Conventionally Brown


  • Ask most residents of Huntington what the common color of nature is, this week after Thanksgiving, and most would say “brown.”  Forest floor is covered in brown, and what leaves remain on the trees have lost all other colors.  Exposed branches of the deciduous canopy are various shades of what might be called brown.  Dried weeds and exposed earth are only charitably tagged as “sienna” or “umber.”  “Brown” is the safe, conventional response.
  • Brown is an odd color, not found in the rainbow.  Nature, even now, is not brown.  Tree trunks do not resemble the drawings of children with crayons _ most are more closely grey.  Cloudy skies are tinged with blue and yellow, clear skies are azure, without even mentioning sunrise and sunset.  Water echoes sky, with deeper tones.  Evergreens remain verdant, lawns are still emerald.  Looking closely other colors peek out here and there.  And it is almost impossible to miss the brilliant hues of man even in the most natural setting _ bright red jackets, or brilliant yellow cars, for example.
  • Conventions help us organize our thoughts.  So it is not exactly wrong for me to think of late fall as brown, of winter as white, of spring as brilliant lime.  By contrast to each other, there is a grain of truth in categorization.  But I should never confuse that convenience for reality.
  • I would extend that to our thinking about society.  Conventionally, we may see desperate times, or loss of civility, or intolerance, or downright stupidity.  And, again, although there may be a grain of truth and a bit of useful categorization in such characterization, it is hardly the whole truth and maybe not even close to reality.  Just as late fall nature is not really brown, America today is hardly as desperate as fanatics on any side of the political spectrum lazily perceive it.


  • Appropriately, humans cast the world in human terms.  There is a clean logic to that, especially since it is hard to believe that any other species on the planet would consider alternate interpretations.  It is unlikely that a fox or willow ever wonders what it would be to experience life as a person.  Only people try to understand alternatives _ even if that is usually simply anthropomorphic casting.
  • Why we have been endowed with intelligence and ability is a profound question.  Scientists point to the climatic insanity of the ice ages.  Religions claim the spark of the divine.  The true issue is not how we have become as we are, but what we do with it now that we exist.  Too often I take my conventional outlooks for granted, barely pausing to understand how wonderful they are, and how amazing that I can change them at will.
  • So I stroll under “menacing” skies that are merely water vapor and gas, watch “playful” birds that are only trying to eat, contemplate “majestic” trees that “endure” harsh storms.  That is right and proper, but I must always also realize that any mood I project, however conventionally true, is nothing more than my projection.  The way I think can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help.  I strive to remain able to reset and find fresh alternatives to what I too easily accept.  


  • Conventional truth is not reality; we merely construct useful beliefs.
  • Each moment of our experience is a tangle of partial fragments and misperceptions.


  • Islamic State and White Supremacy are isomorphs.  Each is an exclusive conventional idea of superiority based on race, religion, or some other easily determined marker.  All cults transform their inner circle into presumed magicians, their followers into unquestioning parrots, and everyone else into subhuman “others.”  As tribal creatures, we are easily seduced into such groups. 
  • Logic in tribal association is less important than proximity, intuition, and reinforcement.  Society can rarely break up proximity _ the Roman diaspora of the Jews notably failed _ and intuition resists anything but revelation.  But we can counter reinforcement. 
  • Magicians can be proved powerless.  Adherents can discouraged by incompetence in the real world.  The most important counterweight is social civility.  Even the most isolated tribal member often feels a strong attraction to get along with others, if only to convert them.  By providing a civil society which promotes the idea that there are no true “others”, and which encourages interconnection between everyone, tribal exclusiveness is weakened.  It is no accident that the first thing cult leaders attempt to do is to restrict access to the outside world for all those who join its circle.
  • When conventional tribal ideology becomes fanatically destructive, like Islamic State or Nazi Germany or the American Confederacy, the end result is usually the immolation of the tribe, although it may take many others down with it.  One of the great tasks of this century will be to understand how and when to contain such a malignancy, either with more powerful social conventions, or early use of naked force.


  • Conventional understanding of any situation is always subject to change.  Standing in deep woods looking into sunbeams slicing through tree trunks presents a radically dif
    ferent set of images than those seen by simply turning around.  Walking beyond into a meadow is to gain a totally reoriented perspective of forest.  Flying as high as a hawk transforms terrain yet again.  And poking around with a magnifying glass or microscope supplies yet another slice of whatever “reality” may be.
  • Conventionally, we are told to “think out of the box” or take a “view from twenty thousand feet.”  These admonitions are almost useless.  We are trapped not within a box, but within shapeless but generally useful tricks of survival.  A view from higher than a hawk circles _ a few hundred feet over treetops _ is of no value to anyone except real estate developers.
  • Having conventional views is not the problem.  They are what we are, our primary tools of survival.  Not realizing that they are conventions is our problem, and one of the reasons art is such an important element in any culture.  Art not only focuses conventions, but by doing so also allows us to step out of them, as into a meadow, and reorient our perspective of society.


Pinny Oak stretches her limbs away from the northern blast and yawns mightily.  Leaves cascade away, leaving her three-quarters undressed.
“Going to sleep already?” asks Sam Spruce across the yard.
“I always get tired this time of season,” she replies.  “I leave late months to you.”
“You’re missing the best part of the year,” Sam tells her.  “Hardly any pests, lots of water, fairly quiet, and those pesky humans mostly scurry away and leave us alone.”
“Not what I heard,” says Pinny.  “Your cousin Jane over in the corner says she’s lost relatives.  Just cut down and dragged into humans’ burrows for some obscene ritual or other, then tossed out when they have been sucked dry.”
“That seems to depend on where you live and how big you are,” notes Sam.  “They don’t seem to bother any of us around here, thank heaven.  Anyway, I find it a wonderful contemplative time.”
“Well, I can’t help it.  I need my hibernation or I’m a mess in the spring.  Anyway, it’s not ‘already’, I always turn in around now.”
“Pleasant dreams,” mutters Sam politely, as another strong gust rips by.

“Good winter to you as well.”


If I could see or clearly know
I’d fill my time with what was right
Choose true paths
Ignore the strange.
What lies about is fog and mist
Scattered forms in subdued light
Which subtly shift
Or quickly change.
I think I’ve found what’s real at last
Clutch my prize to hold it tight
Then wind blows biting, clears my brain

All is formless once again.

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