In fall there is the expected seasonal stained-glass pattern of autumn leaves, orange-and-red. There is rust. There is ochre – the bright and distracting display.
But there are so many other colors also which our habitual imaginations exclude. The successive freezes expose them like tiny hammers shattering the glass of tradition so that we can see the mechanics behind. When the garish leaves start falling away, the picturebook shorthand of potholders and coloring pages gives way to another and entirely more subtle spectrum.
There is a blue so deep and dark that it is almost the color of night sky: A velvet blue that absorbs light, barely admiting that it is not black. It is the color of desiccated berries, withered and concentrated as ink. It is the color of some kinds of toadstools and mold, particularly when damp, the blue-black sponge that grows over rot when constant wetness meets warm days and cool nights. It is the color of shadows at midnight under a new moon. They cannot be called black except by the lazy. They are deeper and richer than just black; they are an interstellar blue.
And there is magenta, so fiery and bright that it almost hurts the eyes on cold days, the crystals of water acting like prisms magnifying the pink so vibrantly that it rivals the stormcloud sky, a study in contrasts to that blue-black above. This color does not belong anywhere in the real world, and yet it is ubiquitous in three seasons here, in tiny stems and filaments only, so as not to overwhelm us. In fall it is most pronounced, by comparison to the duller world.
There is eggyolk, as distinct from ochre: The fresh color of yolks. It shows up in the last stubborn flowers blooming against the daily frosts, summoning insects for the last of their annual missions. Wildflowers have no scruples, nor time to dress better. It’s the color of sunrises through fog, too, when the sun is slightly overcast and comes to rise like soft goldenrod over the river.
There is a whole spectrum of seeming non-color in the duller world of fall, too, of neutrals so inexact that we can only describe them with examples instead of names: Bleached reed, and straw, old leaves, and taupe the color of mouse fur and owl wings, colors that are so nondescript as to become invisible, the colors of dry rot and pale earth, the color of old feathers lining last year’s nest, the shades of field rock whose tops are washed clean by rain and whose lower parts are set into the dry hard dirt like cabachons in the steely crown of bare winter.
These neutrals are the colors of death and decay, of bones and branches blanching in the autum light, but they are also for the same reason the colors of protection, as every spider and sparrow knows. They are the shades of camouflage so subtle that birth can be mistaken for the bodies of the dead. And in turn the predator hides in those neutral colors of the unremarkable, too.
The spider in the lead photo here rests splayed on a desiccated seedpod of okra, the split rails tracking her feet. Nothing to see here, just an old dried husk of former life, some stray whisps here and there. But look closer, and you see a fawn, or a rabbit, or chick, or serpent, or the wobbly spines of the hedgehog foraging under the leaves. These come in a thousand shades of brown-gray.
And finally around here there are two colors most dear to my heart: The mauve and the verdigris. The two together are like a Corot painting in this part of the world. It is no accident that he has become one of my favorite artists since moving to France.
The mauve is like seeing through time: The velvet underleaf of a magnolia, the nascent buds of a succulent, the pale dried petals of lavendar, the wash of watercolor in distant poplar groves as the leaves change not one at a time, but in fields and sections, like a tide, the pointillistic agglomeration of a tiny color in many places becoming a dominant dilute wash over all.
A set of copper-patina greens accompany the mauves – the verdigris. In fact this color is omnipresent in all seasons in this part of France, never far from the line of vision. It is the silver-green color of planetree bark. It is the color of dusty skeletons in the reliquaries. It is present in the sunrise sky in winter. It is present in the new wood in spring. But it never seems more at home than in fall, when it plays against the oranges and golds. As the world turns gray, gray becomes many-colored.
Fall is impulsive and dark and garish in turn, eternalized as a cyclical concept, but never actually pausing from change.
In that way the season mirrors exactly the process of growing up and outward into our human maturity, I think. As the wowing raiment of effort, calamity and success alike, fades, the tiny hammers, as it were, having done their work of demolition on the vanities, there comes to the fore a palimpsest of subtlety and enigma.
We can find mighty comfort among those tertiary background colors, where fauve birth and gray death together are busy coming and going, squeezing through the same back channels between more spectacular engagements.