I moved from a southern California beach desert to Portland’s temperate rainforest seven years ago during a July heatwave. Temperatures reached 110 as I drove through the moonlike landscape of southern California, and the scorched brown hills of northern California.
As soon as I crossed the border, and for that entire first summer, the ubiquity and intensity of shades of greens saturated my senses. Forests, parks, highway rest stops, backyards, parking strips. I was delighted to be immersed in nothing but cool green. The shades were as many as those rumored Eskimo words for snow – dense deep greens, emerald green, gray green, olive green, sage green, fern green, on and on. It’s still a thrill.
Many years of previous visits had been spent under the famed Portland gray skies. This was certainly a place I could never live! But grandkids always win, so we moved, and here I am, still trying to make my peace with winter. I turn my back on the gray skies, annoyed, wondering when blue would win out, watching and hoping it would peek through, no matter how small or ephemeral, a ray of hope. I calculate outings for the best of weathers. But as a workman told me one day, if we don’t work in the rain here, we don’t work. And it’s the same for recreation. I’ve struggled to shrug off the sun-worshiper in me.
After seven years, I tell myself, isn’t it time to give in? It’s ridiculous to live in denial and avoidance, to see only gray or not gray, rain or not, damp or not, cold wind or not, considering how they will affect my day. I want to walk or garden or swim under gray skies, try for a more nuanced perspective, one that appreciates the beauty and variety of color, rather than the burden and bleakness. As my bird entertainment wanes with the season, I have to look elsewhere for inspiration.
I learned about clouds in elementary school; nimbus, cirrus, cumulus, and then the delightful combinations that roll off the tongue, cumulonimbus, cirrostratus, placing them in the various layers of the atmosphere which we also memorized. Miss Holden, my third grade teacher, played the ukulele and we sang a song that went something like “I love the stratosphere, I love the ionosphere, I love the troposphere…” and so on. I was in love with Miss Holden, and I remember some of the names, though not the definitions.
Now I just like watching the clouds move about, mesmerized by their continually changing shapes and colors, the ways the wind blows them, endlessly re-forming, the multiple layers moving in multiple directions. The grays morph, gather, disperse, and move across the sky. They rise high up and far off, meet, clash, erupt, and descend to a mantle on my shoulders. Even when the wind doesn’t reach down to the trees, up high the clouds may still move fast, roiling, reinventing itself.
I’ve progressed into a study of grays: gunmetal gray, silver gray, dove gray, owl gray, slate, ash, platinum, charcoal, stone, lead, pewter, and often an olio of varied shades. The small negative spaces are all the more riveting, holes in the cloud cover, spaces of not-cloud taking shape in an all gray sky. Does the color “hopeful gray” exist? If not, I just invented it.
But even when the gray is a vast uniform leaky dome suspended overhead, look closely: there’s barely discernible wraiths and shadows, something to rest the eyes on, even for a moment. Then a flock of Canada geese glides overhead in a perfect V or a long straight line, a straggler or two comically trying to keep up, and I throw my arms up to embrace them.