The Colour of In Between
“Between the senses and reason lies perception. At home or afield, that is where amazement resides, shunning explanation.”
-Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise
I’m not a missionary of anything, except, perhaps, uncertainty.
Sometimes I wish I saw the world according to one story: singular, clean, a straight shot, no questions asked. On bad days, I’m jealous of the Jehovahs, who are so convinced that their story is the only story that they’ll show up on your front doorstep and long in their bones to make you believe. Have you ever believed in a story so fervently? I have not. My story has been more like a Choose Your Own Adventure with various plot twists and scene changes and ambiguous outcomes.
These days, I’m so perplexed and exhausted by multiple storylines that I’m tempted to invite the believers in for a cup of coffee and say “stay awhile”, hopeful that their fidelity to The Single Story will somehow rub off on me, that an island of meaning will suddenly materialize and I can moor myself to her shores. I would love to crawl ashore, catch my breath, and sunbathe in such certainty, even though, I know I’d fall asleep and probably wake up with an awful burn.
Last year started and ended with broken storylines. Lovers to dust. I found myself in strange, unchartered geography. Planned trajectories went feral on me. I was so desperate for meaning I took to hurling my body into crashing waves, half-hoping, perhaps, I would hit my head on the bottom of the ocean and emerge with The Truth on my lips. The waves bucked me off relentlessly, but I’ve learned nothing other than how to avoid calamity, turtling myself under a wave, or worst-case scenario, when slapped down by the palm of the sea, how to protect my soft mussel cranium from a surf-board-turned-missile. Maybe that’s the extent of what I’ve learned to be true: the waves are endless and indifferent to whether you’re up, or down, or somewhere in between.
Turquoise is a colour – emotion, story, and state – of being in between: “is it green, or is it blue?”
Recently, I fell in love with the words of Ellen Meloy, devouring her book, The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky. How do books find us when we need them the most? Here, perhaps, is where I can admit that a fragment of my dumb faith dwells: the belief that art can save you from going under and help you tap into the raw energy of the wave beneath your feet.
When I read Meloy’s book, I felt in harmony with the enormity of the turquoise wave, rare and beautiful. It’s a book worth knocking on doors about. Meloy would roll her eyes from the grave, or from whatever lifeform she’s currently occupying – probably a big horn sheep whose bottomless eyes contain the universe – if she could hear my impassioned evangelizing. She seemed to write out of a need as pure and true as lungs thirst for oxygen, as a prickly pear flower blossoms in the middle of the desert. She didn’t write to convert me, or you, or anyone to the doctrine of her knowing. She wrote towards a truth bound to colour, one that, depending on the light, was never absolute.
“Do not think of a cactus acting like a cactus, with its apple-green paddles and white spines,” explains Meloy. “In winter the prickly pear hallucinates. Its spines glow red-gold in the angled sun, like an electrocuted aura. The paddles are nearly the color of burgundy wine.”
In the blink of an eye, the human eye perceives seven to ten million colours. Colours, in other words, are complex. It’s a myth that the forest is green when truly it’s every shade in between.
Even so, colour attaches us – subliminally, fiercely – to landscape and culture and meaning. When we are born, our eyes are flooded with flight. We’re born sensitive to seeing colour. Meloy calls it “an aesthetic sense, an intuitive link between a chromatic band and emotion,” one that can “grow as strong as a fingerprint, defying logic and inviting the helpless surrender of a love affair.”
I’ve never before thought of colour as a metaphor for making sense of the many intersecting, fragmenting (and confusing) storylines of my life. Meloy unpacks hers through the memory of colour: floating in the aquamarine swimming pools of her childhood, seeking out the formation of turquoise in the Mojave, hurling herself down silver rivers in Colorado, wandering solo through the chorizo red rock desert in Utah, and scouring sandstone plateaus for the flowers of uncommon colours like “salmon pink, the interior blush of a Caribbean seashell.”
Our perceptions are our only internal map of the world. It is possible, argues Meloy, to fall in love with a geography, not because of history, or blood ties, but merely by colour.
I close my eyes and lean back into the colours that have claimed me.
