Column: Nature creates its own catalog of colors in summer

MARQUETTE — Within the whirling maelstrom of summertime travels and travails, I’ve somehow found a few moments to become enthralled with a tiny volume of old that holds a great deal of fascination for me.

The book is called “Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Minerology, Anatomy, and the Arts.”

When Charles Darwin took his voyage on the HMS Beagle during the 1830s, he had this taxonomic volume in hand to help him describe the colors he’d found in nature.

Darwin’s descriptions were being read by individuals, many who likely never would see the creatures being detailed in this pre-photography age.

The Werner in the title refers to Abraham Gottlob Werner, a geologist and mineralogist, who had described the identification of minerals by key characteristics, including color and luster.

Werner published the first textbook on descriptive minerology in 1774.

In 1814, Patrick Syme – a Scottish flower painter and art teacher – worked to extend Werner’s color classification beyond minerology to be useful in other disciplines. Syme’s volume was first published in Edinburgh in 1814.

“Werner’s suites of colours extend to seventy-nine tints,” Syme wrote. “Though these may answer for the description of most minerals, they would be found defective when applied to general science: the number therefore is extended to one hundred and ten, comprehending the most common colours or tints that appear in nature.”

Syme’s book presents these “standard colors,” described and matched, with example swatches, throughout the scant 51 pages of this wondrous little hardcover volume.

For me, the description and character provided to the hues is delightful, as it was to Darwin, who used the language of Werner and Syme to paint his Galapagos Islands, and other ports of call, imagery.

“Those who have paid any attention to colours, must be aware that it is very difficult to give colours for every object that appears in nature; the tints so various and the shades so gradual, they would extend to many thousands,” Syme wrote. “It would be impossible to give such a number, in any work on colours, without great expence; but those who study the colours given, will, by following Werner’s plan, improve their general knowledge of colours; and the eye, by practice, will become so correct, that by examining the component parts of any object, though differing in shade or tint from any of the colours given in this series, they will see that it partakes of, or passes into, some one of them.”

Among the dazzling descriptive examples of what I’m talking about include the description of “Pansy Purple” as being indigo blue, with carmine red, and a slight tinge of raven black. This color is said to be found in the sweet-scented violet.

“Cream Yellow” is described as ochre yellow, mixed with a little white, and a very small quantity of Dutch orange. It is said to be found on the breast of a teal drake or porcelain jasper.

“Purplish White” is snow white, with the slightest tinge of crimson red and Berlin blue, and a very minute portion of ash gray. This color is said to be that of Arragonite or white geranium or found at the junction of the neck and the back of the kittiwake gull.

Having found this book, I hope to begin trying to master some of its technique.

I think this will lead me to a greater understanding of the connection of things in nature, as well as give me greater powers – with a higher degree of precision and accuracy – of the description of things in nature often seemingly difficult to put into words.

I can already think of many examples where having this color classification system would have helped me describe various natural phenomena.

I am aware a significant depth of understanding is something not always easily attained, depending on the subject matter and the individual involved in trying to understand it.

This task is made more difficult by being once, twice or several times removed from the phenomena being described. So many times, having been there to see something, or do something, lends the greatest understanding.

To me, mastering this technique of color description will take some study, memorization and trial and error, along with some type of substantiation of the success or failure of my attempts, perhaps through Darwin’s writings.

Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song in the mid-1970s called “Spanish Moss.” I always liked the song, but I think some of his description was lost on me, having never visited the state of Georgia.

That was, until last week.

I went to Savannah with some colleagues from across the country. On an afternoon outing, some of us went to a place called Wormsloe, which had live oak trees whose bows were entangled over the dirt roadway forming a tunnel.

From the moment we rolled in through the gate, I was enthralled with the Spanish moss that hung from the trees everywhere. It was beautiful, with many subtle shades of green blending in with the trees themselves.

I took a lot of pictures that I will now hope to try to match to some of Werner and Syme’s color swatches, perhaps gaining some greater knowledge and understanding.

In a single afternoon, the experience of that visit helped me gain a much greater appreciation of Lightfoot’s song that I have been hearing for more than 40 years.

Let go, darlin’ I can feel the night wind call

Guess I’d better go

I like you more than half as much as I love your Spanish moss

Spanish moss, hangin’ down

Lofty as the southern love we’ve found

Spanish moss, keeps on following my thoughts around

Georgia pine and ripple wine, memories of Savannah summertime

Spanish moss, wish you knew what I was sayin’

My little afternoon field trip also informed my experiences not only about live oak trees and Spanish moss, but about magnolia trees, fiddler crabs and tidal marshes, while reminding me of the varying dialects of birds.

Common yellowthroats and blue jays were certainly talking “southern,” as sure as fried chicken, cornbread and collard greens.

I think much of the time nature stuns me to silence with its peace and beauty. Other times, I am awestruck with the incredible works at hand and I struggle with much of any ability to try to describe what I’ve experienced.

Little helpers like this book I found on Werner’s colors will keep me enthralled and nagged for a very long time. I think this reference will be one that will hopefully set me on a path of discovery I won’t ever turn back from, moving me beyond my color descriptions based largely on Crayola.

I plan to take my book outside and read it under the leaves of a grand oak or maple, somewhere on a sun-dappled afternoon. There I will lie on my back with colors and words shooting through my brain.

There I will hope to discern whether the faded grass around me is “broccoli,” “liver,” “umber” or “hair” brown and whether the blue of my skies above is “ultramarine,” “Verditter,” “Prussian” or “Scotch.”

Though I wish I had learned about all this long ago, I am very grateful to have come across this little book at all.

— — —

John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.


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