Seeing Brown

“Everything’s brown.”  I heard my own mind saying it, repeating what I’ve heard from others innumerable times since childhood.  The phrase comes naturally enough to those who live with midwestern winters. Brown trees, brown stubs of grass, lots of brown brick buildings.  Add a gray sky, which is pretty common in January and February, and you’ll hear it more.

But, as I sat in the back seat of a Lyft crawling along the freeway on the morning I left Chicago, my eyes opened and declared that everything is not brown, and brown is not one thing.  Pay attention, I was told, and suddenly could discern at least eight types of “brown” brick, ranging from deep almost-red to beige, from a hundred years old to — I’m guessing — twenty years young.  Add the multiplicity of wooden browns and a rare “brownstone,” and the scene became a panoply of colors.

Trees were more difficult at this range, as they stretched up before the sky and their different browns faded against the background of clouds lightly dripping rain. Still, as we passed them, I could make out subtle differences among light and dark and medium brown trunks. In my own garden, I remembered, I could tell just by a shade of color the branches that were dead and needed pruning, from those that would blossom again in spring. Sure enough, when I touched them they were brittle and yielded quickly to a snip.

Grass in the midwestern winter seems uniform but, like the desert undergrowth, yields its secrets to close inspection. It takes only a couple of days thaw, earth softening and sun shining, temperatures still barely reaching 40 degrees fahrenheit, before tiny green tips test the new environment. Covered by snow and ice again, they retreat, but not for long.  And grass rarely darkens completely. Compared to the trees, it can look almost yellow, but it lacks its glisten which would tell us that dormancy is ending.

Brown is about sleep and rest, and the long winters, in a town that loves business, busy-ness, and bustle, unnerve us.   We feel we have overslept, that sluggishness is overtaking the world.  Our pulse of energy is not reflected in our environment, we miss the resonance and feel “grumpy.”  When will winter be over?

Perhaps brown, the color of yielding into earth, makes us think of death, also bringing ancient echoes of unease. Brown can become a pressure, a weight.  Like our ancestors beyond memory, we look around the corner for warmth, brightness, signs of life to reassure us:  we’re not just going “downhill from here.”

But none of that is brown’s fault. Listen to brown once in a while, it has its own song.