Mountain Spring

Why is Spring in the mountains different from Spring in the flatlands?

Posted May 20, 2013

For many of us, Spring is progressing rapidly from daffodils and azaleas to roses and rhododendrons, but in the higher altitudes and more northern latitudes, Spring is just beginning. We spring into Spring because plants literally spring back to life as they shoot through earth and snow to begin life anew. With timed photography, all of us have experienced the magic of a leaf or a flower springing to life, uncurling in the blink of an eye. Like anger, awe, birth, and other words derived from Old Norse, Spring expresses an elemental quality—the life force bursting through darkness to light and rebirth. In another related sense, springs are the sources of our water, necessary for life. Even the spring in our step mirrors this energetic life force that Spring renews every year.

In the mountains you can follow Spring's awakening as you rise steadily towards the heavens. At the foot of the Smokey Mountains, Spring is already fading into the deeper greens of summer. The palest of pastel greens— apple, spring, lime, celery, pale cinnabar and cadmium, electric green, and hundreds of greens with no name—are steadily darkening to emerald, forest, and cobalt greens in a seemingly infinite display. As we climbed the mountain, I was surprised twice by the startling appearance of an isolated patch of the palest yellow. What tree has delicate yellow leaves in the Spring? I saw two, but Google provides no answer. The world is full of unexpected surprises. This infinity of greens reminded me of exploring the names of colors long ago after receiving a large Crayola box full of unknown names for colors that opened up the complexities of color for me as a child. And now, with paper paint samples, names for colors have proliferated even beyond my wildest childhood imaginings; but even they fail before the myriad greens of Spring in the mountains. "Primavera," "the first green," the Italian and Spanish word for Spring, incarnates the awe one feels before the rebirth of Nature in the its endless, shimmering green array.

As you go up the mountain, the pastel greens reappear, because Spring is starting all over again at this higher altitude—a new beginning, reminding us that endings are, indeed, new beginnings and that if at first you don't succeed, try again. Perhaps, it was my imagination, but the green tapestry here seemed a bit more subdued than that of the wild abandon at the foot of the mountain. Delicate Native American azaleas, like clusters of the pale pink and yellow honeysuckle, appeared, hanging over craggy rocks and beckoning from the side of the road with their timid delicacy so different from the grandeur of majestic rhododendron or the geometric elegance of mountain laurel, both yet to bloom. The showiest is not always the best.

As the altitude increases, the vistas become panoramic with wave upon wave of mountains sweeping in from the horizon, softened by the thin mist that gives these mountains their name. When I saw the first blue wisps in the distance, I briefly feared a forest fire. The Cherokee name, "Shaconage," means "land of blue smoke." On this day, the mist, which is the result of condensation from waterfalls and trees, interposed a dreamlike wash over the mountains creating more of a ghostly apparition than a geologic reality—reminding us that what we see may not be accurate, even if beautifully alluring. Seeing the mountains on a clear day as they really are is a rare thing requiring the perfect merging of many different factors. How often does clear-eyed reality stand before us without distortion? And sometimes, is it better not to know the truth if no harm is done?

Arriving at the highest elevations, the greens disappeared and the young leaves were of an entirely different hue, a subdued collection of pale sienna, ochre, rose, and tan— muted whispers of colors. This sedate collection, like a faded Victorian wardrobe, was interspersed with ragged bits of old lace. The intricate lacy patches proved to be creamy clouds of blooming cherry trees. In this somber array, dark evergreen sentinels, like rigid mourners, gathered in ever greater numbers as we approached the craggy mountain top. I have never experienced Spring in such somber tones, reminiscent of Fall, except for the blooming cherries, with their gossamer hue. Such gentle colors are better suited to the severity of these craggy heights. So different from the gaudy array of greens at the foot of the mountain, these somber colors remind us that life is fragile and beauty varied, that what we see is limited, the truth we know incomplete—unless we have the good fortune to see the world simultaneously, from different altitudes.