Thursday, January 12, 2017

Colorful language for flora and fauna #phenology

The screen saver on my desk top computer projects words from the computer's dictionary onto the screen. Occasionally a word will be one I've neither seen nor heard previously. Recently, I noticed the word "rubiginous," with a definition of rust-colored. Neither the word nor the color can be found in Wikipedia's List of Colors, nor do they appear to be in Ingrid Sundberg's helpful Color Thesaurus. It does not appear in the indexes of Victoria Finlay's Color, a Natural History of the Palette, or Simon Jennings' Artist's Little Book of Colors. My fantasy of finding something other than Pantone or the hexadecimal color system for computers serving as a definitive source for color names continues. Why is there not a Linnaeus of color?

rubiginous oak leaves?
rubiginous oak leaves?
Photo by J. Harrington

All of these thoughts came to mind this morning as I noticed that the red squirrel near the front bird feeder was about the same color as the fallen oak leaves, and I wondered if the animal or the leaves would be considered rubiginous. None of the first half-dozen or so online dictionaries provided a color sample to go with the definition. A Google search of rubiginous images yields a multitude of variations. Based on them, the oak leaves and red squirrel either are or are not rubiginous. Take your pick. And, as a topic for some other day, neither are as noticeable sitting still as when they move.

rubiginous squirrel?
rubiginous squirrel?
Photo by J. Harrington

These concerns seem to me to be more relevant than frivolous if we consider the language that's being thrown around about truth, truthiness, lies, and a head full of other hairs being split about certain Russian dossiers and other topics. Language changes, but Truth shouldn't come and go with a language change. Just because the Oxford Junior Dictionary no longer has room for Acorn, Willow, Buttercup or Kingfisher, does not mean those elements of our natural world no longer exist. I'm all for keeping old words (I'm a big fan of dragons) and creating new words as necessary.

I'm also becoming more sensitive to the issue of cultural appropriation, since language is embedded in culture. ASTM has standards for translation, and many, many standards for specifying colors, but, apparently not color names. As the Artist's Little Book notes "With just one color there are so many factors that affect what you see on paper or canvas; these include thickness of color, medium used, surface used, strength of pigment, use in mixtures, juxtaposition, transparency, color bias and more. Then there's the whole topic of biomimicry and "real" versus "perceived color and issues with how children learn color names. Once again I'm in way over my head. Language, color, naming and cultural variations mean that, for today, its time to walk the dogs through a whiteout.


I want to believe we can’t see anything
we don’t have a word for.

When I look out the window and say green, I mean sea green,
I mean moss green, I mean gray, I mean pale and also
electrically flecked with white and I mean green
in its damp way of glowing off a leaf.

Scheele’s green, the green of Renaissance painters,
is a sodium carbonate solution heated to ninety degrees
as arsenious oxide is stirred in. Sodium displaces copper,
resulting in a green precipitate that is sometimes used
as insecticide. When I say green I mean
a shiny green bug eating a yellow leaf.

Before synthetics, not every painter could afford a swathe
of blue. Shocking pink, aka neon, aka kinky pink,
wasn’t even on the market. I want to believe Andy Warhol
invented it in 1967 and ever since no one’s eyes
have been the same. There were sunsets before,
but without that hot shocking neon Marilyn, a desert sky
was just cataract smears. I want to believe this.

The pale green of lichen and half-finished leaves
filling my window is a palette very far from carnation
or bougainvillea, but to look out is to understand it is not,
is to understand what it is not. I stare out the window a lot.
Between the beginning and the end the leaves unfolded.
I looked out one morning and everything was unfamiliar
as if I was looking at the green you could only see
if you’d never known synthetic colors existed.

I’ve drawn into myself people say.
We understand, they say.

There are people who only have words for red
and black and white, and I wonder if they even see
the trees at the edge of the grass
or the green storms coming out of the west.
There are people who use the same word for green
and red and brown, and I wonder if red
seems so urgently bright pouring from the body
when there is no green for it to fall against.

In his treatise on color Wittgenstein asked,
“Can’t we imagine certain people
having a different geometry of colour than we do?”

I want to believe the eye doesn’t see green until it has a name,
because I don’t want anything to look the way it did before.

Van Gogh painted pink flowers, but the pink faded
and curators labeled the work “White Roses” by mistake.

The world in my window is a color the Greeks called chlorol.
When I learned the word I was newly pregnant
and the first pale lichens had just speckled the silver branches.
The pines and the lichens in the chill drizzle were glowing green
and a book in my lap said chlorol was one of the untranslatable
words. The vibrating glow pleased me then, as a finger
dipped in sugar pleased me then. I said the word aloud
for the baby to hear. Chlorol. I imagined the baby
could only see hot pink and crimson inside its tiny universe,
but if you can see what I’m seeing, the word for it
is chlorol. It’s one of the things you’ll like out here.

Nineteenth century critics mocked painters who cast shadows
in unexpected colors. After noticing green cypresses do drop red
shadows, Goethe chastised them. “The eye demands
completeness and seeks to eke out the colorific circle in itself.”
He tells of a trick of light that had him pacing a row of poppies
to see the flaming petals again and figure out why.

Over and over again Wittgenstein frets the problem of translucence.
Why is there no clear white?
He wants to see the world through white-tinted glasses,
but all he finds is mist.

At first I felt as if the baby had fallen away
like a blue shadow on the snow.

Then I felt like I killed the baby
in the way you can be thinking about something else
and drop a heavy platter by mistake.

Sometimes I feel like I was stupid
to have thought I was pregnant at all.

Color is an illusion, a response to the vibrating universe
of electrons. Light strikes a leaf and there’s an explosion
where it lands. When colors change, electromagnetic fields
are colliding. The wind is not the only thing moving the trees.

Once when I went into those woods I saw a single hot pink orchid
on the hillside and I had to keep reminding myself not to
tell the baby about the beautiful small things I was seeing.
So, hot pink has been here forever and I don’t even care
about that color or how Andy Warhol showed me an orchid.
I hate pink. It makes my eyes burn.

Thanks for visiting. Come again when you can.
Please be kind to each other while you can.