"Desert Colors"

As If In A Dream II by Khrysso Heart LeFeyWe moved to our double-wide in the western Mojave Desert four weeks ago. We had bought the house sight-unseen, based only on pictures from the real estate company. The place appeared to be in pretty good shape. We could tell that the paint job was not new, but Grey, a theatre director, has a paint-sprayer for set decoration, so we figured that an exterior paint job on a one-story manufactured building would be easy to apply as soon as we wanted to get around to it.

We mentioned to the park manager that we would want to be painting the house within our first year, and she said that that would be fine as long as we chose “desert colors.”

“Desert colors,” eh?

When I hear that phrase my mind immediately goes to my young adulthood (which began around 1980) and an apparent resurgence of “Santa Fe” or “Pueblo” styling, with colors that took their names from oceans rather than deserts—coral and seafoam—and from sand and stones: pale yellow and gold and turquoise and rusty reds. Oddly, though I am surrounded by greys here in the desert, I don’t see greys listed in rosters of “Southwestern” colors.

I mentioned to our new next-door neighbor, who will have the broadest view of our new house color, what the manager had said about “desert color” and mused about coral. She asked, somewhat suspiciously, “But not too pink, right?”

Nope. Not too pink. But her response told me something of what people think when they hear the phrase, “Desert colors.” Pinks—not just corals. We don’t see much pink here, at least not so far in October.

If I were to compile a palette of the colors that surround us, that would include a piercing sky-blue, obviously, because out here we are far enough away from the city not to be immersed in smog, and it is dry enough—this is bona fide desert—that there are few clouds most days.

One can see, without having to look far, most kinds of greens here. The main flora that I can identify during any day’s drive include pines and palms and Joshua trees (a kind of yucca) and Mojave Yuccas and mesquite scrub and cottonwoods and willows (though not the weeping willows of my Ohio youth), and some of the greens of these plants can be quite intense, ranging from what in a crayon we would have identified as “forest green” to bright yellow-greens to muted grey- or blue-greens. The palette for green would be, I think, the widest.

Everywhere you look here there is sand, of course, and gravel. The sand is light brown or yellow-brown, not white like at the beach. Yards in the towns are far more often landscaped with gravel, a fact for which I am grateful in a land where we do well to conserve water, rather than with turf. The gravel is often grey, as you’d expect, or perhaps whitish with flecks of blue-grey.

A common rock in the region is granite, which is often grey, and there is also quartz, feldspar, and basalt—all of which can co-occur with granite in the Earth’s crust. (That much information stretches my understanding of desert geology.) The quartz can be lots of colors, but around here its influence on the rock formations appears limited to greys and browns. Basalt, as I have seen elsewhere, is black or dark. But the other stones are boulder-colored, not gemstone-colored.

When we drive—and we have to drive anywhere we go except perhaps the dollar store around the corner—we are presented with vista after vista of mountains, each successive range fading in the distance, always layers of browns and sandy browns fading to greys.

We arrived here in October, and while the temperatures are still moderate (it was 52° when I woke up this November morning), it is Autumn and the growing season is not upon us. There are few wildflowers to see. Annuals appear mostly in nurseries, as they do everywhere; when you see flowers in the wild, they are usually perennials, and perennials are often more modest than flashy. Probably the most intense color we’ve seen on bushes in the area has been a rather dark purple, and that is rare enough that it catches our attention when it does come into view. Most of the flowers I’ve noticed in the desert at this time of year have been white or pale yellow. Winter is, I am told, the “wet season” (by which I am to understand that most of the less than 10” of rain in the year falls then), but local blooms tend to hold off until warmer Spring months following the wet season.

Though in interior decorating “desert” or “Southwestern” or “pueblo” can evoke visions of intense or saturated colors, at least accent colors, my experience of color here has been that desert colors are almost always muted, that is, pale. That’s my overall impression of natural colors here: except for the sky and greens, the colors are all, or nearly all, pale versions of what you might see in a color wheel or chart. Not necessarily “washed out;” that phrase sounds like a judgment. What I mean is just not intense. No bright corals or piercing seafoams or even turquoise, which occurs naturally in our county, but usually under the surface in or near copper mines.

During the 1980s I was familiar with the “seasonal color palette” gimmick of Carole Jackson (which is, nearly 40 years later, still a thriving industry, so who am I to call it a “gimmick”?). Jackson pointed out that nearly everyone can wear nearly every color as long as they chose varieties of the colors that were flattering to them. Anyone can wear blue. I as a Winter “should” wear midnight blues; others "should" wear powder blue or royal blue or turquoise. (Grey thinks that people should wear whatever makes them happy.)

All colors can be saturated—or muted. It is the muted colors that predominate in the desert. Because they rarely jump out at you, you have to pay attention if you want to notice them. But they’re there.

It won’t be hard at all for us to choose a “desert color” when we get around to painting our house.

©November 1, 2018 Khrysso Heart LeFey