Colors that escape us.

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 15)


Gathering for a Saunter in the flannel woods. Hartman Reserve, Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith.)



Fields we saw

blooming with

so many different flowers,

frost-withered now

to a single hue.

(Saigyō Hōshi)


The wooded hills along the Cedar River were introspective. The sky was the color of white smoke that rose from a hot fire built on clean and cured elm. We gathered close to talk about sauntering, that distinctly Thoreauvian woods-walking that is deceptively simple but infinitely healing. Winter is good for this and for other contemplative work. The clean lines and contrasts that create luminous spaces are lent to quiet conversation and the seasons of spirit that easily escape us in more verdant times.

But this morning was different. It was the soft underbelly of the season, not a chrystalline day that sharpens the senses. A coming blizzard made a sky that was at once dull and bright and the forest reflected the dim light inward. The stones in the brook looked like oiled leather. The forest floor was brightly dull as well, a russet-brown and orange rustle that betrayed the walker against otherwise quiet woods. The whole morning was subtle and subdued, soft, beautiful but weary of winter, unseasonably warm and void of snow. The woodland palette, heavy on grays and browns, was woven into a faded flannel.

Our eyes adjusted as we left the fire and wended our way into a watercolor painting with trees drawn in charcoal and chalk and smudged with fingers. Gray-green lichens and some others  the color of old pumpkin and warm butter splotched trunks both upright and fallen. Brown creepers revealed the nature of bark as the they pecked for hidden morsels; we drew close to see topographies of canyons and flats. Nuthatches, chickadees, and woodpeckers too, flitted and trapezed through naked canopies, drawing our eyes to the beacon-red buds of basswood and those of sulphur on hickory.

We hunkered close to a prostrate basswood, full of fungi.  We ran our cold fingertips across the  slightly sticky and bright green algae that frosted the tops of turkey-tails. That log presented to us a winter bouquet of wood ears, brown witches butter, artist’s conks, sheet-fungi and jellies, each with a Linnaean name that mostly escaped us. But something more escaped that hollow trunk barely inches from our hovering faces. Silently but suddenly, a missile with a flaming tail was fired out the hollow end.

The projectile made an orange-red stripe on the duff of cast-off autumn. The fat and fluff of vulpine pelage ignited the russets of oak leaves and by contrast, made the grays and steel of lichens greener and the greens of mosses brighter. Commotion ensued with the alarms of squirrels and crows. Frozen deer twitched, then fled. Nature was transfigured, her secrets revealed, and her true colors exposed. Just as suddenly, the fox disappeared and the bright surge faded along with our laughter. We returned to our saunter, and nature to her contemplations and the sameness of the day.