Red, First: A Short Short Essay

The first color of spring is red, not green. The tight knot of crocus fronds first shows tips of red. Cottonwood seeds fall like red caterpillars, then quickly fade to yellow-white on the lawn. In a land that appears barren, red is a tantalizing color, whether it’s on the rocky desert shore of Laguna Cove, or the Arctic tundra, or in the Midwestern garden.

But one must look closely for red. One must search for color beneath the whites and browns, as Barry Lopez says in Arctic Dreams: “Like other landscapes that initially appear barren, Arctic tundra can open suddenly, like the corolla of a flower, when any intimacy with it is sought. One begins to notice spots of brilliant red, orange, and green, for example, among the monotonic browns of a tundra tussock.”

If one seeks intimacy, looks closely, reds appear in spring long before greens. The tight wad of maple leaves, the tip of a tulip bud, or the early cluster of tiny heads on a wild geranium bed. Red is the color of promise. Of garden dreams.

I see it and long for the juicy ripe fruit of a fresh tomato this time of year. I reread the segment of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres on tomatoes. As the narrator is planting tomatoes, her neighbor talks about his father’s death. Promise and death.

Over the years I’ve collected my favorite garden writing in a folder entitled Earthwork. I pull it out when the snow is on the ground. I also dream plant tomatoes, or try to smell the sweet red of June strawberries when the buds appear beneath the leaves and snow.

Red is the color of courage against the odds. After all, some years there are blizzards in the Midwest in late April and we’ve seen frost in May. The garden requires dreams, promises, and courage. But first, one must seek intimacy.

©Kate Hallett Dayton

The Garden Letter

Volume 1, Number 4

Kate Hallett Dayton

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