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“The deep blue water of the open sea far from land is the color of emptiness and barrenness; the green water of the coastal areas, with all its varying hues, is the color of life,” Rachel Carson wrote as she illuminated the science and splendor of the marine spectrum, enriching the literary canon of history’s most beautiful meditations on the color blue.
The color of life, the actual chromatic hue that makes our rocky planet a living world, is somewhere between the blue of water and the green of land — when Carl Sagan looked at the grainy Voyager photograph of Earth seen from the far reaches of the Solar System for the very first time, he famously eulogized our Pale Blue Dot. But the color of that dot “suspended in a sunbeam” is rather between blue and green: a pixel of turquoise.
That color — its chromatic science and its cultural symbology — is what Ellen Meloy (June 21, 1946–November 4, 2004) explores in The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky (public library).
Goethe’s color wheel, 1809. (Available as a print.)
Two centuries after Goethe wrote in his poetically beguiling, philosophically promising, but scientifically incorrect theory of color and emotion that “colors are the deeds and sufferings of light” and two generations after Frida Kahlo considered the meaning of the colors, Meloy bridges the metaphysical and the scientific across the undercurrent of the poetic:
Colors are not possessions; they are the intimate revelations of an energy field… They are light waves with mathematically precise lengths, and they are deep, resonant mysteries with boundless subjectivity.
There is no more fertile a region of subjectivity than language — the human effort to contain the uncontainable, the fluid, the nuanced into vessels of concept and category. The chromatic boundlessness of the spectrum therefore has a peculiar relationship to language, exposing the limitations of our primary sensemaking instrument against the limitless vistas of nature. (That might be why Darwin took with him on The Beagle a pioneering nomenclature of color as he set out to classify, categorize, and make sense of the natural world.) In a passage that illustrates just how primordial the link between the body and the mind is, just how inseparable our psychology from our physiology, Meloy writes:
Colors challenge language to encompass them. (It cannot; there are more sensations than words for them. Our eyes are far ahead of our tongues.) Colors bear the metaphors of entire cultures. They convey every sensation from lust to distress. They glow fluorescent on the flanks of a fish out of the water, then flee at its death. They mark the land of a woman deity who controls the soft desert rain. Flowers use colors ruthlessly for sex. Moths steal them from their surroundings and disappear. An octopus communicates by color; an octopus blush is language. Humans imbibe colors as antidotes to emotional monotony. Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color.
The very concept of empathy as we know it was born in the early twentieth century to describe the experience of projecting oneself into a work of art — a projection screened by vision, an instrument millions of years in the making. It may be, in fact, that empathy and the eye are the twin triumphs of evolution. Meloy traces the interdependent development of the two:
In primitive life forms the eye began as a light-sensitive depression in the skin; the sense of sight likely evolved from the sense of touch.
The complex human eye harvests light. It perceives seven to ten million colors through a synaptic flash: one-tenth of a second from retina to brain. Homo sapiens gangs up 70 percent of its sense receptors solely for vision, to anticipate danger and recognize reward, but also — more so — for beauty. We have eyes refined by the evolution of predation. We use a predator’s eyes to marvel at the work of Titian or the Grand Canyon bathed in the copper light of a summer sunset.
There was biology, and then there was physics: Three centuries after Newton first unwove the rainbow to launch the dawn of optics and the study of light as a stream of particles, quantum mechanics staggered our elemental grasp of reality by positing that light — which is how and why we see color — might be both particle and wave. At the heart of this dizzying notion, called complementarity, is the idea that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” in the words of the Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek.
Sometimes, a truth can be so deep, so elemental, that it requires no explicit recognition, no echo in language. Goethe — who attempted to defy Newton while anticipating quantum physics — considered the purest form of blue a transcendent nothingness, “a stimulating negation.” Meloy writes:
When a name for a color is absent from a language, it is usually blue. When a name for a color is indefinite, it is usually green. Ancient Hebrew, Welsh, Vietnamese, and, until recently, Japanese, lack a word for blue… The Icelandic word for blue and black is the same, one word that fits sea, lava, and raven.
It has been shown that the words for colors enter evolving languages in this order, nearly universally: black, white, and red, then yellow and green (in either order), with green covering blue until blue comes into itself. Once blue is acquired, it eclipses green. Once named, blue pushes green into a less definite version. Green confusion is manifest in turquoise, the is-it-blue-or-is-it-green color. Despite the complexities of color names even in the same language, we somehow make sense of another person’s references. We know color as a perceptual “truth” that we imply and share without its direct experience, like feeling pain in a phantom limb or in another person’s body.
