One common complaint about winter on the Cape is that all the colors are beyond drab and dull. I’ll admit I’ve been a victim of this thinking, especially as I drove around subdivisions and clusters of houses that only landscape for spring and summer, with few native plantings or evergreens. Perhaps they are away for the winter. All I know is their places look pretty blah at this time of year.
Nature herself displays plenty of color even in the middle of winter, so it’s not her fault if a neighborhood is looking a bit lackluster and dull. To enjoy the color, though, you have to step outside.
In the woods the rusty brown leaves add a warm-toned carpet beneath your feet. They also can add a satisfactory crunch as you step or skip through them. Here and there the brown is punctuated by bright green mosses, the darker green of the shiny leaved teaberries and the striped leaves of pipsissawa. Look for remaining red berries for bonus points.
The bark on the trees can be a smooth gray or a darker gray with brown undertones. There can be a variety of lichens, from a steely gray to a light, barely green type. Look up to see the hanging old man’s beard, another shade of green. Check big rocks for a bright yellow gold lichen. While looking up, take note of the bright blue sky, a blue somewhat different than that of a summer sky.
Go to the woods directly after a rain and you’ll see deeper, richer colors. The trees will be almost black with the wetness, the brown leaves a darker shade of umber rather than sienna.
Here on the Cape we are fortunate to have many evergreen plants and trees. There are the aforementioned ground plants, but look for the sheep’s laurel shrubs that hold their sage green leaves all through the winter. Holly is easy to find and identify, as is cedar. There is the ever-present pitch pine but also the tall, regal white pines. Each green is slightly different, as any frustrated landscape painter can attest. Squint a bit to enjoy the full spectrum of greens as you stand among them.
There is the beach, of course. The sand is a soft beige, almost gray now. The birds, too, are sporting more gray than glaring white. This helps them hide along the sand. The winter sea can be delightful, calm, raging or foreboding. Each mood has its own range of colors. There is a deep blue green, a steely gray, a stunning blue and a dark color that mixes all of them into a mysterious, somewhat ominous hue.
Clouds offer up a full array of grays, whites, lavenders, peaches and violets. Mix them up with the low light from a lazy sun and the color of the day for the sea and you may find yourself in a bit of a swoon.
Marshes and fields take on a faded ocher color overall, but a closer look will reveal bits of pale yellow, even pink, among the grasses. There are tones of sienna, umber and gray and an occasional evergreen will add a bit of pop to the visual scene as well.
The colors of winter are more subtle and subdued, that is true. But, for me, they offer a bit of rest for my eyes as well as my soul. One can only take so much of lush abundance, after all. Too much and it becomes as accepted and taken for granted as anything overdone. We begin to ignore it, not notice it. Winter, however, keeps us on our toes. We must look a little harder, enjoy the smaller, less obvious things.
In summer the showy birds grab our attention. Winter birds wear more modest attire. We learn to appreciate the shades of black and gray, of slate blues and the toned-down red of cardinals. There are no bright yellows or oranges in winter, so we appreciate the lovely olives and rusty browns instead.
The colors of winter give us some perspective, a chance to slow down and appreciate a palette that is calming and soothing. There is peace in the winter landscape, a lovely gift if we choose to see it that way. The chaos of spring isn’t too far away. For now, let’s be grateful for the quiet.
Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at www.capecodartandnature.com.