True Blue?

Blue and Green are inseparable, paired in the rainbow and essential to our perception of Nature – as Le Gulliene explains, they “contract for the colouring of vast departments of the physical world.” Envious of its partner, the green grows upward, but blue vastness reigns in the sky and wells from the seas. Those formative blues are grand illusion, scattered atmospheric and watery light, lacking the tactile properties of a pigment like indigo or a stone, like lapis lazuli. And blues change constantly. What is sky blue? Is the Carribbean as blue as the Pacific? We read of calming powers, but the truth denies those allusions. Blue is restless.

Ocean churn

Deeper than the ocean, our sky is ever-changing, prevailing as resplendent backdrop to the greatest show on Earth – the day. The ruling Sun powers practically all life on the planet, presiding in a daylight and reflecting in night shows that are the shared heritage of all creatures. Ancient human cultures read celestial mechanics while managing their lives responding to daily and seasonal climate. Sun and rain were life; the moon and stars were guides.

La Crucecita ceiling murals, Huatulco, Mexico

The heavenly pageant has been province of sages, prophets, and leaders over and again, the drama co-opted for often merciless rule. We inherit the remains as innocent-seeming archaeological ruins, amazing constructions like Stonehenge, and anachronistic origin stories, decoupled as amusing fantasies. Stories include an ancient Chinese myth that plays out in Liu Fang Yuan, along the western edge of the pond. There, you will discover, we own a chunk of heaven – Bu Tian.

Nüwa, responding to suffering of her people, rebuilt the firmament after calamity had brought it down, patching the sky with colorful stones she pulled from rivers. Given the scattering of pieces, hers was hasty, imperfect work, leaving the earth tilted, with a fractured empyrean of multicolored clouds. With more time, she might not have missed the fragment near Suzhou, a multi-dimensional shard christened Bu Tian and relocated to The Huntington, where it is drawn heavenward from the pond’s edge.

Perhaps it is the background, greenscreen nature of blue that informed artist Joshua Reynold’s statement (in his Discourse VIII, 1778): “It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish-white; and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support and set off these warm colours; and for this purpose, a small proportion of cold colours will be sufficient.” Perhaps he delivered this wisdom as counterpoint to Gainsborough’s 1770 painting The Blue Boy, which became part of Huntington collections in 1922.

The Blue Boy, photo downloaded from The Huntington website

I am more in Gainsborough’s camp, happy when my blues are front and center as well as backdropping the vista. But there is a catch… Though “prodigal of blue” with sky and water (as per Emily Dickinson), nature is otherwise a bit meager with azure hues, to some extent due to its rarity in many popular flowery tribes, like roses, camellias, and lilies. There just aren’t so many naturally-blue floral pigments – only the anthocyanins, and they are fickle, based on the watery pH of individual cells.***

When present, however, blue is striking.

Iris douglasiana, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Borago is one of many plants in its family (the Boraginaceae) producing handsome blue flowers. Another is Forget-me-not (Myosotis).

Even then, once we focus on rich blue flowers, things are confounding. Remember, blue is restless, inconstant, and Newton didn’t help by distinguishing Indigo as the band between blue and violet. According to Isaac Asimov: “It is customary to list indigo as a color lying between blue and violet, but it has never seemed to me that indigo is worth the dignity of being considered a separate color. To my eyes it seems merely deep blue.” (Eyes on the Universe)

A weedy morning glory (Ipomea purpurea) in the Gardens, blue when viewed against green, but certainly not sky blue (azure) when seen against in that backdrop. Is this purple?

In fact, blue (when defined by the sky) varies, and steps all over colors with other names, making terminology problematic. That problem with natural colors occupied, perhaps obsessed American ornithologist Robert Ridgway (1850-1929), a scientist in the natural history tradition.** Though based on birds coloration, his 1912 Color Standards and Color Nomenclature brought some order to flower description until Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society published its first Horticultural Colour Chart in 1941, updated and expanded in 1966, and again in 1986.

An R.H.S. Colour Chart, open to Blue Violet cards, wondering whether the African Violet has a blue or violet flower.
The first few African Violet cultivars were developed in Los Angeles, by horticulturists at Armacost & Royston, from seed they received in 1925. One of their earliest named cultivars, ‘Blue Boy’, became an important parent in the heritage of today’s wide range of African Violets. (Photo from Fancy Bloomers website)

Even with a limpid sky we think as perfectly defining, blue cannot be moored. Perhaps we have to leave Earth, and peer back to our planet, as Robert Jones* suggests in his poem “Blue” —

From up there, it’s blue, 
the tiny water world, where life 
climbed into the air and turned green, 
maybe from envy that it’s not 
somewhere else. It’s not easy, being 
this way. It’s impossible to rest 
with that great light going on 
and off always in the same place, 
knowing that it’s necessary, 
unless you want to turn 
white, in icy quiet, 
against the black still motion 
of the tattered specks of stars. 
It’s enough to send you running 
ragged, back to the sea. 

*Robert L. Jones lived in Texas, where he worked at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, a career that explains the viewpoint expressed in Blue.

** see The Feathery Tribe, by Daniel Lewis, Huntington Dibner Senior Curator in the History of Science and Technology.

Title page from Ridgway copy, gift of William Hertrich, in the Botanical Library
Ridgway, Plate IX – the Blues

***David Lee gave a great presentation at The Huntington in 2019, reminding us that even plants rely on bending light to tease out blue. See his book, Nature’s Palette – the Science of Plant Color, 2007

A Pelican fishing in the canal locks, against the slightly hazy Panama sky
Sky overarching Shrines near the Salton Sea
Jesus watches over the bay near Rivas, Nicaragua
Clouds smoldering over one of Lake Nicaragua’s two volcanos
Eucalypts framing the Huntington Mausoleum and the California sky
Jalama Beach, at midday
New green growth of English Oak intruding on the sky at the Brody Botanical Center
A hawk in the Jalama sky
The moon from Panama

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