Within every color lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of culture.
But the deepest story of color is the most intimate one, the one that lives most closely to the perceptual locus of feeling that defines our entire experience of life. Meloy writes:
It seems as if the right words can come only out of the perfect space of a place you love.
In a sentiment evocative of the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd’s lovely observation that “place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” she adds:
Between the senses and reason lies perception. At home or afield, that is where amazement resides, shunning explanation… Intoxication with color, sometimes subliminal, often fierce, may express itself as a profound attachment to landscape. It has been rightly said: Color is the first principle of Place.
We read color the way we read place: through our senses — these probosces of consciousness, increasingly severed by a culture that kidnaps us away from our bodies to hold our consciousness hostage before and behind screens. Echoing poet and science historian Diane Ackerman — who wrote so beautifully in her Natural History of the Senses that “there is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses” — Meloy writes with soulful urgency:
Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.
Art from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1887. (Available [?curator=brainpicker]as a print and as a face mask.)
Meloy traces the layered sensorial story of turquoise and its genesis in the body of the world — a testament to the indivisibility of science and culture:
Turquoise is ornament, jewel, talisman, tessera. It is religion. It is pawn. It is not favored for pinkie rings. It did not likely come from Turkey, its namesake, but took the name of the land it crossed on the old trade routes from Persia to Europe.
The chemistry of turquoise: CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8•4H2O, a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum. The copper and aluminum — along with iron and other mineral traces — join with a phosphate radical, a group of oxygen atoms so clustered around nonmetallic phosphorus that they behave like a single atom.
Phosphates are known for their bright colors. In turquoise, according to some mineralogists, the blue comes from the copper; the green comes from the presence of iron. Dark, spidery veins reveal the matrix in which turquoise participates; the veins are usually limonite, iron-stained quartz, metallic oxides, or other minerals.
Turquoise occurs in limestone, batholithic and feldspathic granites, shale, and trachyte, rocks that are found nearly everywhere. Unless they are in an arid environment, however, they are not likely to bear turquoise. Although turquoise has more than one origin, most types formed million years ago, when groundwater seeped into alumina- and copper-rich mineralized fractures in zones of igneous rock. What has been said about gold can be said about turquoise: turquoise is the burden of waters.
Against this cultural-cosmic backdrop, she considers “the dignity of turquoise”:
Ancient southwesterners gave turquoise, the greatest wealth, as offerings to water, the desert’s greatest gift. They left tokens of turquoise at canyon seeps and springs amid emerald mosses, maidenhair ferns, creamy blooms of columbine, crimson monkey flowers, dragonflies the color of flame, and heron-blue damselflies with bodies as thin as a vein. From turquoise they carved tadpoles a quarter-inch long and set raised turquoise eyes in toads of black jet. With turquoise they traded for copper bells, macaw feathers, the skins and plumes of parrots, and pearlescent shells from the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez — the stone of the desert for the glories of sea and forest.
Bridging the human and the scientific with her own being, bridging the creaturely and the geologic with her own ephemeral existence, Meloy paints the psychogeography of color:
As a desert dweller, I believe that water is a truer entry to Place. In the West, aridity defines us. There is abundant water here in the Yucatán — ocean, marsh, lagoon, underground rivers, cenotes (natural wells where freshwater surfaces), a tropical forest swollen with transpiration. Storms bring a hurricane’s eyewall of torrents or nothing at all; even jungles have droughts. By invasion and sheer presence, the sea pushes itself into what is drinkable and what is heard, or what you miss hearing when you are distant from the surf. The sea holds an abundance of comfort and inspiration and danger, all that a person needs in order to rise to the full largesse of beauty. It seems that if you allow this beauty to become a blank, if you turn your back to the blues and deny your dependence on them, you might lose your place in the world, your actions would become small, your soul disengaged.
Art from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1887. (Available [?curator=brainpicker]as a print and as a face mask.)
A gorgeous read in its entirety, The Anthropology of Turquoise (public library), published shortly before Meloy’s sudden and untimely death, earned her a posthumous John Burroughs Medal — the Nobel Prize of nature writing, of which Carson was also a recipient. Complement it with a symphonic illustrated celebration of nature’s rarest color, then revisit Maggie Nelson’s exquisite love letter to blue.
