Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The color of waiting

These are the bitter weeks for the gardener, are they not? Winter lingers, spring dallies, and we wait for the garden to awaken and provide us with companionship.

I seem to spend a lot of time explaining to my students that the grasses and trees around us are not dead, but dormant. This is not a time of emptiness and loss on the prairie, but a time of waiting: for warmth, for light, for moisture, for the rest of the natural world to shuck winter's cloth and join in a cycle as old as Earth herself. We modern humans carry on as if there were no seasons; tucked away in our offices, our classrooms, our homes--most of us never have to slow our work down. We cook and clean, we work on our computers, we study our books, we tend our families. We have forgotten the art of long stillness. Meanwhile, the natural world abides.

But the prairie has evolved to wait for more than just a change of season; it can keep long stillness through years of drought, waiting for the first flush of rain. The surface can seem devoid of life one moment, and then full of life the next as it rushes to take advantage of what may be only the briefest of opportunities. The prairie is patient for water.

Prairie grasses can wait through fire, too. Their apical meristems, from which they send out new growth, lie beneath the surface, safely out of fire's reach, unlike the unfortunate tree, whose tender growth springs above ground, from the tips of branches. Fire thrives where it is dry and suffers where it is wet, so it and grass are both at home here. But the tree, who cannot wait for water, is swept from the prairie by fire, as is natural and right. We laud the tree for its flashy beauty, but it is grass that is clever. It is grass, plain and sturdy, that knows how to stay through hardship. It is grass that lives with fire.

To abide also means to endure, to stand without yielding, to hold to place--even through drought, even through fire. Waiting is not a passive act.

To be fair to my students, the prairie world in winter certainly can appear at first glance to be dreary and lifeless, and to hear them describe what they see, it would also seem that everything is just brown, brown, brown. But just as it is not dead, the prairie is also not merely "brown." I ask them to look at it again and name the colors they really see: yellow, gold, beige.

After years of living here, I can add a few others to the list: amber, russet, molasses, maize, buff, sage, cream, rust, pearl, butter, sienna. The prairie is also the color of late afternoon light, for which I have no name, though perhaps it should be called after that companion of grass, white fire.

The prairie is the color of waiting.


  1. I like that "The color of waiting." I just explained to my youngest that even the plants have to sleep.

  2. What a lovely essay Susan! gail

  3. Gorgeous! If this is the result of a sleepless night, bless your insomnia. (As long as it doesn't become chronic....) Thank you.

    Susan Tweit of the undigestible Typepad id

  4. Nice - you capture the feeling so perfectly.

  5. You write so beautifully, Susan! I loved your list of the real colors of winter where you are. I had a post a while back about how our winter's palette here in the Southeast is quite different than the standardized snow-shrouded landscapes that epitomize winter in North America. How wonderful to broaden my knowledge of the many color schemes of this continent in the dormant season.

  6. Grass is clever, especially if you view evolution as an adaptive improvement over what came before, since grass was one of the last plant families to appear. And where would the clever monkey be without his rice, wheat or corn?

  7. Wonderful!

    Years ago - when I worked as a naturalist - on winter hikes I would encourage people to stand quietly for a few moments and look around, to notice the colors of winter. It is more than white and green. The brilliant orange of witches butter (jelly fungus), the various shades of lichens, the variety of dried grasses and flower heads, flash of red from a woodpecker...

  8. This is excellent! I realized something similar a few years ago when November was getting to me, then I saw that there were a hundred different shades of not-green and not-flower-colours in the rural landscape. I don't fuss so much now...usually.

  9. Beautiful post Susan! It's such a good reminder for us, especially right now. I love grasses and I love prairies. Sometimes I think I like the look of prairies and grasses in winter more than any other time of year. It is indeed the color of waiting.

  10. The color of waiting, I love it! As being synesthete I live a life in colors. Synesthesia means that I see colors when I see words and numbers.I transform this in paintings of names and birthdays.

  11. Greetings, all. Sorry I haven't responded to your comments sooner--it's been a busy week at work.

    Darla--start 'em young!


    Susan--no, thank *you* for all your own wonderful writing. You and your husband are not far from my thoughts.

    Jill--How many times have we had this conversation on bike rides?

    Meredith--It would be fun to compare the palettes of different parts of the world.

    Les--grass is clever indeed.

    Wildknits--witches butter? That landscape up there is so foreign to me. Wish I could spend more time there with a fellow naturalist explaining it to me.

    Sherrie--You're welcome.

    Jodi--It is hard not to get discouraged this time of year, even when we take the time to really look at the natural world.

    Jean--I think I like them all year, but in winter they are especially pretty.

    Artist--that would be interesting to see!

  12. Susan,
    Have you considered submitting this for publication? It is spectacular. It is just what garderners need to feed their souls this time of year.

  13. Ant--No I hadn't thought of submitting it anywhere. I am thinking of expanding a few of my posts into short essays for a book about gardening, though. This may end up being one of them.

  14. In the summer, up close, the Smokie Mountains look green. When I was young, they were flat green and the most boring place to see in the world. I wished for flashy flowers or the gaudy leaves of Autumn. At some point, though, I noticed that under all the green you could see hints of the Fall color to come and marveled at the subtlety of it.

    My perspective has, clearly, shifted.

    I now need to add the prairie in winter to the list of places to see. Thank you.

  15. This weekend you asked me if I missed brown, living up here in NY. I said, "no," but hadn't read this yet. The winter here has taught me to wait (and to notice) more severely than in Texas, because the slowing was so radical to me, and hard. I love your images and message, and the core of it to me is that lost art of waiting. I learn it over and over.


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