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  • Purple Mountains
  • Heather Snell

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My earliest memory of the negative side of borders is vivid. I remember sitting in a classroom using crayon to add colour to what was otherwise a fairly bland, colouring-book-standard drawing of a valley, which, if the mountains in the background were any indication, belonged more to the westerly province of British Columbia, Canada, than it did to the southern Ontario home in which I lived at that time. Lucky for me, my family had recently moved from British Columbia to Ontario, and so I knew what colour the mountains in the background should be: a luminous purple. Anyone who has spent time in Kelowna, British Columbia, knows that unless they are obscured by mist, the mountains that ring the Okanagan Valley often appear this colour at a distance even though if one were to see them up close they might actually be a motley of grey, green, yellow, amber, copper, black, beige, bronze, and brown. Even among these mountains, the colours of each would differ from one another when seen up close. Not all mountains look the same, even when they are ringing the same valley. When one considers the plethora of mountains around the world, the number of colours mountains wear multiply further. Depending on who is doing the looking, mountains can be any colour. Just imagine how they might appear to a bee! And who's to say that the colouring-book-standard valley drawing we were given is a deliberate [End Page 1] attempt to represent the precise valley I had inhabited just months before? The valley on that piece of paper could have been anywhere, and so the possibilities for the array of colours the mountains in the background could be were infinite.

The reason I remember putting colour into this drawing so vividly is that my luminous purple did not satisfy my teacher, who proclaimed in a tone that discouraged any argumentation that "mountains are brown." I've never forgotten that decisive statement, uttered with such authority, as if some law had been laid down about what colour mountains are. I guess one of the reasons I remember this incident so well is that I knew in my heart of hearts that my teacher was wrong. Just plain WRONG. I knew what colour mountains should be, because I had lived among them. From my vantage point in the Okanagan Valley, I had grown up in their shadow. They had protected me from adverse weather as well as the pterosaurs who, wary, perhaps, of those intimidating peaks, would merely glide over, rather than swoop down into, the valley. I looked at the mountains often for this reason, and that's why I also knew that on a good day, my mountainous friends shimmered in a luminous purple. Who was this teacher, insisting that mountains are brown? I still wonder why the teacher was so certain that brown was the colour of mountains. Did they see mountains as so much dirt, brown being the dominant colour of the earth in Newmarket, Ontario? Did they think that all rocks are brown? Had they never seen white clays, red hematites, or pink andalusites? Did they not know that green plants and wildflowers of many colours can thrive on mountains, altering further their appearance when seen from a distance? Did they not know that depending on the amount of water or ice in the air, and depending on who is doing the looking and from what vantage point, that mountains can look just about any colour regardless of what they are made of and what kinds of flora and fauna dwell on them? Had they never learned the lesson of perspective? I was less bothered by the "colour within the lines" rule than I was by the demand to colour in those mountains brown. It felt like a betrayal of my own memory. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I am less outraged by the rejection of the colour purple than I am unsettled by the fact that my early education was so invested in encouraging an uncritical acceptance of the classificatory systems that characterize...


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