All love is asymmetry. Since love is not a state but a skill to be mastered, not a noun but a verb, all loving is the skillful harmonizing of asymmetries across the scales of personhood and preference between those involved. Asymmetries — of taste and temperament, of habit and sensibility — are not evidence of incompatibility but a natural function of two separate consciousnesses, each with an incomplete knowledge of the other, each half-opaque to itself, trying to find joy and understanding together. Almost all asymmetries, faced with sufficient tenderness and mutual respect, can become complementarities that strengthen rather than weaken the bond.
The one asymmetry deadly to love is the asymmetry of willingnesses — one person willing (to forgive, to undefensively admit error, to do the dishes, to hold gentle space for imperfection) and the other unwilling. An asymmetry of willingnesses at the outset of a potential relationship, before the mutuality of gladness we call love has even begun, is what we term rejection.
Romantic rejection is among the most acute and all-consuming forms of pain we can suffer, for it is an unfortunate feature of our psyche — even the most considered and contemplative psyche — to extrapolate from every experience of unrequited love, in a particular situation by a particular person, the awful postulate that we are not lovable, in the essence of our being.
How to move through the pain of rejection with minimal suffering, without repressing the awful feelings but also without mistaking them for facts about the larger landscape of love and lovability, is what the reliably preceptive and soulful Alain de Botton explores in this animated survival guide to what can feel, at its worst, abjectly unsurvivable:
But the heart-savaging asymmetry of willingnesses is not something reserved for the dawn of love. One of our culture’s most dangerous romantic myths is the idea that rejection and the anxiety about it vanish from the psychic horizon as soon as the two hopeful parallel willingnesses entwine into an actual relationship. That myth, and how to live with the truth behind it, is what De Botton explores in a portion of his altogether wonderful book The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the source of his revelatory and redemptive take on emotional intelligence and what existential maturity really means. He writes:
One of the odder features of relationships is that, in truth, the fear of rejection never ends. It continues, even in quite sane people, on a daily basis, with frequently difficult consequences — chiefly because we refuse to pay it sufficient attention and aren’t trained to spot its counter-intuitive symptoms in others. We haven’t found a winning way to keep admitting just how much reassurance we need.
Because it can be unbearably vulnerable-making to admit our own tender need for assurance, because pride is the antipode of vulnerability and therefore the great enemy of meaningful connection, we often find ourselves too proud to ask for what we need openly. Instead, we resort to those sometimes endearing but mostly infuriating childish tactics of scanning for and protecting against rejection — withdrawal as a means of manipulating the beloved into paying more attention, hyperfocus on their every move and every Instagram post as paranoid evidence-gathering to confirm our dread of their diminishing willingness, and the crown jewel of emotional immaturity: the sulk.
Whether we cope with the ongoing threat of rejection by growing avoidant or anxious, our coping strategies are ultimately more likely to damage the relationship than to protect it, to effect rejection rather than to ward it off.
The only real solution is greater courage of candor and vulnerability. De Botton writes:
If this harsh, graceless behavior could be truly understood for what it is, it would be revealed not as rejection or indifference, but as a strangely distorted, yet very real, plea for tenderness.
A central solution to these patterns is to normalize a new and more accurate picture of emotional functioning: to make it clear just how predictable it is to be in need of reassurance, and at the same time, how understandable it is to be reluctant to reveal one’s dependence. We should create room for regular moments… when we can feel unembarrassed and legitimate about asking for confirmation… We should uncouple the admission of need from any associations with the unfortunate and punitive term “neediness.”
Complement with philosopher-psychiatrist Esther Perel on our greatest misconception about love and De Botton on the psychological paradox of vulnerability, charity of interpretation as a pillar of love, how to be a good communicator, and why we read, then revisit Walt Whitman on overcoming rejection in creative work — which, for those of us wholeheartedly invested in the art we make, can feel as intimate and devastating as rejection in love.
“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” Mark Strand wrote in his splendid poem “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” touching on the materiality of that enchantment: Music is matter dancing in the mind.
Music has a profound spiritual power over us — an echo of what Aldous Huxley called “the blessedness that is at the heart of things.” But at the heart of the blessedness is a biological symphony — a sensorial interface between the human body and the fundamental forces of physics, a wilderness of shimmering synapses converting current into the song of feeling. Kierkegaard intuited this an epoch before the birth of neuroscience as he located the unparalleled power of music in the interplay between the spiritual and sensual, and Whitman understood it in celebrating music as the profoundest expression of nature.
