Color in New England

I grew up in a place where everything is the right color. Bark gray, pine green, sand tan, ice white, ocean breeze blue. Gold and orange maple when rings on trees come full circle. Berry bittersweet in winter, and sunset pink when time thins. The rare but tasteful purple of flowers when the surface thaws. It takes a lot to survive this place—whether you’re an Indian in the mid-seventeenth century whose great-great-great-grandchildren will one day be reconstructing your language from a Bible translated by John Eliot, or a Pakistani immigrant trying to dig out your buried Chevy after the blizzard of 2015 so you can man your gas station so your children can go to UMass and their children to BU. But for those who manage to survive, whose melanin mostly lacks pigment: the reward is color. So much color. Silver sunsets shimmer in winter months when the daylight is a thin slice of rotation’s pie; we rush into the blustery ecosphere (tamping down shadows and chasing zigzag animal tracks through the snow), right when everyone else must be taking their Sunday nap, just to catch a final gulp of the sun—the sun, now splintered glass shards, in summer months doles out her urgent nurture on bodies laid bare and strewn across the beach next to piles of fulvous seaweed, hungry for yellow heat and the movement of play. We non-dormant winter animals stay sane by storing up color when solar energy beams strong and savoring color when the light dims.

Residents here know there is injustice in the world, but they are survivors, and the tides of history have firmly established them, one moonrise at a time (perhaps a childless great-uncle dies, or perhaps you marry a lawyer). Fortunes come full circle. Seasons come and go and come again. The face of this earth brightens and fades with the turning light of change, pores clogged with memory, pores as deep as bones, both aging quietly, both holding and enfolded in perpetuity’s subtle smile. Human artifacts in this place comply by taking on staid and unassuming hues: houses painted pale Pilgrim skin tones or deep blood maroons, seaglass washed up in aquamarine mystery, slate-shingled restaurants accented in ebony, everything frosted over with silver salt spray—the roadside slush of modernity, recalling ancient perspiration from the sea. The loamy browns of historic homes are well-preserved.  Here we are: dark earth, grey pavement, blue post office, brick school house, green ivy up the wall. Certain layers laid down and layers growing up, never to leave: civilization and its contents, here to stay, holding their place with that Puritan stalwartness that taught us the R R Rs of Harvard Yard. Institutionalism, of course, is always painted white. Forgetfulness isn’t painted anything, its sides peeling and the serifs chipped off its signs.

But we didn’t get here without color streaking the ground, spray-painting dotted lines down the sands of time that, in Western logic, go only one way. There are hundreds of years of flesh-tone sand over Indian bones buried in unmarked graves, their ghosts lingering by and perhaps blessing some New England church door, dapper red for welcome, bled red for atonement. Doors hiding hundreds-year secrets, secrets named Massasoit, Massachusett, Wampanoag, Pequot. New England knows she survived on the  backs of a different set of colors. Every now and again a memory surfaces and collides with the skin of the present, like an unexpected breaker at low tide. Battles over the Washington Redskins makes it to the cover of the Globe. The state’s own debate over so-called Indian mascots in public schools briefly threads across the blue loom of Facebook news and vanishes. Nobody wants to surrender a beloved symbol of triumph. We grew up beating those Sachems at Thanksgiving day football games. It’s our local history. It’s what we’ve always known.

. . . Color, unlike sports teams, unlike versions of history, unlike winning, belongs to no one. Sure, sure, we perceive color differently—tetrachromats perceive one hundred times more color distinctions than the rest of us. Maybe the tetrachromats can distinguish between English and Scottish skin tones. Maybe the tetrachromats would have enslaved the medium-white people if they had been kings. And God bless those color-blind males who wanted to join the air force to fight in Iraq but failed to distinguish between red and green, so they stayed alive instead.

Yes, seeing color changes things, but that’s because color belongs to no one. It is and it is more and it is more still. You have no obligation to look. (You have no obligation to celebrate Halloween). Trick or treat—or stay indoors. The night is dark, and the ghosts are out. But there’s no orange like flickering pumpkin-orange in crepuscular October. That color is positively humming, while the dimming night colors murmur back. They’re whispering pearly secrets on the shoreline.  They’re washing the flecks out of the sky. They’re growing sporophytes on somebody's grandmother’s unmarked grave.