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The Color of Tree Trunks: Culture and Perception
Compare my Tree Colors with the Colors Below
The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes this morning was a picture I had once painted of a path in a snowy wood. I keep the painting on my wall because of what is good in it and how it evokes that long ago day of skiing through the woods with my dad.
But there is something wrong with the picture. I realized it almost as soon as I finished painting. The tree trunks are much too brown, not shades of gray as they had been in the Maine woods that day. Why had I not observed better?
Pondering, I remembered coloring trees as a child—and suddenly I knew. When you are a kid in kindergarten, tree tops are green and trunks are brown. I remembered cutting green circles from construction paper, and brown trunks and branches. I had glued the circle over the branches. The other kids were doing it that way; must have been the teacher’s instructions.
Other times we all had a page to color and most of us chose brown for tree trunks. Sometimes I drew a picture of a house and flowers and placed a tree nearby, green top, brown trunk. I knew my tree didn’t look exactly like the maple trees on our lawn, but did it matter? Not if I was making conscious choices. The teacher did not take us out to observe trees before coloring. We relied on our memories. When my sisters and I were drawing and coloring at home, our mother did not suggest that we go out and observe trees. Brown tree trunks became a convention, a cultural agreement.
Not that my mother and my teachers had the intention of channeling my perceptions. Once when I made a blue horse and my sister told me it was all wrong, my mother defended my right to color horses any color I liked. But the grownups in my world were largely unaware of how they guided our perceptions to match their own.
Obviously, there are some things a child needs to agree to, such as what objects in her environment are not safe to eat or how not to take a spill, a lesson I recently watched my son provide for his toddler. As the little boy got the idea, he declared triumphantly, “We sit on chairs. We stand on floors!” Revelation.
Still, a child’s safety is often not involved in “the way we do things.” Much of what we learn comes with the bias of the folks among whom we are born. Often they have lost the original reason things were done that way. Maybe tree trunks were browner in Old England then they are in New England. Brown is one of the colors tree trunks come in, along with tans and grays and gray-browns and even white. But observation is key to success in rendering a painting of an actual scene you want to capture. Cultural bias can keep you from observing life.
Culture is anything added to the basic survival efforts all people have in common. Culture can be anything from a dollar bill to a New England Town Meeting to a belief in slavery. Culture was what I began to see beyond when I first read Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, a land (when Mead first visited) without pianos, without White Christmases, and without forests or crayons. Culture can provide much comfort and pleasure. And sometimes harm, as when an accepted truth prevents you from seeing the worth of those who live differently—or from seeing the color of tree trunks.