One of my Christmas gifts this year was a week with dazzling white winter on all horizons as I visited family in my childhood home of Rochester, N.Y. There, any arriving snow is amplified by an exhilarating geographical pump known as the "lake effect." Then began the long drive back to Indiana. My son and I watched through the windows as the snow gradually diminished with the miles, and quiet earthen hues began to spot, then blotch, then totally reclaim the landscape. Goodbye sledding, clean boots, and the white-spangled air of the north. Back to the browns, tans, and ochres of a more southerly winter.
Much as I love snow, there is something compelling about a wintry landscape that is bare of it - or of much else. After the prodigal green lushness of summer and the wild palette of autumn, winter's dormancy lies on the land with a quiet homeliness that seems just what we all need.
An all-night rain fell on our farm the Sunday night before New Year's. Next morning, after feeding the cows, I pulled on gum boots and took the dogs on a walk about our 80 acres as a kind of goodbye to the old year. True, the landscape was wet and muted compared with upstate New York's snowed-in brightness - the latter still visible when I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, though, the brown study around me perfectly matched my mood - both restful and anticipatory.
No two browns were alike, and the gently contrasting hues playing along the farm's bare, familiar contours seemed suddenly beautiful: the green-flecked browns of the dormant grasses and hedgerows; the coppery tones of the backing woods where withered leaves clung like tattered coats to the beech trees; the dappled brown blanket of the deeply littered forest floor; and the tan and tawny movements of the cows, milling about the barnlot.
A wonderfully fragrant quality of the palest brown inhabits a hay bale, emerging bright and golden in the racks when the twine is cut for morning feeding. The sun, as it rises, nudges out the red brown of the barn siding, the iridescent yellow browns of the stretching hens, the auburn and ebony highlights in our Percheron's coat, and the cedary brown of the farmhouse's shingled roof, snug and welcoming under the wisps of wood smoke from the chimney.
If it sounds as if I'm trying to reconcile myself to a winter without a lot of snow, it's because I am. But in the process of feeding the cows that Monday and on that subsequent tramp about the farm, I realized how well I've done just that. Stopping to look about me, it was not the lack of white I saw, but the endlessly varied beauty of the browns defining my home - down to the upraised, questioning eyes of my dogs, wondering why we'd paused.