[Crosswalk, January 28, 2000]
My mother-in-law’ s phone call woke us up. “Hello?” my husband said, groggily. I could hear her voice piping, five hundred miles away: “It snowed last night! Two inches!”
Well, she lives in South Carolina. Snow comes, when it does at all, in a petite range of sizes. It snowed only once during my entire childhood, when I was in second grade. Accumulation was about an inch. I made a snowman, but it was so small I had to use raisins for eyes.
Mary said she had realized there was snow when she woke in the middle of the night and noticed that it seemed unnaturally bright outside the windows. “Snow makes everything seem brighter,” my husband agreed.
Outside our windows this morning there was twenty inches of snow. The previous day I had sat at our kitchen table as the storm came roaring down, formulating nearly the opposite conclusion: a snow storm makes everything darker. Colors were nearly indistinguishable out there. The big fir tree in the neighbor’ s yard, for example, was a skyscraper of gray just barely smudged with green. Still, green it remained. The world out there was a blur, but each object still bore its distinctive hue in a moody, subtle way.
I have never understood the reason for color. It is one of God’s bonuses, something that profoundly multiplies the beauty of our lives, without having any indispensable function. A black-and-white world could have worked just as well. Color is lagniappe, as New Orleanians say: it’s the bucket of free pork cracklings by the cash register when you go up to order your po-boy or fergie. Color is God’s way of saying, “Here, have some more.”
I have been reading recently the story of a painter who lost his color vision. Oliver Sacks in “An Anthropologist on Mars” uses the story of his patient, Jonathan I, to explore the history of medical research into our ability to see color. What’ s to know, I thought; wavelengths of light bend more (at the violet end) or less (at the red end), and these wavelengths strike color-sensitive cones in our retinas. It’ s a simple mechanical process.
But if that’ s so, how can the fir tree in brilliant sunlight, and the fir tree in a storm of flying white, both look green? Different illumination bends the waves to vastly different extents. Yet at some brain level we make the adjustments, so that we still see green. The brain calculates what the eyes alone cannot perceive.
Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid Land camera, devised an experiment that revealed this in a dramatic way. He made two identical black-and-white slides of a girl, then showed them simultaneously through a double-lens projector. One lens was unfiltered and the other had a red filter. Was the resulting image a pale-pink girl? No, everyone who looked at the screen saw the girl in full, natural color.
But maybe people know what colors a girl should be, and I know what color a tree should be, so we fill in the colors subconsciously. So Land devised similar experiments with abstract pictures composed of geometric shapes in random colors, and got the same results. Juxtaposition played some mysterious part in the process. If one patch of color, perhaps a green square, was shown alone, it looked gray; if it was shown in the context of the whole painting it immediately registered as green. Oliver Sacks concludes, “Colors are not ‘out there’ in the world, nor (as classical theory held) an automatic corollary of wavelength, but are constructed by the brain.”
At first Jonathan I, a painter who had spent a life in colors, was profoundly distressed by his lack of color vision. The world did not appear sharp like a black-and-white photo, but leaden and dirty. After a period of time, however, he began to feel he could see an under-harmony to the visible world that had been obscured by the distraction of color. When an opportunity to undergo experiments to restore color vision arose, he declined.
I still don’t know what color is. It seems more mysterious than ever. This morning is bright and sunny with sunlight dancing off the hillocks and fields of white. The fir tree outside my window is a deep glowing green.