Winter is a landscape in half tones. The pale snow and sky bleed color from every object, reducing it to shades of gray. I don't know if this effect is caused by the sun's seasonal weakness, or if the human eye becomes lazy or dysfunctional in cold weather and refuses to register the greens of cedar, spruce, and fir, the browns of dead ferns, the buff of shed maple leaves, and the gold of last year's grasses. When I look out my window, I am overwhelmed by gray.
Even the birds -- chickadees, nuthatches, crows -- they animate the landscape but bring no color. A mixed flock of finches, their wings streaked as if by charcoal, feeds under the spruce tree. A red squirrel -- misnamed: the brown-gray fur could only be perceived as red when compared to the ashen pelt of its bigger cousin -- storms into the flock and as one the birds take flight, disappear momentarily within the thick foliage of the tree, and then drop down to the same blanket-sized patch of moss that they originally vacated. I pull out a pair of binoculars, focus on the feeding flock. My gaze flits from bird to bird, checking the top of each head.
And then I spot it: a fingernail-sized scrap of bright red on the poll of one bird. I switch to another, focus, and identify another male redpoll. Each individual fills the binoculars' view with color. The world suddenly becomes alive, warmed by the flame of brightness on the head of this tiny bird. I drink in the rich saturation of color. And then, just as abruptly as it appeared, the red vanishes in a flutter of wings and the harsh, nagging chatter of the harassing squirrel.
Red is an intimate color: the color of blood, the color of love, the color of death and roses and rage. Unlike the clear yellow that defines summer, red is chameleonic: for such a strong color it grays with distance, blending into its surroundings until it disappears entirely. Because of this, even a miniscule amount of the color red has the ability to startle.
Outside my window, the floodplain forest enclosed by a sweeping bend in the river reads ragged, the leafless stems tangled and disorganized. There's nothing to focus on, nothing that attracts attention until I sit forward and look slightly to the left and then I see them: drooping clusters of berries as red as a glowing hearth.
High bush cranberries: the fruit shiny, about the size of a domestic cranberry but not burgundy-colored but the true, pure red of Christmas. Pendant from branches as thin as a hair, the berries hang in eye-grabbing clusters of a dozen or more: tempting, tantalizing, so perfect in their redness that they seem untouchable, a fantasy of color in a colorless world.
And in a way they are beyond reach: a week ago I watched a red squirrel climb the sturdy, forking branches of the main bush, slowing to a crawl as the connecting branches thinned, dwindled, and bowed from the added weight until -- hungry but not self-destructive -- the squirrel decided that a clump of frozen berries wasn't worth risking a nasty fall and retreated from the bush without a taste. High bush cranberries seem to exist more for show than for food: they ripen late in the fall when most of the serious berry eaters -- bears and raccoons -- are torpid or hibernating. Birds avoid cranberries this time of year: the acid and sugar are empty calories in an environment where warmth is measured in protein and fat.
In fact, the only creature on the floodplain that harvests the bright red cranberries in winter is me. And here is where the seduction -- and the frustration -- becomes evident: I cannot eat the berries outside my windows. Last summer, nine baby foxes and their mother roamed freely through this area: hunting mice, exploring, wrestling, playing, and -- pooping. In their intestines, foxes can carry a particularly nasty tapeworm that is fatal to humans. The tapeworm is transmitted through contact with fox feces or -- and this is the kicker -- by eating fruit from trees under which tapeworm eggs have been deposited.
So on cold gray mornings when the high bush cranberries outside my window glow like rubies, I hike miles along the river to the oxbow where the Amnicon Wolf Pack has decimated the local fox population. The cranberry bushes never fail to startle: even when I'm looking directly at them, I don't see the red of the berries until I'm close enough to pluck one. I pull my lips back and bite three or four berries off a cluster the way a horse takes an apple. The berries are frozen hard. I hold them -- plump and round and smooth -- on my tongue until -- in a rush as sudden and profound as an orgasm -- my mouth salivates with Pavlovian anticipation. A minute more to insure that the berries are totally thawed and then -- sweet relief -- the burst of flavor, numbingly tart and somehow a total embodiment of redness -- that floods my mouth when the thin skin of the berries is punctured. My tongue separates the skins from the single large seeds -- these are not real cranberries but rank imposters, relatives of viburnums -- and washboards both against the roof of my mouth to extract the last molecules of flavor. A few more saliva baths, a few more sucks, and when I'm convinced that every bit of what the berry has to offer has been harvested, I don't swallow but spit out the pale pink seeds.
And with that spit I send a prayer for new life, growth, and haunting red berries for all of the winters yet to come.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources