Chasing Colours

In 1972 the writer, Annie Dillard, began assembling hundreds of index cards, where she’d jotted down thoughts and quotations from a range of readings, meticulous observations of the seasons, notes on the natural processes that she’d witnessed near her home in the mountains of Virginia, and crafted them into a whole. The resulting book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is a luminous and rhapsodic work that delves with great honesty into both the beauty and the violence of the natural world. At times quiet and contemplative, Dillard’s writing also reaches incandescent heights when her youthful, exuberant eye and sensual perception engage with the mysteries and specifics that surround her. The book invites us to partake of an intimate and closely observed world.

Just like the present, that mercurial moment that so often seems tantalizingly just out of reach, and to which Dillard devotes a great deal of attention, spring can be a difficult thing to grasp. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard finds herself chasing the seasons, especially spring, seeking the epiphanic in every movable moment. “Catch it if you can” she says of the brimming season, daring herself and her readers to make the embrace, to latch on to the myriad transformations. It is a refrain heard throughout the book  – catch it if you can -and upon which she stakes much of her alluring language. 

From the moment it begins spring unfurls like spooled ribbon, picking up speed the closer it gets to its end, until it blurs by in the flash of an eye. Where deciduous forest in winter holds light in equal measure to wood, the meadow-green canopy seems to enclose so swiftly in spring that only a few small hollows of light sparkle their way in before it seals. Rivers swell with the waning snow, raising ponds and marshes from the ground you once walked. For all its descriptions, accolades and clichés spring remains a season of surprise.

The transformations that most entrance me are the waves of colour that sweep through the season. These are wildflower days, when any place, be it rural, urban, or industrial, has a shot at being decked with new tints. The colours streak through meadows and over hilltops, burrowing into the forest depths. They brighten the cracked pavements and vacant lots slumped at the edge of town, funnel along beside railway lines and factory yards. Wildflowers will themselves into place through an ungovernable determination, an audacious resilience. And there is energy within it all, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas so evocatively put it. But there’s the rub: the energy needed to flower is so intensely focused that it tends to wilt quickly, shifting gear into the making of seed. Skip a few days in any one place and certain colours will have come and gone, replaced by others in spirited succession.

Across the hills and meadows of Prespa wildflowers have been racing for weeks – orchids, fritillaries and asphodels; primroses, geraniums and irises; all mingling and moving on, their vacant spaces taken up by something equally entrancing. Like every other year when I’ve walked the spring land, I’ve again missed many flowers, arriving too late to their places of bloom. But I prefer to think of those I’ve been fortunate enough to find, those brief seasonal sparks like grace notes embellishing the earth. Spring is winding down and nearly finished for another year, its colours fading to summer’s dry grain. But there’s a little time in the season yet, and its last, unfolding songs are ecstatic. Catch them if you can.

Many thanks to Jan Jordan for her help with the flower identification…

17 thoughts on “Chasing Colours

  1. Lovely. You’re so right; blink and it’s gone. You really have to seize the moment and get right out there in amongst it all. At this time of year, the machair (look it up) on many Hebridean islands is carpeted by an eruption of buttercups, bird’s foot trefoil, saxifrages and carline thistle, scarlet pimpernel, eyebright, clover, thyme, wild pansy, violets, harebell, daisy, silverweed and hawkbit, mountain everlasting, gentians and orchids among many other varieties. What a joy!

    I’m in Brighton at the moment and the local council have sown the central reservations of many roads around town with wild flowers – it’s rather wonderful. Only in Brighton – which of course proudly has the UK’s first and only Green MP.

    Lovely pictures, Julian. What sort of a camera are you using – don’t worry, I’m not going to get all tech-nerdy with you!

    Much love,

    Tweet

    1. Thanks Pete! Your list of Scottish wildflowers is evocative in itself. As much as I adore wandering amongst flowers I also love the beauty of their common names, which so often vary from region to region, according to local cultures. Although I’ve been trying to learn some of the Latin names as a useful language of communication between people using different native tongues, the ‘placenames’ of flowers are a real delight. The sound of mountain everlasting, hawkbit, eyebright and scarlet pimpernel conjures an inner landscape nearly equal to the outer. And I’ve just been reading about the riches of machair – it’s suddenly high on my list of places to explore!

      I followed the Brighton election quite closely and was delighted with the result. It shows that there are other ways of governing, and sowing wildflowers is a good start! They should look after themselves over time, naturally reseeding. And it may be of benefit to the dwindling numbers of British butterflies.

