by James Morris
Sometimes, it’s hard to see what’s right in front of you.
I recently overheard a conversation between my wife and a close friend. My friend just took up painting, and my wife has painted for many years. They were talking about how to paint trees, when my wife commented, “Look closely at trees – they aren’t brown.”
Take a look – they aren’t.
Tree trunks are mostly gray, in fact. Some are light gray; some are dark gray. Some trees, like paper birch, have white trunks with streaks of black. The Palo Verde, the Arizona state tree, has green bark. The bark of other trees, like cedars and redwoods, do look brown, with shades of gray. So, when you paint a tree, you shouldn’t immediately reach for the tube of brown paint.
The same is true of the sky. What color is the sky? It’s blue, of course. But take a look again. It can be white, or gray, or orange, or red, or purple, or black. It depends on the time of day, the presence of clouds and mist, and where you look. Sometimes it’s blue, but often it’s not.
One of my favorite Radiolab podcasts is called “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?” Here, they mention that young children, when asked what color the sky is, may look at you quizzically, not exactly sure what you mean. Or, they might answer with a rainbow of colors. Only as they get older and learn that the sky is blue, do they answer, simply, “blue.”
We all “learn” that the sky is blue, and then stop looking at the sky itself.
The sky is reflected in lakes and the ocean, which aren’t really blue either, though we might think of them (or want to paint them) that way. Water is green or gray or black. Sometimes it’s blue, in shallow waters in the tropics, but often not.
The sun in the sky is seldom yellow. And the lighting in turn affects many of the colors we see. So a tree that looks light gray in the middle of a bright, sunny day might look darker gray at dusk. Impressionist painters famously played with light and color, questioning what it means to paint something realistically. Is it more realistic to paint something as we think we see it, as it might appear in a photograph, or as we experience it at different times of days, in different seasons?
Leaves tend to be simplified and caricatured as well. Think of a leaf. What do you see? Likely a typical leaf, such as a birch or oak or maple leaf, like this –
But leaves don’t all look like this. What we think of as a leaf is called a simple leaf. But there is an incredible diversity of leaf forms, many of which don’t look at all like a leaf. Compound leaves, for instance, look like this –
What look like leaves here are actually leaflets. You may have noticed compound leaves on ash, honey locust, and horse chestnut trees.
The familiar blades of grass are also leaves. And it turns out that cactus spines that serve as protection and the tendrils of pea plants used for climbing are also leaves – highly modified leaves to be sure, but still leaves nonetheless. Petals, it turns out, are also modified leaves.
Children often draw trees as brown, the sky as blue, and the sun as yellow. And we often don’t “grow out” of these representations. These types of symbols certainly help us to understand, categorize, and navigate the world. But they can also simplify things to the point of being inaccurate.
Take bathroom signs. Typical symbols of male and female don’t hold for many (any?) men and women.
They are convenient and easy to recognize, but they can also be problematic as they tend to paint everyone with the same brush (or two brushes, which has its own set of issues, as discussed, for example, here).
The traditional wheelchair sign looks like this –
But many people have suggested that it overemphasizes the wheelchair and sends a message of helplessness. As a result, some people are advocating a change, with a new icon that emphasizes movement and speed –
A simple change like this can in turn alter our thinking about how we view people who use wheelchairs.
The same applies to human skin. We think and can sometimes identify in terms of black and white, for example. There are of course social, historical, and political aspects that influence how we identify ourselves. However, neither color applies literally to anyone.
If you call yourself white, take a sheet of white paper and place your hand over it. If you call yourself black, do the same with a sheet of black paper. Does the color of your hand match the color of the paper? Is it even close? And is your skin the same color all over your body?
A charming book that explores this topic is The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. This children’s book explores the true colors of our skin, thereby celebrating both our similarities and our differences.
Symbols certainly have their place. The power button sign – a 0 and 1 for off and on –
is easy to find and recognize on computers, cars, and other devices. It would be terribly confusing if we used subtly different symbols on various devices to reflect their range of functions. But when we apply symbols to the natural world, including us, we stop seeing what is literally right in front of us. And we risk missing out on a more rich and colorful world than we think we see.
© James Morris and Science Whys, 2016.