Magazine | February 15, 2016, Issue

What Brown Can Do for You

When the snow fails, the world turns brown. Brown is the base paint, the color of the blank slate.

Things that were bright before winter began vanish, change, or dim. For a little while, red berries decorate the wiry arms of bushes like Christmas lights. But in time even the unpalatable holly berries are consumed. Leaves that were electrified by frost now bleach to the color of the ground they have embraced. Grass is still green, but what a sickly shade of it: In grade school we learned that green was the product of blue and yellow; this looks like the wedding of ice and resentment. Weeds simply bid chlorophyll goodbye, standing in ditches and fields like devils’ toothpicks.

When other colors flee or fade, brown remains. Bark seems to be everywhere. Look down, it’s on roots and toppled trunks; look up, it’s on twigs; look sharp or it’s a twig! in your face. Some bark is smooth as skin; some is blighted as a skin rash; ash trees show pale splotches where the emerald ash borer has taken up deadly residence. Where the limb of a tree has fallen off, the bark circles the amputation like a mouth; the bark on a hickory can curl as delicately as the scrolls on an 18th-century cabinet. Before cheap paper, people wrote on bark; some bark looks as if it’s been written on by the tree itself. What is in the bark headlines? Powerball numbers? Trump vs. Cruz? Trees have other concerns.

The most common color on wooden houses in my part of the world is white: not New England ye olde white, but Benjamin Moore from the hardware store white. But wooden houses that aren’t painted are brown. That goes double for outbuildings — garages, sheds, any place for stuff you can’t store someplace else but don’t want sitting out in the rain. Barns start red, then they darken, then the paint flakes away, then the slats come apart, then the barn falls. Telephone poles, those dead conscripted trees, are brown. There are a lot of them; we’re not all wireless yet.

Cars are our chariots, our astral bodies, our objects of desire. Because we want them to shine, no one, since the demise of the woodie, has ever ordered a brown car. But over the course of even a mild winter, what with salt and splash and fleck, every car acquires a dirty skirt of brown. They drive along, beyond shame, looking like dogs that have been out to play or the reputations of sexting teenagers. We wait for a clear day to take them to the car wash, then the first flurry or drizzle brings the brown back. When a car runs over a creature, it too gravitates toward brown. There is blood with the fur, but come back later in the day, or the next day, and the roadkill palette will have evened out.

So the world isn’t all hummingbirds, northern lights, and Academy Awards. Drill down and there is a lot of brown. What can you see from the brown level that you might otherwise miss?

I mentioned bark, but I did not say enough about trees. Don’t lose sight of them, for the bark or for the forest. Apart from cruises, I have probably seen trees every day of my life; I grew up in a suburb and there is a slice of park visible from my 14th-floor apartment window now. But not until I got a house in the woods did it occur to me that a naked tree is like a lung. Trunk and limbs are pulmonary arteries, branches and twigs are bronchi. In the tree/lung there is a constant commerce of vital material from the tips to the core and back. Trees typify a larger pattern. Parmenides thought the universe was one thing, and that that thing was a sphere. Maybe he was right; but lots of things in the universe are not spherical and self-contained, but expansive and particularizing, drawing out, pulling back: trees, lungs, hands, feet, the IRS.

Once I saw that a tree is a lung, I began to see each tree — that is, any one I happened to consider — as an individual. These here are fighting for light (and among them, these are losing). That one must have gotten bent in a heavy winter. That one picked a bad place to grow — wet, rocky soil. This one, ahem, has another tree growing out of its side (they said David Bowie was strange). A lot of this gets hidden by the glorious distraction of leaves, but the brown season makes it evident. Woods become populous; the edge of a yard is a subway platform at rush hour, a hillside can look like a mob.

The other thing you see in the brown season is the lay of the land. My house is in foothills. The road to it goes up and down, mostly up. That is evident to the meanest understanding. I have driven it so often that I can replay the windings in my head. But in the brown season your angle of vision expands. You get glimpses, sometimes vistas off to the sides. That roadside trickle — so slight that it exists only in seasons that are cool and damp — reappears (there must be a culvert) over here, and runs away down there. This stream, a few hundred yards on and several dozen down, must be where it ends up.

Along with a view of the land, you get a view of the opportunities and problems that other men have had with it. Who would put a herd of cows up here? There are the cows; once there must have been more of them, for there are unused barns in nearby fields. It must have been — must still be — a trek to get milk to market. Or are they now being bred to be sold to more efficient farms?

Brown is bare, but solid. You can stand on it.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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