The Colour of Winter
Writing with the Seasons - January 2022
Welcome to ‘Writing with the Seasons,’ a collection of writing prompts, ideas and inspiration that follow the rhythms of the natural world as the year unfolds. Thank you for joining me on this journey, month by month.
If you close your eyes and imagine the colours of winter, what would they be? White snowy streets? Muted grey landscapes, black trees and shadows? Perhaps. But, look closely enough, and you'll find our darkest season is bright with colour.
There’s the occasional true blue sky as the sun pokes its way through the clouds. Orange-red berries on rowan trees, the dark purple fruit of the juniper, and the bright red on the holly bush. Then there’s the auburn of a fox dashing by and the shades of green from fir and pine trees.
Claude MacKay admired this time of year. In his poem To Winter he calls it the ‘season of calm love and soulful snows.’ Similarly, despite the biting winds and clouds hanging low, poet Arthur Sze is alert to wintertime colour. This is from Invisible Globe:
Hiking up a trail in the snow, I spot
a rusting orange body of a car;
in midwinter, the sun’s a mirage
The orange here is bold and bright as sunlight. From the car emerges a woman who performs tai chi movements, striking to see in the empty landscape. She ‘rotates an invisible globe’ as snowflakes float around her body.
Similarly, in Silence: In the Age of Noise, explorer Erling Kagge describes a solo trek towards the South Pole. As he traces his route through the terrain, he imagines the moon looking down on him:
There wasn’t a sound from our planet that was able to reach nearly 240,000 miles up to him, but he could see our planet and let his gaze wander far south. There, he saw a boy in a blue anorak trudging further and further in across the ice, only setting up his tent in the evenings. The next day he would emerge from the tent and the ritual was repeated….the boy heading in the same direction, week after week.
In this quiet scene, we see a single blue figure moving through the landscape. We can visualise the rhythm of the boy walking, how slowly he progresses surrounded by shades of white. Our imaginations respond to the image of a vast, spare background, in heightened contrast to the single slice of colour and life.
One of the books I turn to again and again is Emily Noyes Vanderpoel's 'Color Problems’, first published in America in 1901. Colours are analysed in short essays, through colour grids of real objects, and with watercolours that document changing natural landscapes, season by season. The pages of Vanderpoel's book are filled with excitement and curiosity, noticing colour all around her: “There is such an infinity of color tones in the flowers, on the earth, over the sea, in the sky, everywhere!”
A writing prompt for you: ”What a perplexing, changeable, evasive thing the whole world of colour is!” writes Vanderpoel. “What is the reason for it all? Simply this: Nature abhors the commonplace—she despises crude red, yellow and blue. Variety she will have: harmony she insists upon.”
Using Vanderpoel’s quote as inspiration, sit by a window or take a walk with a notebook, and write a poem that incorporates a variety of colours, hues, and shades found in winter. Allow the images and colours to guide the shape and tone of the piece, perhaps toward a reflection on the natural world, or memories you associate with this time of year.
There is something magical the shades of white and the simplicity of the landscape in January, too. In their book ‘The Lost Spells,’ Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris capture this with words and paintings that celebrate the wild, strangeness of nature in winter. A sequence celebrating the silver birch includes the lines:
Even as the dusk gets dimmer,
still the birch trunks glow like torches,
still the birch-bark holds its glimmer
The birches stand tall in the darkness, offering light, comfort and beauty.
To close, try this: Are you drawn to pale or bright colours? Have you had any powerful associations with a colour during your life? What memories or emotions rise when you consider it? Write a new piece dedicated to that specific hue.
Here’s to all the colours of winter, and to finding creative ideas throughout the year.
Further inspiration for January
Read more about Emily Noyes Vanderpoel's wonderful 'Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color’ from 1901, republished in 2018.
Claude McKay’s ‘To Winter’ is a perfect accompaniment to this season of cool, dark days.
Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris’ ‘The Lost Spells’ can be found in our ‘Wintertime Reads’ selection on Write & Shine’s Bookshop page.
Heartfelt thanks to founding members and subscribers for all your support. I couldn’t do this without you!
I’m glad to offer this essay to all subscribers. From February, ‘Writing with the Seasons’ will be for paid subscribers only. I hope you’ll join me! Sign up as a monthly subscriber (£3.50), or for a full year with a special annual price of £35, here.