      As for the camera, you’ll probably laugh. It’s a small Canon Powershot A520. For years I’d used by dad’s wonderful old Pentax bought in the late 60s, but eventually fell out of the rhythm of taking images. Then we decided a few years ago to buy a small digital mostly to use as a visual notebook, recording landspaces that I might later use in my writing. However, my on and off love affair with photography began anew, and seen as we never seem to have enough money to upgrade, I’ve stuck with the cheap and cheerful Canon which has as few pixels as possible and still be classified as a camera. But it has an excellent macro lens and is extremely portable, an essential characteristic for me since most of my photography occurs in unexpected moments while wandering deep in the reeds or scrambling over rocks! You can view the camera in question in the wing mirror beside a water buffalo in ‘By Way of a Lake Pt.2’!!

      Much love,

      Julian

      1. Well the Powershot evidently gets some great results and the macro, as you point out is excellent. Can’t see as you need to ‘upgrade’ – so to speak. P

  2. Hey Julian, under your Notes from Near and Far heading you’ve spelled Impressions of Place with three ‘s’s. P x

    1. Oops! How many times have I looked at the title page? Countless. I blame the rather seductive shape of the ‘s’ which has lulled me into not sseeing things very clearly! Thanks for the pick up. I should award you something for being the first to spot it!!! How does a pint of Adnams Ale sound next time I see you?

  3. What a variety of blooms! Except for the coltsfoot and lily of the valley, many of them are so different from what I see in my neck of the woods.

    Spring is indeed fleeting and it’s impossible to see each and every progression. Thankfully we have more than one spring to take in as much as is possible in one lifetime.

    1. It’s true, Amy-Lynn: thankfully there is more than one spring! Having lived here ten years now, I’m still amazed to discover the rich variety of never before seen flowers each year. In fact, every year there are new flowers actually being recorded and described for this area, hinting at the numbers quietly going about their business without our knowledge.

  4. Wow!!! Your photographs are stunning, Julian! The color, the detail! Extraordinary… I know what you mean about missing some of the blooms but being grateful for the ones you do find and enjoy. Spring is one of those intense “nows” – blink and it’s gone! Have to keep reminding myself Dr. Seuss’ advice to not be sad because it’s over, but to be happy because it happened!

    It does seem true, the more spectacular the flower, the shorter the bloom time. My not-so-spectacular sturdy little impatiens plants bloom all summer and into the fall.

    I’ve been meaning to read Annie Dillard’s book. People must love it and hang onto it because I have yet to find a copy at our used bookstore…

    1. Thanks, Barbara! Much appreciated. It is indeed an intense ‘now’ – and in such a variety of ways. Wildflowers are one aspect of the warming season, but so are the returning birds, the chorus of frogs, the greening of trees. There’s much to experience in a brief, but insistent, period of time.

      I like the idea that people hang on to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, like an almanac of the seasons. Certain books are always turning up in used bookshops or market book stalls, while others must remain on shelves at home, hopefully taken down now and then to delight again.

  5. *Wow,* what an extraordinary treat to see wildflowers from another country! Perhaps I should start collecting wildflower books from foreign lands.

    Beautiful photos! I really enjoyed this post. Sometimes you forget there are wildflowers outside of your little habitat! :)

    1. theroamingnaturalist – many, many thanks! I love the idea of collecting wildflower books, bird field guides, or insect volumes from other countries. Even if you never make it there, there’d be enough wonder and excitement within the pages to make it a very real and tangible world. Go for it!

      Glad the post gave you the opportunity to see some wildflowers from elsewhere. And I agree; when you’re looking closely around you it can sometimes be hard to imagine what else might be out there. A whole world of floral possibility! Which is the nice thing about roaming, the many ways it will take you. Thanks for taking the time to drop by…

  6. Because I live in the tropics, and we essentially have only the dry and the wet seasons, I become almost immune to the colors that surround me for practically the whole year round. Reading through this story made me ask myself the question what would it be like to my eyes if the colors burst after months of barren white that is the winter. Probably a feast for the eyes, as the pictures here so vividly show. Spring… Thanks for introducing me to it! Now that I come to think about it, the season is so appropriately name!

    Rex Raymond
    http://www.lifesomundane.net

    1. It’s so true, Rex! Spring in this part of the world really is that: a great leap in the air. Colour suddenly bursts into life. I would love to have a look at your part of the world, though. The different flowers, the moods of the weather, the people and languages, the land itself. One of these days!

      Many thanks for reading, Rex. And I’m delighted that you liked the post.

      Cheers,
      Julian

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