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Wednesday, 30 December 2009 15:54

The colors of winter

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For my wife, Elizabeth, and me, winter doesn’t arrive until the first of each year. From now until spring is our finest season. She doesn’t have to keep her gallery-studio on the town square in Bryson City open all the time. And I don’t have to travel conducting workshops. We spend more time at our place west of town. Keeping the wood fires burning. Catching up with reading. Enjoying the way the pathway winds slowly downstream along the creek. Suddenly noticing a high ridge shimmering with light.

After summer’s haze and the muted tones of autumn, we’re confronted not with the gloom we tend to anticipate, but with a clarity that sharpens the senses. Some part of the effect, of course, is that there is less moisture in the air in winter. We do in reality see more clearly — so much so, that objects appear to be nearer. Have you ever noticed how much closer the mountains seem in winter? You could almost reach out and touch them. Come spring, they will recede.

In the same manner and perhaps due to the same causes, sounds become more clearly defined in winter. What are the characteristic sounds of this season? Paradoxically, they are the ones heard from a distance that seem to be nearby.

From a ridge overlooking our cove, there is a spot where I can sit in the pale early-morning sunlight beneath a rock ledge that provides shelter from the wind. If I shut my eyes, a rooster’s call or the roar of a distant chainsaw or a truck engine starting up seem to be occurring just yards away. Voices carry in the crisp air: snatches of distant conversations can be deciphered. From high overhead the strident cry of a red-tailed hawk pierces the air.

Perhaps the most characteristic sounds of winter are those created by the wind: the rustling movements of air passing through a field ... the monotonous scraping of tree limbs against one another. Or at times, you can hear a patch of icy woodlands roaring in the wind. The poet Robert Burns observed in one of his letters: “There is scarcely any earthly object gives me more — I do not know if I should call it pleasure — something which exalts me — something which enraptures me — than to walk in the sheltered side of a wood in a cloudy winter day, and hear the stormy wind howling among the trees, and raving over the plain. It is my best season of devotion.”

After a lifetime of working with paint, Elizabeth has a keen sense of the colors viewed in a natural landscape. For her, there is almost no pure white light — not even in winter.

“Look,” she will say, “at the lavender shadows on that far mountainside. And see how the clouds are reflecting the setting sun down into the valley.”

Scaled down to essentials, our earthly haven becomes more distinct, more exhilarating. It’s a time for seeing things as they are, for paying closer attention to the world about us while we can.

Happy New Year.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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