alongside meaningful and fundamental changes that address the deep-rooted inequalities and challenges facing us, “we’re a country in need of better national myths to hold on to, to be inspired and motivated by, in order that we may rebuild, even as everything around us burns” (Tyilo, 2021).
A rainbow arches over the arid landscape of the Richtersveld National Park near the Gariep River on the border with Namibia. This photo is scanned from a print of a photo I took in June, 2002
Perhaps one of the best known uses of the rainbow as a symbol is the rainbow flag that celebrates gay pride and LGBT pride and identity. This symbol has endured since it was first created in San Francisco in 1978.
The rainbow bridge (in the photo above) was snapped by my husband using his phone while travelling an unfamiliar road through a nearby suburb. I don’t know the history behind the railway bridge being painted in rainbow colours, but it is an effectively cheering sight.
A better known rainbow bridge is the natural rock arch named Rainbow Bridge that occurs in Utah in the U.S. The arch stands 290 feet/88 meters tall and 270 feet/83 meters wide. The bridge is among other sites in the area that are sacred and of religious significance to Native Americans – many of these sites have been lost under the waters of the artificially created reservoir known as Lake Powell, which encroaches to the base of the Rainbow Bridge arch. For some of the controversies relating to the arch and other sacred sites – including tourism and the inundation of sites by the lake – see here and here.
USA: Rainbow Bridge National Monument on the banks of Lake Powell in Utah.
Photo credit: W. Bulach. Picture taken in 1995. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:00_586_Rainbow_Bridge_(Regenbogenbr%C3%BCcke)_National_Monument,_Utah,_USA.jpg
I have not heard it widely used here, but the concept of a ‘rainbow bridge’ was developed to comfort people mourning the loss of beloved pets. After death, cherished animals go to a place this side of heaven, waiting to be reunited with their owners. After their own death, owners are reunited with their pets so they may cross the rainbow bridge together as they enter heaven (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_Bridge_%28pets%29).
For myself, the phrase ‘rainbow bridge’ brings to mind a compilation record of Jimi Hendrix recordings that was released in 1971, after his death in 1970. (This was the second posthumous album that was released.)
Kind of closing a circle, Hendrix’s blues-based song “Hear My Train a Comin’”, which appears on the Rainbow Bridge album, fits with the rainbow-painted railway bridge in the photo. The version of the song on the album was recorded live on May 30, 1970, at the Berkeley Community Theatre in California. Hendrix was accompanied by Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums.
But I thought I’d rather link to Hendrix playing an impromptu solo acoustic version on a 12-string guitar while posing for a publicity photo shoot in London in 1967.
Rainbow after a storm. Mabuasehube, Botswana, March 2014
Carey Jr, Harold. 2013. Rainbow Bridge, Utah – Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí. Navaho People, 21 January. http://navajopeople.org/blog/rainbow-bridge-utah-tsenaa-naniahi/
Corbin, Amy. 2001/2004. Rainbow Bridge. Sacred Land Film Project. https://sacredland.org/rainbow-bridge-united-states/
Tyilo, Malibongwe. 2021. Ours is a country in desperate need of a better national myth. Maverick Life, 13 July 2021. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-07-13-no-country-for-old-myths/
Wikipedia. 2021. Rainbow Bridge (pets). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_Bridge_%28pets%29
Posted by Carol