Ode to Brown by Alice Lowe

Photo by Ivo Konings on Unsplash

Bottomless. My mother’s eyes were deep brown, the brownest brown, a bottomless brown, holding depths of sorrow, years of pain. My brother inherited my mother’s eyes, dark and expressive, the brown gene dominant over my father’s baby blue sparklers. Neither was passed on to me, my hazel eyes a genetic mutation. Lady Gaga and Fleetwood Mac wrote songs titled “Brown Eyes.” In the ‘60s Connie Francis and The Brothers Four sang, “Beautiful, beautiful brown eyes; I’ll never love blue eyes again.”

Rustic and rugged, the color brown is associated with nature—wood and wildlife. Jonathan Franzen wrote in National Geographic that the species we don’t recognize, the ones we lump together as “little brown birds,” can embrace the “nearly infinite shades of brown that tax the vocabulary of avian taxonomists,” including rufous (reddish-brown), fulvous (tawny yellow-brown), ferruginous (rust-colored), bran-colored, foxy and bronze. I was attracted to California towhees during my Covid-induced seasons of bird watching. Year-round visitors to my San Diego canyon-side yard, towhees stand out, bigger and plumper than finches and sparrows, most distinctive for their uniform color, a warm matte cocoa brown. At the other end of nature’s brown spectrum, there’s mud and muck, soil and shit. In polls, brown—dull, drab, dirt brown—is ranked least favorite. Yet I’m not the only gardener who reaps joy from burrowing my bare hands into rich, loamy soil.

Old English brún means dark and dusky, and, conversely, shining or polished: burnished. Brown has been used in art since prehistoric times—cave paintings using umber, a natural clay pigment composed of iron oxide and manganese oxide, date to 40,000 BCE. In Wicca, brown is associated with the element of earth, representing solidity, endurance, grounding. Now brown is a fashion statement, touted as this year’s new black, myriad shades drawing names from nature.

What’s in a name? Brown is among the six most common names in the U.S., along with Jones, Smith, Davis, Johnson, and Williams. In her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Virginia Woolf created this anonymous woman to illustrate the worth of writing about ordinary people. I named my first new car Brown, a 1965 Chevy Nova that I drove off the showroom floor in all its bronze glory. My parents oversaw and approved the transaction, shielding me—young and guileless—from the sharks. “Brown? Are you sure?” asked my mother as she pointed to a powder blue model. But Brown epitomized the sophistication and elegance I sought. Like Brown Pickering, the debutante daughter of a posh La Jolla family that I read about on the society pages, the natty Nova’s namesake. 

Nut brown like the squirrels—all named Buster—that populate my patio; topaz like my cashmere V-neck sweater, a prized thrift-store find; cinnamon like my grandson’s beloved teddy bear. Brown is the color of delicious and nourishing: coffee with cream, meatloaf and gravy, refried beans, sauteed mushrooms, toast and waffles, honey and molasses, all things chocolate.

Alice Lowe writes about life and language, food and family. Her essays have been published in more than eighty literary journals, this past year in Bacopa, Change Seven, Epiphany, Burningword, (mac)ro(mic), New World Writing, and Sport Literate. She recently won an essay contest at Eat, Darling, Eat, and her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays “Notables.” Alice lives in San Diego, California, and posts her work at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.  

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