As we drove north toward Philadelphia the other day, descending out of the Virginia highlands, I found myself thinking about the beauty of the winter landscape. Many say winter is dull, bland, without beauty, except perhaps right after a snow blankets the world in white, or an ice storm turns the trees to crackling diamonds. But even without snow, I find it quite beautiful, in a quiet way.
I love the dove-brown lace of branches against a sterling velvet sky on a winter’s day, or the black lace of trees silhouetted against the flame of sunset or vivid ink. I love the low light that bathes the landscape in a warmth belying the cold. How many shades of brown and gray, wheat and saddle-tan, black and silver can you see? Setting them off are the deep, shadowy greens of pine and cedar and the bright white of birches.
And there is texture, so much texture. Distant trees look like feathery balls of down, soft shades of gray and brown. Without a dressing of leaves, rough bark takes the stage. Every branch and twig and trunk, every fallen tree, weave together a rough fabric whose warp and weft are filled in with crisp, brown leaves. There are grasses, pale, silver clumps and wide reddish swaths. Ragged, blackened stems of milkweed, and fragile fluff caught in cracked cattail pods. From time to time, there are sparkling white blankets of snow and the mirror of ice, but always the shimmering, swirling ribbons of streams, rimmed with stones and rough passages where they have worn away the earth.
After a snow, as the roads are cleared and snow piles up along the sides, I see more shades of gray and brown against the bright white. Where others see ugliness and dirt, I see simply more color, more texture, an ombré from black to brown to white.
The woods become transparent in winter. Stripped of their opaque green, they reveal the fields or buildings or waters that lie beyond. Where they are deep, we can see an infinity of verticals. The low winter sun paints their rough, gray-brown trunks in a rich chiaroscuro of light and shadow that summer’s leaves will soon obscure.
The further we descended from the highlands, the more the landscape was brushed with the first blush of spring, red and peach and purple buds subtly shading each tree. In days, those buds will burst open with flowers and reddish first leaves. Bees will emerge, buzzing and busy. Whirling seed pods will dance from maples. Daffodils will wash hillsides with gold and green. The blush will turn to first hints of chartreuse on trees and the forest floors, and then, almost overnight, the landscape will be lush again, a dozen shades of green. But beneath the gaudy colors of spring and summer, and the brief brilliance of autumn, lie the soft, subtle beauties of winter, waiting patiently for the leaves to fall.