Colour.

Both of the times I have walked to work this week have been under blue skies. The first was a crisp morning, where you could still see your breath, especially in the shadows under the trees. The second was a morning after rain, and the air had been washed clean overnight. Both showed off the clarity of spring colour with a kind of youthful excess that spoke of growth and future possibilities. Later in the year, when the harsh Australian sun has stripped much of the colour from what you see, things will not look so sharp, so clear or so bright.

By the sides of the roads, under elms that were shedding their flowers, but gaining their leaves, there was a riot of colour, most of it unnatural. The yearly hard waste collection was underway and people had taken the chance to empty sheds and lofts onto the nature strip. This is where the colour came from - children’s toys, flowerpots, beds and IKEA furniture slumping back towards its flat pack origin. Whole sets of bikes, where a family history could be guessed by size and colour. Computers, monitors, CD players and even a box of Zip Drives, all the victims of the need for more speed, more memory, more choice and less bulk. And dozens upon dozens of poor old CRT TV’s, abandoned in the rush to flatness and plasma. Over the week many items disappeared, recycled by the sharp eyed and the nimble fingered. But the TV’s, those poor old idiot boxes, seem just to sit and wait, destined for landfill and the creation of a toxic legacy. Each box and bundle, each bucket and ball, added a colour to the palette offered by nature – well, all except the computers - they we all grey or beige, the colour of week old fish, once white underpants or old socks! In a week or so all this synthetic gaiety will have been gathered in, harvested and with luck recycled. Nature’s colours will remain, less tangible than a bike or a car seat, but far more permanent.

It’s spring and a young man’s mind turns to …… well, I’m no longer in the demographic that anybody really calls young, so I’ll turn my mind to colour, rather than more obvious subjects. Colour. Aside from the old philosophical pearl about not knowing how other people actually see colour, one of the things that interests me is the idea that much of the colour in the human world must be an evolutionary coincidence. The eyes that selected the colour of wild orchids are insect eyes - vastly different in structure and sensory range to our own. So, why do we find a flower that has evolved to pretend to be a wasp attractive? Why do we (or at least I) find the deep green of a summer woodland so relaxing - after all plants are only green because of the light reflected by the chlorophyll deep within the leaves. Woodlands seem cool and relaxed because they shine with a light the plants do not use. The red of some berries - rowan - can be arrestingly beautiful, but even these have a story to tell other than human eyes. Birds see a set of colours that are red shifted compared to ours. The berries’ red is not a warning of toxicity, but a clarion call to obviousness. “Hey, notice me, eat me, move my seeds”. The startling plumage of parrots is hard to maintain - and the brighter the bird the better the genes. “Hey, if I can pull off this level of brightness, I must be really fit”. The sky splash of colour as a parrot flies by is as much an advertisement for sex as a brothel billboard - although at least the parrot has the dignity to rely on unconscious messaging rather than a more full on approach. Peacocks tails are for peahens, not us. Grebes dance for themselves and their partners, not us, and if the dancers are successful their genes will dance on through generation after generation, out through time. Colour helps this happen and we benefit by coincidence.

But there may be more to it than this. Does the love of green woodland hark back to when we would have found water by the ciphers that the natural world gives out, rather than through a tap? Does the colour of the sea and sand still speak of food to be gathered - of journeys along coastal highways as we walked out of Africa? Of one thing I am sure. The luxury of colour that fills our world does not speak of design or purpose, for we are late comers to the table. The riot for spring was seen by eyes uncounted before an upright ape found that they pleased its eyes. So, even if this is a story of coincidental appreciation, it is still a story of appreciation, and this week, back and forward from work and in the park with the kids I have been seeking colour.

To be honest it was not the colour, but the sound that first drew my attention. Two parrots flashed overhead, calling as they went. But they did not sound familiar, and they looked bigger than usual. Once they landed it was clear they were King Parrots, two tone red and green, but looking mostly red in the new leaves of the elm trees. Elm flowers floated down in clumps and bunches as they were shredded by skilful beaks.

By the side of the house strawberries flamed in the depths of the borders - wild seeded, but not really wild. As a kid I would find tiny strawberries, about the size of my little finger nail, on the railway bank down the street. Crushed behind your teeth against the top of your mouth they produced more flavour in a single burst than a whole punnet of commercial strawberries. While the strawberries in the garden may be the product of deliberation and plan, the basic template from which they were drawn is natural. Bottlebrush flowers flare like torches, sometimes hidden within the bush itself, sometimes on clear display.

Orange, with an undertone of smoke, speaks of the 1970’s like no other colour, and it was present in surprising amounts in the roadside collections. In gardens and small wild places it was much less common, and whenever it was found it seemed garish and bold. Only a few small flowers, when I was of course camera-less seemed to be able to be both orange and subtle. Much like the decade that spawned the orange kitchen, it’s a colour that lacks an ability to be understated. It’s a kick in the face kind of colour, an eye catcher, but not an intellectual.

Buttercups, dandelions, the pollen stuffed into the baskets on the legs of bees, the sun - especially in kid’s paintings and story books - all add a splash of colour. I think that yellow works best in small amounts, a sprinkle here, a dash there. Yellow speckled meadows are what childhood summers were about, so the massed colour of canola looks both strange and strangely attractive. Strange because such a mass of yellow seems unusual, but if yellow is the colour of summer, then this much yellow must be really good. Stands of wattle can sometimes compete with the solid bank of yellow, but by this time of the year the wattles are losing their lustre, and the ground beneath them is as likely to be yellow as the branches above.

From space the Earth looks blue and white, but for us land-lubbers the overwhelming sensation is more often green. Unless you live in one of those urban areas where brainless planning and lack of foresight have robbed the world of everything but shades of grey, green is the colour that you are most likely to spot first thing in the morning. Even in towns and cities, green is the colour that comes back first when human management slides away. In the cracks and corners of buildings, plants find a foothold and grow with an unseemly energy. Roots push down between bricks and draw minerals from the mortar, while leaves dash upwards, to the sunlight, to the air, to make food.

But to call this colour just green is to miss most of the variation that can be seen. There is green with grey or with purple or red. There are colours which are called green simply because they are produced by plants. Seen elsewhere they would be called something else, but the colours are catalogued by association. Leaves are green, you’re a leaf, you’re green.

If you look up, and it’s the kind of day that only happens on the last day of your holiday, chances are there will be a sweep of blue above your head. On clear days, after the wind has swept away the clouds and the rain has swept away the smoke, the blue sky stretches away forever. Clouds give the sky a texture, but on clear days it moves on and out forever. Even to the edge of space. But look down and blue may not be so common - English bluebell woods being an exception. The tiny blue dots on the hind wing of a butterfly, an Australian Painted Lady, mark it out as different from other species. Such a small amount of colour and such an important division. Marking the gulf between one species and another - marking the splitting of a river of DNA now kept within separate banks, it can be traced back through all the divisions and traumas of history to that first spark of life. That’s quite a lot to see in a blue dot less than 1mm across.


And finally we reach indigo and violet, two colours that merge more than most. Which is which and which is the other I can’t tell, but they sit there at the rainbow’s end and produce things of gentle colour. Some of the colours wash away in the rain or are burnt away by the sun, to produce colours so pale and wan that they could be white, but something deep within the eye tells you that they are not - wash colours, hints.


Of course this leaves black, which is no colour at all, and white which is all of them. This seems a natural place to stop with things that are everything and things that are nothing at all.

Richard Of York (may have) Given Battle In Vain, but noticing the colours that this schoolyard phrase bring to mind is not vain at all.

No comments: