Wednesday, January 19, 2011


or A Theme and Variations

Truth be told, by this time of year we are growing weary of the color brown.  Our native landscape has enough fluff, tufts, stalks, and bristles that its textures are wonderfully rich, but the palette is all but monochrome.  It is a theme (brown) and variations (golden brown, bronze, buff, khaki, sepia, fawn, ecru, camel, tan, chestnut, cinnamon, tawny, beige...), and the problem with a theme and variations is that it tends to get predictable after a while.

I was thinking about that while looking through some photographs I took at the Rio Grande Nature Center here in town over the Martin Luther King holiday.  The photos struck me as drab and uninspired, as if I had left the salt out of them.  Except for the gorgeous New Mexico sky, all the colors are—not to put too fine a point on it—brown.  Shades of brown, sure; variations of brown, yes; but when all is said and done, they are the same old brown, repeated from the top one more time.

When I was actually standing at the wetlands' edge, though, or meandering through the bosque, or kneeling at the river bank to dangle a stick in the water, the experience was anything but drab and uninspired.  The colors were just as brown, but they weren't flat and two-dimensional.  Admittedly, I have a bad habit of taking pictures in the middle of the day, rather than at sunrise or sunset when the light is kinder, and a photograph can't possibly capture the purr of the sandhill cranes from the cornfield, or the irritated exclamations of ducks, or the clatter of wind in the dried cottonwood leaves—all the things that make an experience a feast.  But I think what's really missing is the shimmer.

Light is another kind of theme and variations here—so many things reflect or refract it.  It shimmers, gleams, glows, flashes, sparkles, glints, glitters, glares, dances, flickers, twinkles, scintillates... In winter it plays a counterpoint with the variations on brown in ways that make all those tawny colors come alive.  The undersides of the cottonwood leaves twinkle in the sunshine on a windy day, the fallen ones gleam on the path through the bosque.  The faint whiff of dust in the air shimmers like mist; blowing sand sparkles in a gust of wind.  Dried seed heads and grasses glow from the bosque floor, their tips haloed with light.  It's that shimmer that I don't know how to capture.

The photo of the bench comes close, and maybe the one of the dried grasses among the cottonwoods—the sense of an ambient glow as well as directional sunlight.  But the look of wintery deadness, the brown in them, still predominates in a way I don't remember  it doing.

Of course, the problem may well be that sometimes a beautiful day shimmers even more in memory than it did in reality...


  1. It can be difficult to photograph memory and mood. Maybe that's the shimmer of which you speak?

    The predominate color here is WHITE. And not nearly enough variations of it. It is pretty to watch it snow from the relative comfort of the living room, but I haven't seen the grass in the lawn for nearly two months because it has been snow upon snow upon snow. And after awhile, the four foot high piles left by the plows start to turn black from vehicle exhaust. Nothing attractive to find in that.

    Guess all I can do right now is enjoy the bunny tracks across the porch and deck and hope to catch a glimpse of the actual rabbits from time to time. Only two more months (or three) before the white melts away, lol.

  2. Your pictures are as lovely as your writing.

  3. Your last sentence is oh-so true... Heartstrings never pull for the present, only for the past. I miss NM deeply this time of year, though I am sure it is warmer in my memory than real life. Your writing and photos both call up the world of the bosque beautifully.

  4. klbrowser--Yes, memory and mood. You don't always realize how much of what you're "seeing" is actually all the other things that go into making a nice day.

    When I lived in VT I remember thinking that the dirty old snow wasn't actually going to melt--it was going to have to decompose. When you suspect snow of having a half-life it's pretty bad... Have you ever set up a bird-feeder? I used to love watching the cardinals and blue jays and such for the splash of color during the winter.

    Deena--Bless you. It's so lovely to have you here!

    Zoe--It's funny how time seems either to sweeten or sour a memory. Glad yours of NM are sweet ones. If you were in full sunshine and wearing all black, it would probably be as warm as your memories. I hope the snowstorm heading your way is at least a beautiful one!