I’ve noticed color more this year than in others, due mainly to its absence in our large, fruited vegetable garden, where I focused much attention. On the other hand, the Happiness Garden—our .71 acre of meadow perennial heaven at Fordhook Farm—has never been more luminous, shining in the sun. “Ganz lustig!” as my grandmother used to describe fresh pumpernickel bread.
Writing the Heronswood catalogue three years ago, I included phrases and sayings that “floated” amidst the copy and photography, as the designers say. One of them was “Colors of the garden are the first inventions of light”. I rather liked it, as these things go. However, while I might have been poetic and provocative, I think now that I was wrong.
I’ve tried to piece together the history of color over the last few weeks, now that the poignant months of diminished daylight are here, and I have a bit of free time. The last Open at Kingston was October 4th and the last at Fordhook on September 25th and 26th.
Fall colors are completely gratuitous, in my opinion. The celebrated foliage colors—and impressive ones they are—serve no purpose to the trees. They may mark time for birds or perhaps signal nut season for squirrels, but I’m not sure. So, I wonder, how did the intentional, purposeful colors of flowers—so key to the plants’ survival—come about? What, indeed, invented them? Not the flowers, I mean, but the actual colors. Color itself?
First, I understand that light is energy, and that, therefore, all “color” is within light. It is light itself, so to speak. Concrete enough, I suppose, if you are a physicist. But let’s leave waves versus photons aside for the moment.
Consider the creation of the earth’s present atmosphere—the one we inhabit and use. It’s mostly nitrogen and then oxygen and then an obvious, or visible, amount of water vapor, plus small amounts of various other gases. Our atmosphere, as I mentioned in my last blog, was influenced heavily by the rise of the terrestrial plants, perhaps more than any single class of beings. So much oxygen was produced so rapidly that we are still feeding off it and likely will be for millions more years. Plants mothered the earth, as we know it, and certainly, in the next turn, gave birth to us. We would not have evolved without them.
So how did plants invent their colors, so to speak? When one looks at a rainbow or any glass-like spectrum, one sees the main “colors” of visible light. But, like in a thought experiment, what would visible radiation “look like” to plants?
The reason I ask is because flowers co-evolved with the tiny creatures that first pollinated them. Pollen was probably an evolved form of spores, which is why it is not nearly as visually interesting as petals and colored petaloid parts such as tepals and bracts—flowers, in a word.
So, the first “eyes”—besides those of the sea creatures—belonged to these early insects that used them mainly to hunt, escape and mate—as you’d expect—and the flowers represented a major innovation in the ecology between plants and the insects they hosted, protected and—on the other hand—repelled when necessary. Insect eyes probably preceded flower color. But I don’t know; the fossil record should confirm this.
Did “colors” as we see them and enjoy them in the garden, woods and meadows, arise from the plants as an evolutionary step? If so, then, they—the plants—invented color as we know it. A simplistic thought, but profound and a bit provocative.
I asked a few colleagues last week if they knew why the sky was blue. I did not know how terrible it is to ask someone this question—a “Scientific Era Taboo”. But I was just hoping someone was going to answer it. One friend finally came through. Various gas molecules, which make up most of the atmosphere, reflects visible light, at the wavelength “stopping”, if you will, at what we call blue. Blue represents a level of energy that comprises visible radiation, a degree of its strength, or frequency of wave length. This subtle quality gives “blue” its character. (Why blue is such a psychologically complex color I do not know. Perhaps because we evolved beneath it.) But that is—literally—how we are able to see it, and probably how most similarly composed lenses and brains “see” it as well.
Inherently, living organisms are a lot more alike than is normally supposed. So, a bee probably sees blue more or less as the color we see—probably less than a raccoon would in comparison to us, but you see my point. Which is why it is that I believe that flowers invented terrestrial color.
So, let’s review. Color was, or is, in light. Light contains all colors, as potentialities. Flowers—of all land-based creation—took up where light left off, in the general scheme of things.
Or put it this way: plants “created” the atmosphere. The basic, coarse colors become visible only by passing through that atmosphere, which functions as a sort of spherical spectrum. The multitude of colors that we experience were created by tonal variations picked up by the primitive eyeballs of the day. In time, our eyes became sharper in response. So plants, indirectly, enabled us to see color. Perhaps plants, by creating so much of the atmosphere, gave us our ability to see as well as we do.
Finally, it is interesting to note that one of the greatest debates among evolutionary biologists is how eyes came into being. It’s almost like the debate about humans as “the symbol-makers”. Eye-sight itself could be seen, so to speak, as the first language.
See what I mean?