Thursday, December 01, 2005

December's subtlety

October blows through New England like a hurricane of color, a gaudy extravaganza of yellow, orange and red. Gone. All gone.

Now we seek our color in flecks and dabs. The rosy cap of the russula mushroom hunkered under brown leaves. The yellow and crimson berries of the bittersweet. The flash of scarlet on the downy woodpecker. The red berries of the tiny, evergreen teaberry plant.

One of my favorite nature guides is Lauren Brown's Weeds in Winter. Nothing fancy, no glossy color plates, just delicate line drawings of the subtle apparatuses of thorns, burs, seed pods, calyces, bracts -- flowers undressed by winter, their hidden contrivances and secret stratagems made clear. This is nature for the fine-tipped pen, not the Kodacolor print. On a walk with Greg and Bailey the other day we found a rare little plant called blue curls. Only the paper-crisp, upturned bracts remain, like tiny flames. No summer blossom could be lovelier.

When autumn's Crayola riot fades, we turn our attention to the burrowings of insects, galls and cankers, abandoned bird nests, bracket fungi, tracks in mud and snow. In winter's black-and-white we hoard the gold of the kinglet's cap, the speckled pink of granite, blue shadows on snow. In winter, we really start to figure out what nature is all about. Hard work. October was easy.

(Weeds in Winter is out of print. I would guess that Brown's newer Wild Flowers and Winter Weeds is just as good.)