Village Voices Nature Note: the Colour of Earth

01 Dec 2020
You’ll probably know the mnemonic ROYGBIV, ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’ – or if you prefer something livelier ‘Rinse Out Your Granny’s Boots In Vinegar’, to help us remember the colours in the spectrum. The odd thing is that the commonest colour we see all around us doesn’t figure at all in this sequence. Where’s brown? An artist tells me that you have to create brown by mixing the three primary colours in suitable proportions, but the original creator, whether God or Evolution, clearly got there more directly. Brown is the colour of Earth.

And if green is the colour of spring, brown is certainly the colour of autumn. Or rather ‘browns’. Think how many of the shades of brown come from the natural world: chestnut, hazel, clay, umber, walnut, mahogany, bay, cinnamon, fawn and brown-as-a-berry.

I’d add the drab brown of the golden plovers now arriving on the arable fields for the winter but so hard to pick out on the ground; also the dusty orange- brown of the small tortoiseshell butterfly I’ve just found hibernating in our shed, looking for all the world like a dead leaf.

And as for autumn leaves themselves, our trees and hedgerows are now blazing in a hectic collage of every kind of brown from red to yellow. We think of the leaves turning brown, but what actually happens is that the chlorophyll which gives the leaves their spring and summer shades of green is re-absorbed back into the tree, thus revealing the other pigments that were masked by the chlorophyll. So you could say, a little paradoxically, that the real leaf colour is brown rather than green. This annual leaf display tends to be at its best when we have bright, warm days and chilly nights, which is why the east coast of America regularly boasts such spectacular autumn effects. Except that they call it the ‘fall’, which is accurate as a description and is in fact a good old Anglo-Saxon word we used here up to the sixteenth century. The Pilgrim Fathers took it with them and I think I still prefer it as an expression to our Latin-derived ‘autumn’.

In cultural terms, ‘brown’ has good connotations of warmth, strength,
stability and health (a nice ‘tan’). Think how simple and natural a brown paper bag is, and how much better for the planet than the plastic ones. Designers like to exploit these positive vibes too, with their own, more artificial confections. Farrow and Ball, for example, offer us: Hot Mocha, Pelt, Mouse’s Back and Broccoli Brown for our interior decorations. I’ll stick to the outside ones, thanks.
Jeremy Mynott