When I was a child, I learned to watch for the chlorophyll green of budding aspen in early spring. After seven months of a long, cold monochrome winter, it’s an innocent, newborn shade that only lasts for several days, a green that’s nearly translucent, spun into green-gold by the sun.
As a woman, I came to know a more verdant green, a green so heavy with moisture it leaked and oozed everywhere. I became intoxicated with the lush greens of Central America’s rainforests, a green that produces song, and makes the air thick with the rubbing legs of cicadas, the lusty trill of songbirds. In Cuba, I fell in love with a painter who blended quantities of yellow and blue to capture the desirous green of the palma. I remember seeing the palm trees through the slats in the window, bending beyond the radiant heat of his hot, concrete home. It was so unbearably humid that our bodies seemed to sweat green.
In Uganda, I breathed red. My skin became stained by the colour of sun on sandstone, particularly during the dry season when sun-baked earth hardened and the traffic of feet, hooves, and wheels of various sizes ground it into fine powder. Dust, the colour of smashed terracotta, rode the winds and clung to everything. Red kissed the window panes and filtered in through the cracks in the door and windows so we had to sweep daily. When I walked to town, my feet stirred earth. I walked through tangerine clouds. My white socks were stained blood orange. Even my teeth turned terracotta.
Or, what about the colours I’ve seen from a one-hundred-foot fire tower? The melancholy indigo that finishes the horizon. The colour of the sky before a violent lightning storm, neither black, nor blue, nor purple. An eerie black violet shade that signals disaster. The flash of white scissoring lightning that sets forests on fire. My tongue can’t keep up with what my eyes see in the boreal. I don’t have the names for most of the colours.
When my lover and I picked wild strawberries, our eyes weren’t hunting for miniscule flecks of red. We were harvesting the colour of desire, of a day-old love that was never meant to endure. Often, I find myself willing colours to stay static, but everything bleeds out. Colours left out in the elements fade and dilute.
With the exception, according to Meloy, of pylon-orange bathing suits. Perhaps, my favourite part of The Anthropology of Turquoise is when Meloy cheekily details the irony of ordering a sleek black Italian bathing suit in the mail and receiving, accidentally (or on purpose?) an orange suit that’s the same colour as a First-Aid station. Instead of sending back the suit, she embraces the absurdity of the colour. “I invite pathological color experiences,” she explains, donning the neon suit on her river pursuits.
This is precisely what I most love about Meloy’s meditation on nature and colour. It makes room in nature for irony and paradox. It’s tragically funny, “lyricism edged with pain”. One moment she’s burying her face in the sweet “innards of cliffrose petals” while the next a military jet passes overhead, thundering so loudly that it nearly makes her ears bleed.
“If anything compels me to write about the natural world,” says Meloy, “it is that many wilderness worshippers are so busy choking on awe or so depressed by the triumph of greed over preservation that they forget nature can be absurdly funny.”
Even sad and broken storylines can make you laugh.
Scientists speculate that, early in a child’s life, “light flavors the senses towards yellow” and as we grow older, we mature through the particle spectrum, moving through green and gazing towards the colour of distance, the colour of blue. But Meloy finds herself eternally “stuck in turquoise, the color of yearning, the color that borrows the concentric tension of green and holds blue’s enchanting calm.”
Turquoise is the colour of in between. It’s a story with multiple outcomes. It could be a love story, but it could also be an obituary. Even if there’s sorrow, you’ll crack a smile. Maybe you’ll laugh. Embrace these contradictions, and even, says Meloy, the profanities.
Complexity can be painful and frustrating, but it’s certain to be colourful.
And, as I’ve learned, every now and then, there is a lull in between the breaking waves. There’s time to catch my breath and float on the aquamarine waters. There’s time to look around, and exchange a smile, a few words, with a friend.
It can feel both exhilarating and intimidating to be in between. But then maybe a seal head, black and shiny, pops up at the surface. I observe something unexpected, something new. Maybe the sun breaks out from behind a cloud, turning the ocean a colour – not green, nor blue – I’ve never seen before.