Monday, March 5, 2018

Paper White Days

I'm guessing I do the naturalist's version of watching the paint dry:  I study the way light and humidity influence the colour and visual texture of tree bark and branches.  I love late winter afternoons when the low, golden sunlight inflames the otherwise grey branches at the tops of trees.  Or I take my time driving home at that point in the blue hour when trees and branches are the inky black of a Bernard Buffet streetscape.  In the dim light, you see only the larger branches, so that the trees make sense as they don't often during the day.  Their ramifying structure is clear, like a good argument or the simplified narrative of a life.  Of course, I love the hoarfrost.  I remember years ago seeing hoarfrost two inches thick on trees around Wascana Lake:  you could tell exactly which direction the wind had come from because you could see how the damp wind had, as it were, grown the crystals on top of one another.  The other side of the tree was bare.  Even the lightest hoarfrost can make the bare dogwoods and lilacs opaline.  On the sunny days we've had lately, you can actually see the different taupes and golds and ochres and greys and blacks and browns of tree bark, and you are drawn to the few leaves that still hang on the trees--the narrow greygreen oval of Russian Olives and a round ecru leaf belonging to a tree I cannot name.  If there's a bit of humidity on such days, everything seems doubly outlined; you can see the texture of bark and all the tree branches.  Some canny landscape architect had the sense to plant rows of trees--usually not the most creative thing to do--but as you drive past these down Wascana Parkway or through the park itself, you're aware of how a naked tree's shape is the core of its identity.

And then there are days like today when the sky is simply white, and, we hope, a prelude to snow.  On such days, the otherwise varied trunks and branches are simply greybrown.  Boredom is the mood of the day.  On principle, I'm not complaining.  After our dry summer, we need the moisture this snow will bring, and snow only comes out of a white sky.  We also need the cooler weather; the sea ice above Greenland....Well, there is no sea ice above Greenland.  Any time someone complains to me about how cold it is, I have only two words for them:  "sea ice."  The polar bears are getting, on average, three fewer weeks of sea ice each spring and summer that allow them to hunt.  The result is a declining population.

But as I look out my window, my principles are of no use.  It's an insubstantial world we're going to live in for the next couple of days.  The world looks like a blank page.

I like blank pages.  The blank page is a perfect metaphor for possibility, a place for something new to arise, a place for hope, for the belief that human creativity is a benevolent, honourable force in the world's cultures.  I'm trying to think of a single work of art that doesn't start as a blank page, and I can't.  Even the sculptor doubtless uses drawings to plan a work.  Music, that art that all other arts aspire to, begins as a score--even though it ends as an architecture of sound that gives way to other sounds as it fades.  I've never had writer's block ("Oh-ho, I'll bet she hasn't," I can hear colleagues, friends, and family saying.  "She always has far too much to say on any topic.") so I don't know how that fear plagues artists.  I get a scintilla of it when I can't remember the perfect word which I know I need to use but cannot find.

But I don't know what to do with days when an unspeaking sky is simply blank.  Such a sky seems indifferent to us.  And why wouldn't it be, given what we are doing to it?  It offers neither the cheer of sun nor the different cheer of rain or the aestheticizing beauty of falling snow that creates a world we only half see, as if we've shut our eyes half way.  On those days when the world it too much with us, a snowy day is a balm, a reminder that the world out there isn't everything.

The snow finally began to fall Saturday, so Sunday morning I went out into another blank sky to shovel, only to realize that my sense of blankness was not entirely accurate.  There were chickadees and sparrows.  The neighbour's wind chime began to peel in the rising wind. 

Now it's snowing again.  Bill has a huge pile of snow out in our back lane from shoveling away the snow from the garage.  I think we've got enough moisture to start spring.  But I've also discovered that the farther you look into the falling snow, the more slowly the flakes fall.

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