Notes from an English wood
On a clear day Chris and his beloved companion visit their tree to closely examine the variety of colours in its canopy.
THE EMPEROR OF MY WOODS HAS NEW CLOTHES AND THEIR FINERY HAS NO EQUAL. I BEGIN TO STUDY...”
Last night we crept out to see what all the stars were chattering about. I wondered at their twinkling semaphore and listened to their hum, but couldn’t distinguish any of their conversations over the naughty murmur all the new leaves were making in the trees beyond the barn. They were too excited to sleep, busy whispering about how they couldn’t wait for the dawn, about how they were going to seize their share of the sun and feel all fizzy as they started to make their first batch of sugars.
We emptied our bladders, shivered at the lost heat and went back to bed, and as he slumped onto my pillow with his obligatory muddy paws, I told him that if it was still clear in the morning we’d go to the tree. Our tree: the tree where only we go.
We leave calculatedly late – it’s squinty time, the sun is sharp and high. As we get gently nipped by the fading niff last night’s fox left on the gate, I fondle my new obsession, fan out its pristine rainbow, revel in its neatness and practicality, and smile, because today I am going to precisely define the colour of leaves, the most beautiful leaves on my Earth.
Pantone LLC is the selfproclaimed world authority on colour and seeks to communicate accurately a standard language for it. Its swatch, which conveniently fits my coat pocket, has 1,867 small rectangles of pigment and my, albeit childlike, mission is to find a precise match for each in nature.
Most are only numerically coded, but some have names, such as ‘Greenery’ (15-0343) which is 2017’s “colour of the year”. It is described as “a life-affirming shade”, which is “emblematic of the pursuit of personal passions and vitality” and chosen to represent “a colour snapshot of what we see taking place in our global culture”. Maybe ‘Pitch Black’ would have been better.
Before we reach the tree, I can smell it. Ripe, wet, soft, neither too sweet nor too bitter, and – like the peel scraped from sweet chestnuts – it makes me salivate. As we approach the vast trunk, I glance down and see my hands turn grey, the ground bleach and the wobbling sunspots flare. I stoop, close my eyes and then roll over into the fug of humus, and when Scratchy tires of licking my face I gaze up into the glittering spectrum of spring.
Beech, big, new, fresh and brilliant, a million leaves ablaze, sparkling, flickering, glowing with a greenness so vivid it hurts. The emperor of my woods has new clothes and their finery has no equal, and when I’m drunk on their extravagance I begin to study individual leaves and raise my swatch and cautiously match the leaf lights with their printed correspondents, noting the codes on my phone. It’s harder than I thought; I can see more leaves than I saw stars last night.
There are an estimated 1022 to 1024 stars in the universe, but across both hemispheres just 9,096 are of magnitude 6.5 or above and thus visible to the naked eye. Our vision may be limited astronomically, but it is accomplished spectrally. Using the six million colour-sensitive cone cells in our retinas it is claimed that the human eye can distinguish 10 million different colours. Their peak sensitivity is in the greenish-yellow region of the spectrum, allowing our eyes to process more information about this range of colours than any other, and now I’ve begun to define this numerically. Beech ( Fagus sylvatica) canopy, early May 2017, Hampshire, England, is made up of…
2290U 2297U 2299U 374U 387C 397U 2298U 3955U 2278U 2272U 3935U 372U and the rest.
As I trip back through the woods juggling my swatch and phone, I’m struck with a contrasting mix of emotions. I’m satisfied that my task has been at least partially achieved – I have a list – but am worried that my irrepressible desire to dissect and categorise has reduced one of my greatest annual pleasures to series of inert codes, that I’ve diluted absolute beauty into a mere series of numbers.
I pause for him to catch up and note that Scratchy is not as black as he used to be. I bend down with my swatch. Miniature poodle ( Canis lupus familiaris) muzzle, New Forest, May 2017. ‘Cool Grey’ 3U, duly noted on my phone.