Sunday, August 23, 2015

`Earth's Bluish Animals Are Few'

Because of alternating spells of drought and heavy rain, flowers are sparse in the garden. We lost a lime bush growing in a terra cotta pot. Fewer blossoms mean fewer hummingbirds, which normally flit about in late summer like iridescent clouds. Saturday afternoon, my middle son said, “Look, Dad,” and pointed out the front window.  For less than a second I saw what appeared like a blue exclamation point on a blank sheet of paper, and then it was erased. Three species are common in Houston – ruby-throated, rufous and black-chinned – and none is predominantly blue. What had I seen? My son confirmed the color, but even young eyes can be tricked. Blue is rare in nature, especially at non-tropical latitudes, but shows up in fish, birds, amphibians, butterflies and other insects. Mammals, as a rule, are dowdier creatures. Louise Bogan noticed this irregular color distribution in a poem she wrote in 1936, “Variation on a Sentence” (The Blue Estuaries, 1968):

“Of white and tawny, black as ink,
Yellow, and undefined, and pink,
And piebald, there are droves I think.

“(Buff kine in herd, gray whales in pod,
Brown woodchucks, colored like the sod,
All creatures from the hand of God.)

“And many of a hellish hue;
But, for some reason hard to view,
Earth’s bluish animals are few.”

Bogan’s biographer, Elizabeth Frank (1985), tells us she based the poem on Thoreau’s Feb. 21, 1855 journal entry: “How plain, wholesome, and earthy are the colors of quadrupeds generally! The commonest I should say is the tawny or various shades of brown, answering to the russet which is the prevailing color of the earth’s surface, perhaps, and to the yellow of sands beneath. The darker brown mingled with this answers to the darker-colored soil of the surface. The white of the polar bear, ermine weasel, etc., answers to the snow; the spots of the pards, perchance, to the earth spotted with flowers or tinted leaves of autumn; the black, perhaps, to night, and muddy bottoms and dark waters. There are few or no bluish animals.”

Thoreau wasn’t the first to notice protective coloration among animals, though he is writing four years before the publication of On the Origin of Species. We have blue jays, the noisiest birds in Houston. I occasionally find an explosion of their feathers on the lawn when one has been grabbed and torn apart by an owl or hawk, but “bluish” birds of any species are otherwise rare. Did my son and I share a hallucination? Or were our feeble senses merely being kind to us, compensating for some absence?


Subbuteo said...

A propos of colour I read Melville's wonderful essay on the subject today - Chapter 42 of Moby Dick - The Whiteness of the Whale. And a few chapters on - "..what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to colour, and therefore a blankness in itself." Reminded me too of Dedalus's thoughts on how light and colour works according to Aristotle as cited in Ulysses.

Nige said...

That's a lovely quote from Louise Brogan, and it's true about animals being rarely blue, but blue is the dominant colour in nature in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere - the blues of sky and sea. And yet the Greeks somehow didn't see it, or didn't see it as blue. The Italians, on the other hand, seem very blue sensitive, having two words for the basic colour. I caught a glimpse of a Kingfisher this morning - blue beyond blue!