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Color (Earth Primer #9)

(Photo by Giacomo Sartori: North Algeria, a typical Mediterranean sequence. Light-colored bumps caused by erosion, red soil on the hillsides, dark soil in the hollows.)

(Earth Primer #8)

The hues we have in our heads for landscapes often spring forth from the colors of their soils. Left uncultivated, vegetation would cover such shades over, but plowing and working the soil slam them in our face, as happens with open wounds. At that point, they have the upper hand—proud of their autocratic imprint on the surroundings, of their claim to be the source of beauty. One thinks of the blood-red soils of the Mediterranean or the dazzling clays cut into Appenine ravines. Often, however, the impact is more discrete, something of a background noise, as is the case with the luminous ochres of the Po valley. Yet no less essential. As is true for every affair of the eye, we have to find out something for ourselves, before we really become aware of it.

The earth’s colors have few ingredients, and in most cases they are easy to name. The base pigment is made of iron oxides. These have a close tie with the climate, since in hot regions, or wherever there is a hot, dry season, as in the Mediterranean, they are reddish or deep reds, or at least rust-colored. And even when the climate comes close to that of the Mediterranean, without really reaching it, as is true in many parts of northern Italy, the tones tend to be pinkish or reddish ochre. Think, in sum, of soils in varying shades of sienna (which are not, by the way, particularly common around Siena).

In colder and more humid climates, and north of the Alps in particular, oxides originally formed with the soil respond to the pervasive humidity; they are yellowish in color, their soils light yellow or beige. No blood-red sumptuousness, no visual slaps in the face making your passions rise; instead, one thinks of tedium and long winters with short hours of daylight. Where there is an excess of water, as in marshlands, the colors are light gray, even bluish or greenish—they remind you of the complexion of someone anemic. There actually is iron, but lack of oxygen keeps it from oxiding.

Coloration that results from the oxides is generally contaminated by the presence of organic matter, which lends it somber tones, increasingly dark when it is increasingly abundant. It is plentiful in the soils of temperate regions because the bacteria that make it through decomposition work less well, or for shorter periods, in the cold; it tends to conglomerate, giving it various colors of brown. Old-fashioned nomenclature spoke of terre brune, a name that captured well the superposition of its two elements. When the cold is more intense, the color tends toward shades of black. In hot climates, on the other hand, organic matter decomposes very quickly, so the reds tend to stay nice and clean.

On the other hand, the organic matter in agrarian soils has almost always been depleted, because the process of cultivation takes it away in the form of edible (or at least usable) produce, with the poverty of the soil proportional to the loss. Assuming that great care has not been taken to prevent it (and generally with industrialized agriculture there is none), the amount diminishes year by year. This again is something anyone can see: as soils become more depleted, they grow more pale in color. Or in other cases, where the soil has an intense underlying color, this hue remains clear and vivid. Like a patient who doesn’t appear sick due to the clarity of their complexion.

Colors can also come from the type of stone which the soil develops from, like a dessert taking on the color of carrots or chocolate. This happens especially when the stone has marked or unusual coloration. In the Aeolian Islands, Sardegna or India, basalt—volcanic stone in colors of dark gray or black—creates soils that are very dark, imposing, and elegant. Just as, in Champagne, Spain, or Tunisia, chalk creates white soils that invariably make their notably pristine impression. Different sorts of mauve or amaranthine stone—for example, many kinds of sandstone and marl—tend to create striking soils with garnet or deep purple tonalities. In fact, the highly colored soils that turn up like flashing lights attracting attention, here and there in temperate or colder climates, generally inherit their gaudy garb from the subsoils—our current climate is not the culprit.

As far as I’m concerned, the colors I care for most, perhaps because I’ve spent more time and had more pleasure with them, are hidden. They prefer not to exhibit themselves. These are the orange ochres of high Alpine or more generally Nordic areas, with their silicate-based soils, made, for example, of granite or porphyry. Under a crust of leaf litter or mosses, the earth has incredibly vivid pastel colors, from a delicate, intense yellow to very vibrant orange. On the surface none of this can be seen, next to no one realizes that they’re walking over a Rothko. All it takes, though, is a few hard blows from a boot heel—or just a new gash along the trail’s edge—to see this hidden treasure.

You need to hurry, though: after contact with the air, these magnificent colors quickly lose their shine and strength, becoming faded yellows and dusty ochres, of little interest. They don’t show themselves on the surface, and these colors can’t be conserved. Like poppies and other flowers that can’t be put in a vase, they immediately wither. Perhaps they aren’t particularly fond of humanity and human destruction. They can only stay within, as does everything truly precious.

GIACOMO SARTORI is a novelist, poet, dramatist, and agronomist. His most recent novel in English, Bug (Restless Books, 2020), was translated by Frederika Randall. His novel I Am God (Restless Books, 2019), also translated by Randall, won the 2020 Italian Prose in Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.

Translated by JIM HICKS

(Earth Primer #10)


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