Of all colours, brown is the most satisfying. Mary Webb
Before my Pagan journey began, for many years I hated the descent into winter; as life retreated and the darkness and cold encroached, my gloominess increased. Pathologically blinkered against the beauty of winter for so long, I remember the change as a kind of road to Damascus moment, and the lightning bolt that struck was not electric blue or dazzling white but good old dependable brown.
I had once called brown ‘boring’, an absolutely no thrills colour. Maybe as we get older, flashiness grates and we yearn for subtlety, the spectrum of our appreciation widening. Or maybe, life cannot bare anyone missing out on the full extent of its beauty and so gives us a swift but sharp poke when we succumb to ignorance.
When I started to really see winter, I saw brown as if for the first time. Suddenly I was seized by the inadequacy of the word. How could there be only one quiet syllable for what appeared to be countless shades? It started with dying bracken; I couldn’t stop noticing it – the warmth and depth of the colours that networked the lanes and fields, covering woodland floors. Then it was the ploughed soil itself, the mud that tenaciously clung to my boots as if to say ‘notice me!’. Soon every brown became a focus for my fascination, the contrasting tones rich and exotic to my newly educated eye.
I came also to appreciate how brown anchors the other colours of winter, giving our eye a more restful contrast to vivid sunsets, and yet strangely warming and energizing under the weight of grey cloud. In winter’s wet, earthy perfume, it is the base note that gives body and substance. Brown roots and grounds us, drawing our focus to that place of the dormant seed within; a colour of rest and patience and yet also the steady pulse – muted but indomitable – beneath winter’s still surface.
Just recently, we were driving through the valley at the base of Chillerton Down, here on the Isle of Wight. As the road climbed southward, the setting sun crowned the downs. Small clouds passed swiftly over the rim of the hill, giving the sun a gauzy, cinematic light. The sky was vivid with the colours of sunset, the pale crescent of the new moon sharpening its outline as the sun descended. The browns in the fields, hedgerows and trees – not to be outdone – glowed burgundy.
The turning leaves never disappoint. It is easy to be swayed by the intensity of beech’s coppery orange – beech is one of my favourites throughout any season. And yet it has been the oak and its more subtle browning that has filled me with pleasure in recent years. Oak courageously holds onto its green longest; horse chestnut usually the most eager to transform. Oak is measured and takes its time. The colour brown knows and appreciates these qualities and so blesses this tree with one of its nicest shades.
And there is brown in me too – nature inside and out – my hair, the freckles on my skin, the birthmark on the back of my knee, even tiny flecks of it around my pupils. The words of Mary Webb speak well of brown: It is the deep, fertile tint of the earth itself; it lies hidden beneath every field and garden; it is the garment of multitudes of earth’s children, from the mouse to the eagle…It is dim with antiquity, full of the magic that lurks within reality…There is that in brown which surely speaks to all who are ever born into the world.