When I lived in California’s “gold country,” I explored the Sierra Nevada mountains. What struck me first was the clarity of the streams. I could see the bottom of the stream bed without a doubt about what I was stepping on. There was no mystery within these crystal flowing waters.
In my home bioregion of northern New England, the color of a stream tells a story. Clear water almost only exists at the top of a mountain. As the stream trickles, then pours downwards tracing the topography of the landscape, the water changes color. The most common color is a deep reddish brown. An observer’s first experience with this color water might lead to assumptions of pollution or “dirtiness,” but I listen to a lake so rich in color that it prevents me seeing my own feet while swimming. This color tells me a story: I know that tannins are leaching into this water from somewhere. Without even glancing at the lakeshore, I know it is likely to be composed of oaks, maples, perhaps some firs or hemlocks, and likely some shrubs from the Ericaceae, or heath, family.
As foreign as this concept might sound, everyone has experienced tannins. That bitterness in black tea? Tannins. That astringency from red wine? Tannins. “Oh Tannenbaum?” Tannins from fir trees. Tanning a hide? From tannins found in oaks. The reason for leaching the bitterness out of acorns before consuming them? Tannins (more info on oaks and their edible nut, the acorn, in my post here).
The next time you question the murky depths of a stream or lake, pause to listen to the story that color tells—about the plants that must have contributed to the beautiful painting that is the natural world.