That singular interplay between nature and the human spirit is what the poet Ronald Johnson (November 25, 1935–March 4, 1998) explores throughout his magnificent forgotten masterpiece ARK (public library) — an epic poem of reality radiating the spirit of The Universe in Verse, partway between Blake and Feynman, harmonizing modernist verse with prose poetry. To describe his unexampled work, Buckminster Fuller coined the word “philoverse.” In 1980, decade after he began composing them, Johnson published the first thirty-three “beams” — as he termed each of the numbered poetic particles comprising the epic totality — as ARK: The Foundations. He continued adding beams along the remaining vector of his life.
Among the animating questions of the epic poem is the relationship between science and music — that reverberation across matter and mind, which Johnson hints at from the very beginning with his choice of epigraph, quoting one of Gertrude Stein’s exquisite encryptions of elemental truth: “anything shut in with you can sing.”
A century and a half after Margaret Fuller scandalized her fellow Transcendentalists with the radical assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” and a generation before a colossal four-kilometer tuning fork a century in the making detected the sound of spacetime with the epoch-making discovery of gravitational waves, Johnson considers the scientific poetics of sound in the seventh of his “beams”:
Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern. If we erase the air and slow the sound of a struck tuning fork in it, it would make two sets of waves interlocking the invisibility in opposite directions.
Behavior of Waves (1962) by Berenice Abbott, from her lyrical photographic series Documenting Science.
With his poetic ear pressed to the pulses of compression and rarefaction unspooled by the tuning-fork as it pinches matter into waveform, Johnson writes:
These alternate equidistant forces travel at the rate of 1,180 feet per second through the elasticity of air, four times that through water (whale to singing whale), and fifteen times as fast through pure steel.
With an eye to the pioneering composer Charles Ives — creator of what may be the first radical piece of music in the twentieth century: the haunting 1906 orchestral masterpiece Central Park in the Dark, which traveled backward in time by drawing on the sounds of nature before Industrial humanity and forward in time by laying the groundwork for the polytonal and polyrhythmic experimental music that would score the following century — Johnson writes:
Pattern laps pattern, and as they joined, Charles Ives heard the 19th Century in one ear, and the 20th out the other, then commenced to make a single music of them. The final chord of the 2nd Symphony is a reveille of all notes at once, his Fourth of July [Variations on “America”, composed when Ives was 17] ends with a fireworks of thirteen rhythmic patterns zigzagging through the winds and brasses, seven percussion lines criss-crossing these, the strings divided in twenty-fours going up and down every-which way — and all in FFFF.
Both tuning fork and Fourth are heard by perturbations of molecules, through ever more subtle stumbling blocks, in spiral ricochet, to charged branches treeing in the brain.
This vibrating tree is trunked with neurobiology, rooted in the physics of cartilage and “Come Together”:
The outer shell leads to a membrane drum — and what pressure needed to sound this drum is equal to the intensity of light and heat received from a 50-watt electric bulb at the distance of 3,000 miles in empty space. (Though sound cannot travel, as light, through the void.) At the threshold of hearing the eardrum may be misplaced as little as a diameter of the smallest atom, hydrogen.
Structure of the inner ear from The American Journal of Anatomy, 1906–1907. (Available as a print.)
Conducting the bone orchestra of hammer, anvil, and stirrup at the membrane drum of the oval window that stretches between the middle ear and the cochlea, Johnson writes:
Shut to air, this window vibrates another windowed membrane, tuning a compressed fluid between. Here, also, is couched our sense of the vertical.
A resonance is set up in a spiral shell-shape receptor turned with yet another, also spiral, membrane. This is the pith of labyrinth, and as sound waves themselves it trembles two directions at once, crosswise and lengthwise.
After a bright sidewise detour to Orpheus and Thoreau, to the synesthetic seeing-ear of the bat and the vernal sensuality of birdsong, Johnson loops back to the crucible of matter and mind:
The physicists tell us that sounding bodies are in a state of stationary vibration, and that when the word syzygy last shook atoms, its boundary was an ever slighter pulse of heat, and hesitation of heat. Matter delights in music, and became Bach. Its dreams are the abyss and empyrean, and to that end, may move, in time, the stones themselves to sing.
Johnson’s ARK is a symphonic read in its entirety. Complement this fragment with a constellation of beloved writers on the power of music, Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of technology and the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks — who saw biology and Bach as a unified field of experience — on why music moves us so, then revisit the great physician and poet Lewis Thomas on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge and poet A. Van Jordan’s Feynman-inspired inquiry into truth and tenderness at the nexus of science and meaning.