September 14, 2012

A Walk in the Woods: White

Thinking of the woods we imagine browns and greens, the warmth of duff and bark, the cool living color of leaves, which turn fiery in fall. Unless it is winter, with snow covered ground, the color white seems very out of place here. But there are white things growing in the woods, such as this Indian Pipe, which rises in mid summer, its pale flowered stalks startling against the browned leaves.

The Indian Pipe is a plant that is naturally without chlorophyll, while these young leaves seem to be missing it by accident, as though they are albinos. Both of these plants might cause a little discomfort in us because of their strangeness; rather than purity, they might be heralds of something more dangerous. Thinking of the meanings of white sent me back to a chapter in Moby Dick, "The Whiteness of the Whale" which you can read here, in which Melville expounds on the varied meanings of the color white in order to understand the terror evoked by the white whale. He writes that 
"...symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul." 

Much of the white to be seen in the woods are lichens. They appear as regular marks on trees, looking as though a mysterious someone went through the woods with a paint brush, carefully drawing circles or oblongs to show the way. These white shapes do appear uncanny, and could call up a "peculiar apparition" to the viewer.

Sometimes tree trunks are covered in white, with a lichen my book appropriately calls "Whitewash Lichen". 

There are the bright white patches of lichens on rocks, startling on the gray, as bright as the warm green moss. 

Another strange sight, which can also call up a little of Melville's horror, are small white slime molds that appear on the ground.

Much lovelier are lichens that appear in grassy spots, looking like undersea coral, but also seeming very out of place among the greens.

Lastly, a woodland white many of us are used to seeing and loving, the glowing warm white of birch bark.


  1. Thanks so much, Lisa, Ravenna, and Connie; I'm really glad you enjoyed this post.

  2. Time to tell you what a lovely blog you keep.

  3. While we've had Indian Pipe suddenly appear in our garden, I've never run across that coral-looking lichen. Really beautiful as is that pristine birch.

  4. Thank you very much, Gail; it's always nice to know my work is appreciated.
    Ms. Wis, isn't that lichen lovely? It's really a surprise to see it.

  5. My comments same as fellow Midwesterner, Little Ms. Wis.

  6. I like the idea of choosing a color and then looking for different manifestations in the woods. Your photos are work for me. The one of the white lichen on the tree makes me think of one of your fiber artworks.

    1. Actually Tom, it happened another way: I noticed the white, thought how strange it was, and partly inspired by Melville, then went out and photographed white things. Someone else mentioned that the white circle of lichen on the tree reminded them of my potato prints. I love when it seems like my work is all connected.